Letter Utility of animal research

Animal research has been essential to saving babies’ lives

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4174 (Published 24 June 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g4174
  1. Andrew Whitelaw, emeritus professor of neonatal medicine1,
  2. Marianne Thoresen, professor of neonatal neuroscience1
  1. 1University of Bristol, Neonatal Neuroscience Level D, St Michael’s Hospital, Bristol BS2 8EG, UK
  1. andrew.whitelaw{at}bristol.ac.uk

Pound and Bracken’s argument that much animal research is poorly designed, uncritically analysed, and wasteful should not be interpreted as support for the anti-vivisectionists who would ban all animal experiments.1

The article implied that, in recent years, animal research had not led directly to major advances in human health. However, three life saving treatments in neonatal medicine would not have been given ethical approval for clinical trial if high quality animal models had not shown evidence of efficacy. Prenatal corticosteroid and postnatal surfactant replacement depended on years of technically difficult animal experimentation before the first clinical trials.2 3 For both these treatments, the effects in animal models translated into improved survival for premature infants.

For many decades the one universally accepted principle in neonatal care has been that sick babies must not get cold. Ethical permission for clinical trials of therapeutic hypothermia for newborn infants with hypoxic brain injury would not have been obtained in 1998 if newborn animal model research in three different species had not shown that post-hypoxic cooling reduced brain injury.4 5 6 7 8 Therapeutic hypothermia has now been tested in 11 randomised clinical neonatal trials. The number needed to save a life is 11 and the number needed to prevent disability is 8.9 Therapeutic hypothermia has now become standard of care throughout the developed world.10

The molecular target approach is important but cannot predict whether a treatment will work in real patients with complex organ interactions and multiple comorbidities. A treatment aimed at improving neurological function in a sick newborn with cardiac, hepatic, and renal injury cannot be tested in cell culture. Thus, clinically relevant models can be technically challenging and time consuming. Clinicians, patients, and the public need to realise that components of life saving modern medicine, including testing of biomedical equipment, would have been impossible without animal research.

Rather than unselectively condemning the whole of biomedical animal research, a more critical approach by funding bodies and journal editors could reduce bad research while supporting the good.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g4174



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