Saturday, December 19, 2009

By Stuart Chaifetz

When animal experiments are proposed, there are a series of steps that are supposed to occur to test the worthiness of the project. This is especially true in an academic setting.
This year, Yale and the University of Chicago performed nearly the exact same experiments, which were designed to weigh the effect of “loneliness” on small mammals who were given cancer. The Yale study used Norway Rats, while the U of C used genetically engineered mice. Both found a link between isolation and cancer, which was then extrapolated to human beings, leading to news stories titled like this: “Lonely women could be at greater risk of breast cancer”

There is so much wrong here I can barely find the words to express myself. Fine. I’ll use this guy’s words instead:

“Ed Yong, of Cancer Research UK, said: "This study was done in rats.

"Overall, research in humans does not suggest there is a direct link between stress and breast cancer.”

Simple, concise and right on point; it is nonsensical to have used rats to judge human reactions, especially when we already knew from human data what the true effects were. Okay, so the Yale study was pointless. What about the U of C experiment?

Now this is where it gets really interesting. It turns out that that story was picked up by the British press, and in response the British National Health Service (NHS) devoted an entire page to a discussion of the experiment.

“The news story is based on a laboratory study in genetically engineered mice and the results cannot be directly applied to humans. Although animal studies can be valuable for gaining a general understanding of how diseases develop, humans have a very different biology from mice.”

So that study was pointless as well. And way to go NHS for speaking so clearly of how you cannot translate animal data to human responses. They went on further:

“This research was done on genetically engineered mice that were predisposed to developing mammary gland tumours. The work is valuable in understanding how environmental change may have an effect on the biological development of tumours but humans are very different from genetically engineered mice.”

Though the NHS threw the researchers a bone by saying some part of the experiments produced valuable information, here’s exactly what we’ve learned: If you create mice who are likely to have cancer, they will get cancer. And if you take some of those animals away from their mothers and keep them imprisoned alone for the entirety of their life, they will be in worse shape than the mice that at least have others for comfort while they slowly die of the cancer you gave them. And none of this means anything for humans because “we have a very different biology from mice.” Animal research at its highest art...
One more critical point from the NHS:
“These findings cannot be interpreted to mean that being sociable protects you against breast cancer or any other cancer, or that being unsociable raises your risk, or gives you a worse prognosis or outlook.”
Thank you. Cancer is not some creepy shadow villain that strikes people when they are alone and unprepared, or that can be beaten off by large groups of people huddled by fires and armed with sharp sticks and guns (although I bet I could sell that idea to the NRA).
What is true is that people who are sick do better when they have help. Is this somehow a surprise? Did we need to kill dozens of small animals to find it out? Of course we didn’t. As the previously quoted Mr. Yong said, all we need do is look at human reactions:
“Previous data from clinical trials have indicated that social support can improve the prospects of women with breast cancer.”
“Epidemiological studies suggest that social isolation increases death rates associated with several chronic diseases.”

If you are sick and have friends helping you, of course you are going to at feel better than if you have no one. If you’re not sick and have friends, chances are you’ll feel better than the person who is alone as well. These are logical and reasonable assumptions based on anyone and everyone’s own life experiences. But, because we are not researchers who give mice cancer and then imprison them in solitude, logic and reason makes a bit more sense to us then to them.
And that brings me back to my opening paragraph. There may be boards in place to judge the worthiness of experiments at academic institutions, but it seems to me that they are there more to paint a picture of responsibility than to actually enforce it, and to appease some general sense of concern the public has (rightfully) that lives are being taken and cruelty inflicted for no good reason. And no good reason is exactly why these experiments happened.
***Bonus quote of the week***
I was sent this article a while back, but never had use for it for a blog (read the whole story for the full context). Since we are talking about mice here, I thought it relevant. The last line of the quote says it all:
“We were surprised,” Cureton says. “Based on the mouse studies, we had expected” that the supplement would have a positive impact. Obviously, he continues, one study is not definitive. Different doses of quercetin or use for a longer time might lead to different results. “But my conclusion is that it just is not ergogenic in humans,” Cureton says. It doesn’t improve performance. “The moral is that you can’t generalize from mouse studies to humans.”

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