If you’re wondering why you can’t open a web browser lately without seeing a video of someone pouring water over their head, it’s because of a viral fundraising initiative by the ALS Association called the "Ice Bucket Challenge.” That charitable organization has the laudable goal of finding a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Through this viral campaign alone, the ALS Association has already raised in less than a month more than 15 times as much money as they raised during the same period last year, and that multiple is rising quickly. This is a great example of social contagion: what started as a trickle has turned into a torrential cascade of buckets of ice. All of this attention, and the ensuing donations, should bring the world closer to a cure for ALS, right? Unfortunately, no.
Like many health charities, the ALS Association funds animal testing. And while the topic is not widely discussed among laypersons, animal testing actually causes much more harm to humans than good. If you want examples, consider thalidomide, which was deemed safe based on animal testing but was found to be extremely dangerous for the fetuses of pregnant humans, and penicillin and aspirin, both of which were deemed toxic in animal tests but are safe for humans. Additionally, researchers have found about 100 HIV-like vaccines that work in animals, but none that end up working in humans.
Based on state-of-the-art science, there is no justification for our collective knee-jerk tendency to seek cures for debilitating illnesses (including ALS) through animal tests. Empirical research shows that, collectively, animal tests have no predictive value in determining benefits to human. The reason is that human and non-human animals are complex adaptive systems. That is, genes, proteins, and cells combine to make up our organs, neural networks, lymphatic systems, and circulatory systems in such a way that makes it very difficult to predict accurately how a particular disease or treatment will evolve within that body. Consequently, we observe tremendous variability in responses to drugs and diseases even within a species: men, women, and people of different ethnicities in general can have markedly different responses. Even two very similar humans – twins for instance – can have very different responses. The variability in responses across species is, of course, far greater than between different individuals of the same species, to the point that it is unrealistic to expect animal tests to tell us anything reliable about humans’ responses to drug treatments. A recently published journal article by Dr. Ray Greek discusses these issues in great detail.
Is it possible that animal testing in general is harmful to humans while animal testing in the context of ALS is beneficial? In another peer-reviewed scholarly article, Dr. Greek outlines all the potential ALS drug treatments that showed promise in animals but ultimately failed in humans. (See his Table 6.) One treatment, a drug called riluzole, has shown some promise in marginally extending the lives of ALS patients, but it was first discovered as potentially promising for treating ALS in humans without the use of animal tests.
What cures are we missing by pouring so much of our research funds down the drain of animal testing? We get a glimpse of the answer to that question in a Science article titled “Systems for Identifying New Drugs Are Often Faulty” in which the author, Trisha Gura, cites a National Institute of Health study that suggests animal tests cause us to overlook drugs that work in humans. When we raise money to fund more tests on animals, we are actively sabotaging our progress in curing disease, which ultimately harms humans. This is a tragedy.
So what can be done? For starters, we can support organizations that are actively developing alternatives to animal testing and shun those that continue to fund animal tests. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine maintains a database of charities (and other companies) that do not employ animal tests. Professional organizations ought to adopt policies that encourage researchers to employ and develop methods that show more promise than animal tests. There exist scholarly outlets for such research, including Alternatives to Animal Experimentation.
Researchers who continue to use flawed methods from the past to identify the treatments we need for the future may succeed in furthering their own career ambitions by publishing more and more articles on their latest results from almost surely pointless animal tests. But why should our granting agencies and charities continue to support these endeavours? We need the next generation of researchers to deviate from the paths worn by their predecessors by pursuing research methodologies that aren’t inherently flawed, so they can eventually fulfil humanity’s hopes for the cures to what ails us.