It's Time to Move on From Nonhuman Animal Models
Animals don't "really tell you much about how the virus causes disease."
Posted March 15, 2020
"They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans." —Stanford genomics expert Ron Davis, Ph.D.
"In the second decade of the 21st century, it is paradoxical that we know more about animal biology than human biology. If the ultimate goal is to advance human medicine and safety testing, then our species must serve as the quintessential animal model, with human biology as the gold standard." —Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods
"Little bugs will take over the world." —6-year-old Taylor at a kids and animals event
I'm thrilled that many people are asking about the use of nonhuman animal models—simply referred to as "animal models"—as they relate to the pandemic coronavirus, other diseases, and where future research should focus. These are incredibly important questions because existing animal models haven't worked very well, and it's highly unlikely that this is going to be the last pandemic we and future generations will see as long as we inhabit our magnificent planet.
Two recent essays and an excellent TEDx talk, all available for free online, are essential sources for pondering these and other questions and for generating much-needed discussions, not only by researchers but also by every single human being who resides on Earth. Here are a few snippets to motivate people to read these easy-to-read pieces and to watch the short TEDx talk. They could be life-changing in many different ways.
The first piece by Eric Boodman called "From ferrets to mice and marmosets, labs scramble to find the right animals for coronavirus studies" clearly shows the state of disarray concerning animal models of COVID-19. Researchers are indeed scrambling, and his piece doesn't offer much hope for meaningful success.1 Mr. Boodman writes,
"The trouble is, labs can't just use whatever animal they have lying around to start testing their shiniest Covid-19 vaccine. Not every animal is susceptible to the virus, and those that are may not show signs of disease. Even if they do get sick, that doesn't mean their symptoms match the ones doctors hope to prevent and treat in humans, which can run the gamut from almost unnoticeable cough to life-threatening lung injury."
The second essay by Ewen Callaway is titled "Labs rush to study coronavirus in transgenic animals—some are in short supply." Dr. Stanley Perlman, a coronavirologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, is quoted as follows: "Animals that develop only mild infections could be useful for testing drugs and vaccines, but they might not help scientists understand more severe cases," says Perlman. "It doesn't really tell you much about how the virus causes disease." He says he will try infecting hACE2 mice—when he can get them—but he's already thinking about developing other mouse models to better mimic severe cases. The existing mice have both human and mouse versions of the ACE2 gene, so one possibility is eliminating the mouse version." Dr. Perlman goes on to say, "A lot of the models are imperfect; we do the best we can."
The outstanding TEDx talk to which I refer is called "It's Time to Think Outside the Cage" by biochemist and molecular biologist Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, "The founding executive director of Canada's first and only research centre dedicated exclusively to alternatives to animal testing—Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM)." In the introduction to this talk, we read,
"Animal testing is largely disfavored globally, but the world is struggling to find alternatives. Dr. Charu Chandrasekera's research has proven that there is not only a viable replacement, but one that is cheaper, faster, and more relevant to humans. Dr. Chandrasekera now advocates for a paradigm shift in which human biology serves as the gold standard."
I encourage everyone to pay careful attention to these essays and to Dr. Chandrasekera's talk, to share them widely, and to go online and learn more about non-animal models. Our input counts because not only is our money being used to fund this research, but so, too, our lives and those of numerous others are at stake, and our voices must be heard.
Questioning non-animal models isn't simply a "radical animal rights" issue
Questioning non-animal models isn't simply a "radical animal rights" issue, nor about the incredible about of nonhuman suffering and death involved or the incredible amounts of money that are spent on this sort of research. Rather, it's all about finding more effective models of human disease. Of course, we also need to learn more about diseases that negatively affect the health of nonhumans, many of which clearly affect us. And there are nonhuman diseases that don't seem to do much to them, but clearly have the potential to become horrific human pandemics.
In a 2013 essay by Bruce Goldman called "When mice mislead, medical research lands in the trap," we read, "An article in today's New York Times highlights just-published work by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers and Stanford genomics expert Ron Davis, Ph.D., in which the scientists presented 'stunning evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers—sepsis, burns, and trauma.' As a result, according to the Times article, 'years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads.'"
The global nature of the coronavirus is a perfect time to revisit animal models, the above essays (along with many others), and the highly informative TEDx talk. They clearly show that many researchers are, and have been for some time, grabbing at straws and hoping to find cures for a number of serious diseases. Along these lines, in an essay called "These Lab Animals Will Help Fight Coronavirus," Dr. Michael Diamond, who studies infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis, says mice may help scientists "to sort of winnow down some of the candidates" for vaccines.
It's simply incredible, inane, but nonetheless true that the U.S. Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) still claims mice and rats aren't animals. Where are all the scientists who know that rats and mice are sentient animal beings? Why aren't they protesting the idiocy of the AWA? Try explaining to a youngster, a student studying biology, or to people who look to science for guidance that rats, mice, and some other animals aren't animals.
This piece and those by others are neither criticisms of these researchers as the people they are nor of their research talents. They simply stress that we need to move on, and it's high time to think outside the box or, as Dr. Chandrasekera puts it, think outside the cage and really hit the ground running, looking for more effective non-animal alternatives.
On another closely related note, as I was writing this piece, I saw an essay called "In China, cats and dogs abandoned at the start of the coronavirus outbreak are now starving or being killed." This made me think of a recent essay I posted called "I'm a Mess About My Dogs and Coronavirus—How Will They Do?" in which I discussed the fate of post-human dogs as and when we disappear. In times like this, many daunting and haunting questions arise about our relationships with dogs and other animals, and while they're easy to avoid, this doesn't serve them or us well.
Where to from here?
Clearly, as one of my colleagues puts it, "It's unlikely human models will be as unsuccessful as so many animal models have proven to be, and it's time to move on."
Suffice it to say, these are very challenging times, and there are numerous issues to which we need to pay serious and deep attention concerning our relationships with other animals, our relationships with other humans all over the planet, and how we can better their lives and our own. I look forward to more wide-ranging discussions among everyone who is concerned about these and other issues because we simply can't continue to let others do the thinking and acting for us.
As I was standing in a long line at a food store this morning, a woman asked, "Who would have thought we'd be where we're at now?" obviously deeply concerned about COVID-19. She really wasn't focusing on anyone in particular, and a great discussion followed. I was thrilled when a few people said something along the lines, "We really need to do something right now about situations like this," and everyone agreed. Someone also asked, "Why has expensive and harmful research failed us? Why don't we have a cure or something that can really help people in need?"
These questions gave me hope, and I encouraged everyone to get involved and to politely ask hard questions and not accept hand-waving, dismissive, and often insulting answers about how we arrived at where we're at and what we're doing about the coronavirus and other maladies. The experts and those who think they're experts need to pay close attention to the queries and fate of those whose well-being and very lives depend on their goodwill.
The way we come to terms with pandemics is a good place to begin these discussions and to work hard for solid solutions to inevitable scenarios that won't go away if we ignore them. We all need to be involved in our futures right now.
Six-year-old Taylor's words of wisdom, "Little bugs will take over the world," should be warning enough that we still have a lot of work to do in coming to terms with COVID-19 and other little bugs. So, let's get on it right now and consider alternatives to business as usual.
I just saw this essay today:
Note 1: For more information about non-animal alternatives in biomedical research click here.
Kolata, Gina. Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills. New York Times, February 11, 2013.