Sunday, December 4, 2011

Experimental Biomedical Research Fails To Bridge The Gap Between Test Tubes, Animals, And Human Biology

Reasoning used in many highly cited cancer publications to support the relevance of animal and test tube experiments to human cancer is questionable, according to a study by researchers from Universite Libre de Bruxelles published in the open-access journal PLoS Computational Biology on October 20th 2011.
Read more here, and the cited paper, here: Venet D, Dumont JE, Detours V, 2011 Most Random Gene Expression Signatures Are Significantly Associated with Breast Cancer Outcome. PLoS Comput Biol. I don't understand every detail of what the authors are saying, but it is clear that they question the validity of applying many assumptions about the meaning of usually animal-derived gene signatures associated with human breast cancer, and by extension, in much research looking at the genetics of cancer. They note: "Proving that research findings from in vitro or animal models are relevant to human diseases is a major bottleneck in medical science." Indeed.

A Slate three part article looking at the use of mice, rats, and naked mole rats in medical research (The Mouse Trap: The dangers of using one lab animal to study every disease. Daniel Engber. November 16, 2011. ) noted:
It's hard to measure such things in aggregate, of course, but science and health policymakers have reached an uneasy consensus on this fact: We're at a moment of crisis in drug discovery. Last winter, current NIH director Francis Collins established a new institute (his agency's 28th) to address the "pipeline problem" in biomedicine: Despite pouring billions of dollars into research every year, our rate of innovation has slowed to a trickle.
Did you get that? The Director of NIH admits that billions of dollars have resulted in a trickle of innovations in medicine.

While Collins's awakening might be news, the fact that medical research isn't paying off isn't. Sharon Begley, Newsweek magazine's science writer, said in her 2010 article "Desperately Seeking Cures: How the road from promising scientific breakthrough to real-world remedy has become all but a dead end," that:
From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the NIH—which supports such research at universities and medical centers as well as within its own labs in Bethesda, Md.—doubled, to $27 billion, and is now $31 billion. There is very little downside, for a president or Congress, in appeasing patient-advocacy groups as well as voters by supporting biomedical research. But judging by the only criterion that matters to patients and taxpayers—not how many interesting discoveries about cells or genes or synapses have been made, but how many treatments for diseases the money has bought—the return on investment to the American taxpayer has been approximately as satisfying as the AIG bailout.
Many observers and assessments of actual bedside care to patients have come to the same conclusion. In spite of gazillions of dollars spent: on basic research, mostly vivisection, the payoff has been next to nil.

What this means, or ought to mean to a normal rational observer, is that the likelihood of any, even all animal-based basic research approved by a university oversight committee -- no matter how many animals are harmed and/or killed -- is almost certain to yield no benefit. None. (Well, it is a job. So there's that.)

But university oversight committees are comprised of people who claim to believe that their approval of some hideous experiment is justified by the potential benefit. But the potential benefit is so low, so unlikely, that their publicly-voiced justifications must be either self-deception, lies, or else faith based.

I'm not opposed to either faith or science; but when literally millions of animals a year are subjected to mentally-damaging deprived housing conditions, endless injections and tissue collections, having chemicals forced down their throats, of being restrained for long periods, of having damaging surgeries performed on them, to being starved, electro-shocked, infected with deadly diseases, frightened, and killed because someone has faith that something good might come of it -- in the face of clear evidence that the probability of such an outcome is vanishingly small, well, then, in that case, both faith and science have gone awry, in somewhat the same way that the fear of Satan and evil resulted in the Inquisition.

The unfortunate reality is that science and rationality don't seem to be at work in academia's embrace and promotion of vivisection. No, the one straightforward undeniable matter-of-fact justification for experimenting on animals and for approving those hideous activities is money. Until that single confounding ingredient is constrained, a bloom of ethical thoughtful decision-making in the nation's universities' animal research oversight and approval committees is about as likely as is an experiment on mice leading to a real breakthrough in treating cancer.

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