Many people, including researchers, recognize that animal models of human disease don't work as well as their colleagues and others claim that they do.
I recently learned of an outstanding book by Pandora Pound called Rat Trap: The Capture of Medicine By Animal Research - and How To Break Free that, it's claimed, "blows the lid off decades of dogma." As it aptly states on the back cover, "With logic and clarity, Dr. Pandora Pound comprehensively dismantles the case for animal research, ending the 150-year-old debate about its value once and for all. Without discussing any distressing details she reveals the shockingly poor science upon which most animal studies are based and hence their ultimate futility." I agree, and here's what Pandora had to say about her landmark book.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Rat Trap?
Pandora Pound: A lot of evidence has accumulated in the scientific literature over the last decade or so and I wanted to bring that evidence out of the pages of journals and make it available to the public. This evidence points to the human suffering that results from animal research. Humans suffer because animal research is unable to reliably ensure the safety of new medicines and because it’s unable to generate safe and effective treatments for even our most common diseases. Despite decades of animal research, we still have no effective drugs for stroke, Alzheimer’s, or the majority of cancers; these are not rare diseases—they touch most families in some way and they kill and disable millions of people globally. And although new drugs are tested on animals prior to human trials, these drugs can behave in unexpected ways when they are first taken by humans; even licensed drugs regularly have to be withdrawn because they prove to be unsafe and sometimes fatal once they are used in the general population.
But I also wanted to be the bearer of good news, so Rat Trap showcases the awe-inspiring new technologies now available such as ‘organs-on-chips’. These technologies are directly relevant to humans because they are based on human biology. It’s not surprising then, that evidence is beginning to suggest that they outperform animal tests in their ability to detect drug toxicities.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
PP: My background is in the social sciences and I spent many years working as a researcher within medical schools, usually in departments of public health. Back in the early aughts, I became interested in claims that were being made about the value of animal research, namely that it was responsible for virtually every medical breakthrough, that it was indispensable to medical progress, and so on. Claims like these were being made routinely, but without any robust supporting evidence, so I began to explore the evidence base for animal research.
My first paper on the topic, written alongside four professors of epidemiology, argued that we need to apply systematic review methodology—a robust and transparent way of producing high-quality evidence—to the field of animal research. In 2004, we found that although thousands of these reviews were being conducted in clinical research, only 25 such reviews had been conducted of animal studies. These revealed that the animal studies were of such poor quality that the findings were useless, meaning that the animals and all the research resources were completely wasted.1 Unfortunately, animal research continues to needlessly squander scarce resources and in Rat Trap I bring readers up to date with the latest evidence about its limitations and its inability to translate to humans.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
PP: The general public. The futility and limitations of animal research are an open secret within much of the scientific literature, but there are still many people in the general population who believe animal research to be a ‘necessary evil’ and who don’t yet know about the potential of approaches based on human biology. I tried to write Rat Trap in a clear, jargon-free way so that it would be accessible to non-scientific readers.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?
PP: I draw on new scientific evidence that has become available over the last decade or so, showing that animal research doesn’t translate to humans in a reliable way. This lack of reliability is due to species differences: even very small differences between animals and humans can lead to significant changes in outcomes, which is obviously an issue in drug development. It means that we can go down lots of blind alleys when we try to apply findings from animals to humans.
Animal research is sometimes associated with medical advances, but it’s hit and miss and we can do better than hit and miss. For this reason, the book argues that we need to transition away from animal research and instead use approaches that are firmly based in human biology. To develop treatments for humans we need to study humans. Human-relevant approaches have developed in leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades and they make medical research much more reliable because they cut out the ‘middle mouse’. It makes no sense to investigate diseases in animals and then try to apply the findings to humans. It is much more sensible to study humans directly. And we now have so many ways of studying humans non-invasively—ways that are more reliable, more precise and more ethical.
MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
PP: Many books about animal research are about the suffering of animals. This is certainly a legitimate area of concern, but I wanted to show that humans also suffer as a result of animal research. Rat Trap is firmly based on scientific evidence, but it also draws on contributions from experts in the field and my own experiences. It is written for the lay reader and incorporates the latest evidence on the limitations of animal research, as well as outlining the potential of new technologies and describing the barriers to change.
MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the failures of animal models of disease they will call for more effective and humane non-animal alternatives?
PP: That is my fervent hope. I hope Rat Trap can play a part in changing people’s minds about animal research. Things are changing and there are many optimistic and positive developments, but at the same time, there are organisations and individuals trying to resist change. So we all need to put pressure on governments to take a lead in supporting a transition away from animal research and towards scientifically valid, relevant, human biology-based research.
Pound P, Ebrahim S, Sandercock P, Bracken M, Roberts I. Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans? British Medical Journal, 328: 514-7. 2004.
Block. Kitty. Scientist advancing alternatives to animal experiments honored with HSUS/HSI award. A Humane World, August 30, 2023.
Can We Move Away from Animal Models of Human Disease Research?; It's Time to Move on From Nonhuman Animal Models; A New Report Details Why Numerous Animal Models Fail Humans; Sentient Rats: Their Cognitive, Emotional, and Moral Lives