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How predictive and productive is animal research?

photo from KimCarpenterNJ on flickr –

That’s a question BMJ editor in chief Fiona Godlee raises in a piece all health care and science journalists should ponder before penning their next rodent research story. And it should help news consumers put animated animal research claims into context as well.

She discusses “the poor quality of the animal research on which much of (clinical research) is based.”  And she offers some history:

“Ten years ago in The BMJ Pandora Pound and colleagues asked, “Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?” Their conclusions were not encouraging. Much animal research into potential treatments for humans was wasted, they said, because it was poorly conducted and not evaluated through systematic reviews.

Since then, as Pound and Michael Bracken explain this week, the number of systematic reviews of animal studies has increased substantially, but this has served only to highlight the poor quality of much preclinical animal research. The same threats to internal and external validity that beset clinical research are found in abundance in animal studies: lack of randomisation, blinding, and allocation concealment; selective analysis; and reporting and publication bias. The result, said Ioannidis in 2012, is that it is “nearly impossible to rely on most animal data to predict whether or not an intervention will have a favourable clinical benefit-risk ratio in human subjects.”

Such wastage is as unethical in animal as in human research. Poorly done preclinical research may lead to expensive but fruitless clinical trials exposing participants to harmful drugs. And of course there is the unnecessary suffering of the animals involved in research that brings no benefit.”

If you saw the number of hyped stories about animal research that I’ve seen in 8 years of daily scouring of journalism, you’d know why I direct this note to journalists.

There usually aren’t enough caveats.  There usually isn’t adequate explanation provided of how long and tortuous is the path between animal research and any human implication or application.  Just a few examples from our archives:

And, no, this is not an indictment of all animal research.  It can’t be construed as a statement that all animal research is useless.  Vital contributions have been made from well-done animal research, without question. So spare me your angry letters if you work in a lab and you read this the wrong way.  This is a note for journalists.

And the questions Godlee raises – and links to with a historical perspective – are questions many news and health care consumers don’t ever hear amidst all the clamor over cures and breakthroughs reported from preliminary animal studies.

ADDENDUM on June 12:

For a fresh example of how journalists sensationalize mouse research, see “Cancer pill fights disease and gives lifelong protection” by London’s Daily Telegraph.


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