Is testing medication on rats really useful?

There are a lot of activists saying that testing medication on rats is pointless because the effects of medication in rats is a very inaccurate indication of what that medication would do in humans. A lot of the time there are effects in the rats that do not occur in humans, and a lot of the time there are effects that do not occur in the rats but do occur in humans. They claim that the reason that these studies are done even though they are ineffective is that scientists make money from them, so they inflate their usefulness. And of course on the other side they say that experimentation on rats is actually very useful.

I have not read and thoroughly analyzed hundreds of studies where they used rats so I’m not sure what to think. What’s the straight dope on this? Are there some studies that examine this type of thing in general? Statistical evidence would be nice.

make money from them how?

Yeah, there are differences between rats and humans, but there are more similarities than differences. Whom, exactly, do you propose scientists test drugs on? Criminals? Babies? Poor people?

That’s true. But so is the reverse. A lot of drugs do affect rats the same way they affect humans, so testing on rats yields useful information all the time.

I’m not sure what you mean by scientists making money from rodent tests. Certainly, they get paid to do work (though they certainly don’t get paid very much, if they’re doing doctoral or postdoc research.)

A scientist working for a pharmaceutical lab is not interested in doing tests that have little chance of yielding useful scientific information. They would much rather work on something that has the potential to lead to publishable results, and therefore increased prominence in their field.

And they’ll also run tests on other animals, too, like guinea pigs, dogs, and monkeys. So if there’s some quirk of rat biology that means that a medicine has very different effects for them specifically, they’ll still notice that. Which does still leave the possibility that it’s humans that have the species-specific quirk, which is why you do still have to eventually test on humans, too. But you want to test on more expendable animals first.

Plus, of course, sometimes the differences between animals are obvious, and can lead you to using the correct test subjects. For instance, there was a potential cancer treatment I heard of for which it was reasonable to expect that it would work differently on animals of different sizes. That meant that the rat tests weren’t very useful for humans, but dog tests would be more useful.

Rodents breed quickly, are cheap to purchase and are cheap to feed, are easy to handle, and share enough biology with humans that many studies on them are quite useful.

Primates, on the other hand, breed slowly, are expensive to purchase and care for, and are very difficult to handle. They are however closer to us biologically.

The similar-ish biology of rodents means that a lot of testing can be done on those rodents, which saves money. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of what the activists are claiming. They think that this is all some kind of waste of money to that researchers can line their pockets with cash. In reality, the researchers are being smart with what money they have, and aren’t wasting expensive primate tests for things that can be done on cheaper rodent tests.

Let’s say for example you have some whiz-bang new medication that you think can help people with certain types of brain illnesses. Rodent brains aren’t good enough for this type of testing, as they are too different from human brains. But, you give the medication to a bunch of rats anyway. Then, you discover that about half of those rats died of liver failure. Whelp, no need to go on with the primate testing then. You’ve cheaply and effectively discovered a bad side effect that will prevent the medication from being usable. So that wasted test to line your pockets with cash actually saved money in the long run by proving that the medication wasn’t suitable long before it reached the level of expensive primate testing.

The fast breeding rate of rodents means that a lot of stuff can be tested quickly on rodents, and can be tested through multiple generations to look for things like birth defects, genetic mutations, and other bad side effects that would prevent a medication from being useful.

It’s not a topic I’ve researched intensely but it seems to me that this argument (rats aren’t as good for test subjects as we originally thought) started after the industry recalls of Bextra and Vioxx. They apparently tested fine in rats but after being used for a while in consumer medicine they discovered a bad trend of them causing serious cardiac problems.

I don’t think that drug companies rely entirely on rat studies. They also do double blind human trials to ensure safety and efficacy. The fact that a problem was found in humans that didn’t appear in rats doesn’t mean rat testing isn’t valuable, and I would rather end up injuring a rat than injuring a human trial participant.

There is some evidence that the dangers of Bextra and Vioxx were known long before the recall, as noted in this wikipedia article about Rofecoxib (Vioxx).

Bextra was recalled due to its similarity to Vioxx.

My personal take on this is that if there are some studies which show a problem and some that don’t, you need to do more studies to get the root of the problem. I think the criticism of Merck and the FDA in this case is warranted.

Drug testing on rats is just a small part of the process. Most drugs in that winnowing down don’t get past the rat stage because they aren’t safe and effective. The winners are tested some more on rats. Only after generations of lab rats show a drug might be a good one does the drug get to clinical double-blind testing of human volunteers.

I’m a volunteer test subject right now. My hospital’s research clinic did a test on a vaccine against the “C. Diff” bacterium for a drug company. After all the paperwork, I was given an injection. Neither I nor the doctor knew whether I got the vac or a placebo. Every second Monday somebody calls to ask me a short series of questions about my health in the last 2 weeks.

They originally planned a 2-year trial, but they decided to extend it another 2. Maybe that means the results so far are good. I don’t know.

Generally speaking, drug testing in animals is called pre-clinical. If a drug shows promise, it may move on to Phase 1 clinical trails in humans, where it is tested on a small group of healthy volunteers for side effects and dosages. If it passes that, then in Phase 2 clinical trails it can be used on a relatively small group of subjects that have the disease/condition (test group) or don’t (control group). If it makes it to Phase 3, then it used in much larger groups of subjects. Monitoring the drug after FDA approval is referred as Phase 4.

It may be only after the drug is approved and very large groups have been using the drug for long periods of time that some side effects come to light.

If you want to read about something worse, here you go (I just saw a seminar yesterday where this case was highlighted):

Putting Oncology Patients at Risk

To get around this, you can also do xenograft experiments where you implant tumor cells from a human into a rat and compare the tumor growth with and without treatment, or use mice that are genetically engineered mice to have defects that match those of humans that suffer a particular condition.

Animals models are incredibly useful for exploring mechanisms for disease, but more importantly are useful for identifying potential harmful side effects of drugs before they are tested on humans. If your miracle treatment for Alhiemers also has the side effect of eating through the kidneys in 3 days, it is important to know that before you give it to a human. Eliminating animal subjects would make clinical trials so dangerous that it would only be ethical to test a drug if the dangers posed by unknown side effects was less than the likely benefit of the drug.

This would effectively halt all research into any but the most life threatening conditions.

It probably means that they didn’t meet their target event accrual. So either they didn’t sign up enough volunteers to the study, or not enough of the volunteers got the disease, so they need more data to reach a conclusion one way or another about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Unless you know something that I don’t, medical research isn’t going to go away. We want better, safer medicines. So if you eliminate one stage of validation from drug research, that just means that the medicines will go through the pipeline faster and those same drug companies and scientists will be validating some other pharmaceutical. Assuming that the whole rat phase was superfluous, for the company, skipping that phase would just mean more money because the safety check phase would be reduced in time. They’d have a quicker turnaround from thinking of a new drug to putting that drug on the market.

To summarize:

  1. Scientists don’t go out of a job because a particular study didn’t pan out. We don’t have a shortage of things to study.
  2. Businesses make money by selling things, not by researching things.

So, this theory is pretty plainly false.

First a quote from this website to put animal testing into its context.

Also, seriously, scientists know very well which animal models work (or don’t) for which disease; they design their experiments and interpret the results accordingly. The argument that “animals models are inaccurate therefore scientists are complete frauds” (I am merely paraphrasing animal right activists) has simply nothing to do with reality.

Thanks guys. Figured it wasn’t true. It’s sad that animals have to be tortured for this but I guess that’s how its got to be.

They don’t have necessarily the most pleasant of experiences, but for a rat or mice life, overall they do very well. All reputable research has an ethics comittee that has to approve the use of animals, and has strict guidelines about how many animals can be used for the study. There are also benchmarks indicating how long can the trial go on, and what are the “end points”. For example, an animal that is rapidly losing weight or deteriorating will not continue wasting away, but will be euthanized accordingly. Having “natural death” as an end point would require a good explanation, and not all studies are like that.

There are also guidelines regarding what type of food they can eat, what is the minimum living space allowed, what is the population density required (if they are kept in groups), in what temperatures they can be, etc.

Lab animal medicine is the branch of veterinary medicine in charge of these and more.

There are numerous animal models, not all of them rats and mice. They are useful in numerous studies, but it is also important to keep in mind that there are species differences, and there needs to be a trained researcher involved that can guide others and let them know if the findings are significant or not.

Good research using animal experiments should be backed by an ethics comittee, under supervision of lab animal veterinarians and the data obtained from them should preferably be passed through toxicologic veterinary pathologists. Or heck, even veterinary pathologists.

There’s an expression from the field of statistics which says that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I think it’s very applicable in this discussion: animal models of human biology are inaccurate in some aspects, but to the extent that we’re aware of those differences, we can still obtain useful information from experiments involving animals.

First of all, indeed, all procedures performed in animal research are evaluated by independent committees, with a very special attention to the amount of discomfort, pain or stress inflicted to the animals. It is all on record and available to federal inspectors, and I can tell you that local ethical committees, federal inspectors and universities take animal suffering very seriously.

Furthermore, torture is the act of inflicting pain for the purpose of inflicting pain. If you push a needle in someone arm in order to make him talk, that’s torture. If you give a shot of antibiotics to a sick child, that it not torture. Likewise, inflicting a certain amount of pain to an animal for the purpose of advancing knowledge or improving human health is not torture.

It is obvious that there is a limit to how much pain can be inflicted to an animal for scientific research, and this limit depends of the nature or importance of the research being performed. If you do cancer research, you may have to induce cancers to animals and that will make their quality of lie quite poor; but this is to balance with cancer research benefiting immensely for hundred of millions of humans.

This is where ethics comes into play. Animal testing is neither all black not all white. If a scientist can test a drug that will save one million children without even hurting the mice, that would all be white. You would not need an ethical committee to tell you that. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone agrees that skinning a live kitten just for fun is not good. You don’t need an ethical committee to tell you that either.

So what scientists do is dealing with shades a grey. They do that with extensive supervision by local veterinary personnel, local ethical committees and federal authorities. And what they also do is produce academic knewledge and medical progress, and improve the life of humans (as well as the quality of life of lifestocks and pets who benefit from medical progress too, by the way).

What animal activists who use words like “torture” do NOT do is participating to this ethical process. In fact, they do everything they can to distort this process by painting everything in black, putting forward words like torture and vivisection, and negating the benefits of scientific research. The reason they do that is that is that, if they were to accept weighting the moral cost and benefits of animals research honestly, then their whole ideology would fall apart.

KarlGrenze and

I’m uncomfortable with this line of reasoning. I’m sure that nazi doctors would’ve used a similar line of defense: experimentation on humans is justified because it could end up saving millions of other humans. So it boils down to simple math: do you save a lot of humans by making this human suffer? Then it is justified. I know that a lot of what they did was just sadistic, but I’m talking about the experiments that actually yielded useful medical information. Regardless of the motivations of nazi doctors, would you agree with me that inflicting such horrible suffering on people can’t be justified for any type of scientific research?

Why? Because those humans experience high amounts of nonconsensual pain and that is wrong? Animals can feel, experience pain and suffering in a very similar way as humans. Our sensory systems are similar in many cases. So why aren’t we drawing a similar extreme “never okay” line for animals as we do for humans who experience suffering in a comparable way? Basically because they are not our species, so we don’t empathize with them as much. A lot of animals do have the capability to suffer in ways similar to us.

When I think of what they do in vivisection, that is just terrible. Just imagine somebody doing that to you and opening up your entire torso while you are barely anesthetized. While in many western universities they might have ethics committees and at least anesthetize them, I doubt that they care as much around the world, and then there is animal experimentation done by western corporations who solely operate on a profit motive. In a lot of cases they probably won’t care enough to anesthetize them and will only do the bare minimum necessary so they don’t interfere like paralyzing them.

Also, the definition of torture is not “inflicting pain for the purpose of inflicting pain”, it is more like “inflicting high amounts of pain”. The purpose does not matter.