Lab mice can't help us in the fight against cancer

Curing cancer in mice is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough for humans. So why do we persist in carrying out bizarre and freakish experiments?

Share
Related Topics

They tell us that sewing glass window panes into the bellies of living mice is a technical feat essential in our battle against cancer. It could help to develop drugs that prevent cancer from spreading and unlock those all sought after “secrets of cancer.” Yet all the time this research has been going on cancer has reached epidemic proportions and is still killing more people than die of any other disease in the UK. It doesn't make sense.

This particular gruesome research provides scientists with a direct view of the path of cancer cells as they move around the body. In November 2012 the headlines read: “Tiny window in living mice shows cancer spread.” Rewind four years to 2008 and the headlines go: “Window into mouse's chest reveals how cancer spreads.” You could rewind for over ten years and find reports of near-identical research. In fact, experimentation on animals has grown particularly rapidly in the field of cancer research over the past century.

Read any press release that reports this medical research and they are all full of hyperbolic rhetoric. It is repeatedly described as a “breakthrough.” These windows could play a “vital role” in developing drugs that block cancer from spreading, we are assured. It seems to me, however, that major breakthroughs in cancer research are announced virtually on a weekly basis.

We are constantly being promised ground breaking advancements, cures, treatments and answers to this terrible and deadly disease that we have all lost someone to. It is, admittedly, beguiling speak and fulfils its purpose of justifying this kind of savage cruelty to animals.

In blind faith, it is very hard for the public to read this spin and not accept the continuing use of animal models in grim experiments when we are told that animal experimentation is the only way to find cures. It may well sound awful but we are told it is “essential.”

Yet why do these promises consistently go unfulfilled as the statistics show?

Technical success

Peter Kuhn, a cancer metastasis specialist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, described this achievement to the New Scientist as “a great technical feat”. And there we have it. The long suffering mouse continues to be subject to all manner of invasive and inhumane experiments which serve, by the scientists own admission, technology rather than medicine. Tinkering around with live animals may well push the boundaries of novel freakish monstrosities that can be created in a laboratory but it does not advance human medicine and health.

Peter Kuhn went on to add: “It is really important to distinguish between cancer in a mouse and cancer in a human”. This should come as no surprise given the fact that cancer treatments fail in preclinical trails more than almost all other drugs. It is quite rash therefore to claim that cancer research on animals including mice is so essential but then go on to doubt its human relevance altogether.

The last decade has seen a persistently low success rate for new cancer therapies and a string of costly failures: iniparib against breast cancer and recentin against colon cancer, are only two examples of many. Do mice, the animal most frequently used in cancer research, sound like such essential models now?

The distinction between cancer in a mouse and cancer in a human is indeed fundamental to the futility of this research. While we continue to cure mice of cancer - millions and millions and millions of mice - “they have never produced a single substantial advance either in the prevention or treatment of human cancer” , says Dr. Irwin Bross, former director of Sloan-Kettering, the world’s largest cancer research institute. Meanwhile all that time, finances and other precious resources are being consumed and human lives continue to be lost. Why?

A broken model

Because there is something wrong with mice models. The mouse model of human cancer is only a very rough approximate model of the human version at best.

Mice don't even contract human types of cancer in the first place. They are stripped of their immunity, a system that is highly active in the course of cancer in humans, and they are injected with a strain of genetically engineered cancer cells.

This doesn’t accurately replicate the disease or serve as a reliable model of how the disease occurs in humans. In addition to these more apparent failings in mice models another significant reason why mice provide such poor models is because of the evolutionary process called gene expression. Put very simply, mice genes behave differently to human genes. No amount of technological tinkering in a research laboratory can make a mouse gene overcome 140 million years of evolution and behave like a human gene.

The troubling reality is that if this research continues for another decade or another century, and we continue to fund it, it will never lead to that elusive quest in human medicine that is the cure to human cancer. Creating Frankenstein like mice in laboratories is certainly evil but it is certainly not essential.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Designer

£32969 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Engineer

£35000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Data Engineer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence