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Is 'Rat Trap' a fair summary of why we use animals in research?


Is "Rat Trap" a fair summary of why we use animals in research?

In her new book, author Pandora Pound sets out why the scientifically accepted justification for using animals in biomedical research is, in her view, outdated. Researcher Georgios Petrellis reviews the book and asks whether she has selectively examined the facts.


In medical sociologist Pandora Pound’s latest book Rat Trap – the capture of medicine by animal research and how to break free, she puts forward a well-worn point of view that research using animals is an ‘obsolete practice.. thwarting medical progress’, despite the widely accepted and scientifically proven role of animal research in medical advancements and progress.


While the debate on animal research at national and EU level has become far more nuanced, including those who reluctantly agree that to make meaningful progress in finding treatments for brain disease or cancer animal studies will play an essential part, Pound presents an emotion-evoking story about the limitations of animal research. However, she fails to counter it with a convincing argument that alternative non-animal methods - commonly referred to as new approach methodologies (NAMs) - are ready and waiting to replace animal research – something that all researchers are continuously striving to do, provided the science is there to back it up.


Pound collects data from diverse sources to present her case and argues that animal models of human disease are often of poor quality, unreliable, and overshadow human-focused methods. Unfortunately, the generalisations and over-simplifications of these claims are highly questionable and misinformative, and skirt over the fact that through the use of animal studies biomedical researchers are continuing to deliver medical breakthroughs that regularly appear on the front pages of the media - Covid vaccines, HIV treatments, anti-malarial treatment and organ transplants.


Pound cites the theory of evolution to claim that animals cannot replicate important aspects of human disease, such as the complexity of cancer, arguing that potential cures in preclinical research therefore cannot translate to treatments for patients. Yet, while cancer is one of the most common causes of death, it is only in the last 20 years that we have made real progress in our understanding and treatment of it – and many of these breakthroughs have used animal studies. EARA has highlighted these advances in its recent feature Why are animals used in cancer research?.


Pound persistently mentions basic research studies that have not yet been translated to cures and downplays the valuable contributions animals have made in understanding fundamental biological mechanisms, such as how cancer cells survive and spread.


Moreover, Pound attributes medical progress more to public health, clinical innovation, and hygiene advancements rather than to research using animals. What she fails to communicate properly and potentially understand herself, even as a scientist, although without biomedical background, is that the development of a treatment usually does not come about as a direct result of one study, but is a result of multiple studies exploring different facets of the same problem, to first gain a holistic understanding of a disease.


For instance, Pound turns a blind eye to the irreplaceable role of animal research in combatting infectious disease and protecting public health from emergencies (Covid-19) and other life-saving vaccines, as illustrated in another EARA feature article Why are animals used in infectious disease research?.


The book’s greatest weakness (bolstered by some equally blinkered reviews from activist group Peta and others) is that Pound disregards all the benefits of animal research and urges its immediate and complete abandonment, putting the future of biomedical research and the protection of human and animal health at great risk and potentially back many decades.


She explicitly rejects the idea of a collaborative approach between animal research and new approach methods (NAMs), such as cell-based (in vitro) and computer simulation (in silico) studies, arguing that animal research inhibits NAMs. And despite the clear preference of the biomedical research community for interdisciplinary science, using both animal and non-animal models working in combination, Pound delves into conspiracy theories, to support her case, such as that complex web of scientific convention, academic inertia, big pharma, and public attitudes perpetuates animal use. Her opinion is also in stark contrast with that of top researchers and institutions that have applied an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the biggest challenges to human health. For example, since its establishment in 2015, the Francis Crick Institute, in London, has a dedicated Biological Research Facility to house animal models that allow scientists to pursue groundbreaking discoveries.


Positive publication bias and the regulatory requirements to use animal models are certainly valid concerns, but in an effort to convince the reader, Pound claims that scientific education is flawed and scientists are unable to fully comprehend and appreciate the superiority of the arguments against animal research, which is why they do not support phasing out of animal use. She instead believes that the solution is that lay audiences, in other words non- scientists, should assess whether studies using animals are worthwhile or not. Her dismissive stand on researchers and their integrity and ethics is offensive to the scientific community and neglects their continuous efforts to actively address animal welfare and care, and improve human health.


Ultimately, Rat Trap feels like a textbook for opponents of animal research and activists, rather than a balanced narrative on the role and evolution of animal research in biomedical innovation.


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