Animal Testing Was Never That Reliable, but Now It’s Pointless Too

Science is one of those fields where you hope you never have to hear the word “fraud.” Nevertheless, now that we’ve spent decades looking over and trying to better understand all the animal research we’ve done — and are still doing — the whole endeavor has come to feel a little fraudulent. Not the showy type, but rather the silent type. It began with assuming animal testing lived up to its promise, which was to deliver results that improve human life.

Unfortunately, poorly designed research — and new questions about the degree to which animal data can actually “stand in for” human data — all add up to a simple conclusion: Animal-based testing is probably on its way out the door and out of the scientist’s toolbox, especially now that advanced technologies provide so many more compelling alternatives.

Backlash to Animal Research Never Really Ended

Does it feel like public information campaigns about vivisection are in our distant past? Controversy over testing products on living animals dates back to the 1800s. But, even today, institutions like Cambridge University are still carrying out animal-based testing, to the outrage of animal rights activists across the world.

And ethical concerns have, historically, been only one of the barriers scientists working with animals face. Securing funding from reliable sources was another.

Today, two newer barriers for animal-based research are coming up: concerns over the quality of the data and concerns over its very applicability in humans.

So, Does Animal Testing Actually Work?

Where does fraud enter the equation? Until recently, we lacked the proper accessibility and accountability required to help the public understand animal testing, how well it works, how frequently it’s performed according to recognized standards and, most critically, whether the data gathered is actually applicable in human medicine.

It’s hard to believe, but the vast majority of funds allocated to biomedical research are ultimately wasted. Animal testing in particular — as we know thanks to overarching studies of decades’ worth of research — is incredibly wasteful.

According to some scientists, fewer than half of every 100 research projects involving animals result in publishable findings. Of those, a further half contain fatal errors in method or documentation, meaning the funding and the scientists’ time was wasted with carelessness.

The scientific community is going even further than that today by calling into question whether even unimpeachably performed animal research is “worth it” concerning real-world applications. For the most part, over the last several decades — except for brief pockets of outrage and protest — mainstream society has accepted animal research as a necessary evil for advancing the horizons of science. In a few landmark cases, as with the discovery of penicillin, it unquestionably had a net positive social impact.

But is that even the case any longer? If animal-based research constitutes “silent fraud” on ethical grounds, it qualifies as fraud on practical grounds, too — and for similar reasons. It’s common for defendants to furnish damages — sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars — when their products don’t work as advertised or their claims are found to be based on faulty assumptions.

So, what if all animal testing was built on faulty assumptions, too?

Is Animal-Based Testing Even Worth It?

The hoped-for result of animal testing is a product that improves human life in some way. So, does it deliver results? Even in a world where we could count on the science being performed accurately, and on the results being accurate, every time, how applicable is animal testing to human physiology? There is increasing pushback in the scientific community, and beyond, on this critical point.

Systematic reviews of animal-based research have confirmed worries that a majority of research is designed and executed poorly. It also confirms that even species that closely resemble humans — like certain types of primates — often have a far different and even fatal reaction to some chemicals and compounds the human body has no problem with. Others have even claimed, in some cases, that coin tosses result in more predictive results than testing on animals.

One plausible reason for our collective over-reliance on animal testing — even after years of openly questioning its validity — is that our laws haven’t caught up yet. Duplicable results arrived at through animal testing has always been the “gold standard” for regulatory bodies when it comes to getting new cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to market. In fact, animal testing precedes human testing by law.

So, some are calling for the laws to be rewritten so human data, and not animal data, becomes the standard by which a product’s “readiness for market” will be measured by regulators.

Thankfully, the science has caught up there, too. The effectiveness of a drug or treatment for humans can be modeled using stem cells, 3D cell cultures, organs “on a chip” and even surgical waste. To put it another way, we have more methods than ever for modeling what a compound actually does in the human body.

It’s not perfect — thanks to the human body’s astonishing complexity — but it’s far better than grabbing an animal from its pasture, hoping its insides aren’t too unlike a human’s, administering an untested compound and hoping for the best.

An End to Fraud — and Animal Testing

We’re still developing some of these technologies, but make no mistake — once we can reliably print human tissues and other organs, we’ll see an explosion of potential in the medical community. One of the first likely changes is the swift end to cruel, unnecessary animal testing and a switch to carrying out life-saving research on cell cultures and printed organs instead.

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Kate Harveston is originally from Williamsport, PA and holds a bachelor's degree in English. She enjoys writing about health and social justice issues. When she isn't writing, she can usually be found curled up reading dystopian fiction or hiking and searching for inspiration. If you like her writing, follow her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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7 thoughts on “Animal Testing Was Never That Reliable, but Now It’s Pointless Too

  1. According to some scientists, fewer than half of every 100 research projects involving animals result in publishable findings. Of those, a further half contain fatal errors in method or documentation, meaning the funding and the scientists’ time was wasted with carelessness.

    Uh, isn’t that true of _all_ science?

    In fact, those percentages of ‘good results’ seem way too high for me, the idea that half of all animal testing results in publishable results sounds completely impossible to me, and science is in the middle of a replication crisis that means if half of the published results gotten via animal testing are reproducable, then it’s doing pretty damn well.

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    • Then there’s negative effects — say, a drug that turns out causes cancer, or liver failure, or heart issues in animals during testing — and thus never causes that to humans, because it’s dropped or sent back for further research.

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    • Yes.

      This statement fails hard in terms of comparing animal testing to viable alternatives rather than an imagined ideal. Therefore its not making proper accounting of costs and benefits.
      The flaws in research cited would likely be in place in any availible research method. The benefits of animal research models are considerable including

      1. Generally more cost effective than alternatives, particularly in the past.
      2. Can simulate the response of an entire organism rather than an isolated part of one.
      3. Mammals are pretty similar to each other on a physiological and molecular level, so using them to simulate humans is generally pretty effective. It doesn’t work perfectly, which leads to the discrepancies the noted above. However,but no model works perfectly and by the same token, human cells in culture act somewhat differently from human cells in a body which produces analgous problems translating findings from one to the other.

      Its not like the issues with biomedical animal testing aren’t apparent to the people doing the testing, they know them better than anyone. Its used because the experts on the matter have done cost benefit analysis on the subject and concluded the benefits outweigh the costs. They also generally have to generate annoying amounts of paperwork to explain that in order to get permission from arm-length bodies in order to get permission to do the work they want to do.

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  2. Your case for ‘fraud’ is laughable. There was no grand fraud. Animal testing was never a fraud, it was merely the best option available short of testing on actual people from the word go.

    Is it a good thing that we can start phasing out animal testing? Absolutely. It’s OK to recognize that the old way should pass into history when better ways become available, without trying to associate it to criminal behavior.

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    • Your case for ‘fraud’ is laughable. There was no grand fraud.

      I disagree. I think scientists _should_ sue animals for the time and effort they’ve wasted testing on them. Animals have clearly misrepresented their usefulness in testing.

      I’m not really sure _how_ they’d sue animals, but I think the scientific community has a valid legal complaint against them.

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  3. Yeah, I’m not necessarily seeing that there’s fraud going on here. Animal studies are not perfect replicas of human studies. But they are an important safeguard one can use before testing things on humans. My dad did some of the breakthrough research on preserving blood based on testing chimps. The new ebola vaccine was first tested on on macaques. The translation to human is not perfect but it is useful.

    I don’t think it should be done callously. But I don’t buy this idea that it was never reliable.

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    • There’s a whole industry devoted to making animals more like humans, so that testing gives you even better results.

      Humanized mice, for instance, used to test cancer therapies..

      The researchers would be the absolute first to tell you they’d love swap out humanized mice for perfect simulations of the human body, but they work with the best tools they have. And that’s mice who react to cancer (and cancer drugs) more like humans than anything else they’ve got.

      And while terminal patients are a useful place to test things, not all medications are for terminal conditions (and also, they’d kind of like data for a longer time span than “the three months it took this guy to die”).

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