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Lab mice are sending us on a wild goose chase


Genetically modified animals are used to model all kinds of human diseases, but the work doesn’t seem to be helping us find cures, says Joseph Garner

Joseph Garner

Steve Fisch/Stanford School of Medicine

“It’s bonkers to think that the social issues of autism are measurable in mice”

Why does drug development using animals need a rethink?

I think we’ve got ourselves into a mess right now, with lab mice in particular. The benefits to humans, in certain diseases and mouse models, have shrunk to such low levels that it’s time we found better ways to work with animals in medical research.

How have the benefits to humans shrunk?

Of the drugs that get past the animal testing phase and into human trials, only about 1 in 9 actually make it to the market, and that’s dropping all the time. It costs about $2 billion to bring a single drug to market, largely because of failed human trials. And they usually fail simply because the drug doesn’t work, or not as well as animal testing predicted.

Why isn’t research translating well from animals to humans?

The idea is that the animal model will tell you something about how this drug is going to perform in humans. But we have to ask ourselves, are these animals truly modelling the human disease? Increasingly, they are not. So we end up learning a great deal about how mice respond to various compounds, but it’s irrelevant to humans and an enormous waste of money.

We need to do animal research that actually translates well. A knock-on effect of that will be that these drugs fail earlier in the development process, before the cost of failure skyrockets.

So what’s the underlying issue?

There are several, but in drugs for cognitive conditions, the single …

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