Philosophy of Animal Rights > Animal Testing Index
Science critical of animal testing

Nature. 14 December 2006
Animal studies: a good guide for clinical trials? Study reveals animal experiments often fail to predict outcomes in humans.
Jim Giles

Animal-rights activists have long claimed that differences between humans and animals make experiments in species such as rats of little use. Most scientists disagree, saying that drug development would be impossible without initial tests in animals (see our Animal research special).

Now a team of medical researchers has published in the BMJ1 results from what they say is the first attempt to produce a scientific, quantitative answer to this question. The results provide food for thought for any scientist who works with animals.

The authors say they have highlighted serious problems with the way in which animal research is translated into human trials. Only half of the small sample of tests analysed by the team so far produced the same results in animals as they did in people.

The team stresses that this is not an argument against doing animal studies. Even so, the paper is likely to be seized on by activists.

Data match

The researchers started by taking six sets of clinical trials that had produced definitive answers as to whether specific treatments for conditions such as stroke and head injury are useful or not. They then assessed whether the prior animal research had given similar results to the human trials. The results, published today, say that the sets of data matched in only three of the six cases.

When the team investigated the reasons for this, they exposed a series of problems with the animal data. Many studies did not allocate animals randomly to control and treatment groups, a problem that is known to introduce bias into clinical trials. Comparison of experiments on a stroke treatment also suggested that studies showing negative effects are more likely to go unpublished, skewing impressions of efficacy.

Work on a model of head injury was undermined by the use of a model that did not match the later clinical trials. Rodents were injured and then treated five minutes later, says Ian Roberts, an author on the study and an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In the clinical trials, which are based on hospital admissions, patients are typically treated within three hours of being injured.

Design challenge

Although the results could be seen as evidence that animal work does little to inform clinical studies, the authors stress that their results show only that more time needs to spent thinking about how to translate research between the two spheres. Better-designed models and an awareness of publication bias are two priorities, they say.

Other researchers question whether the results are really as alarming as they sound. Robert Lechler, an immunologist at Kings College London, says that designers of clinical trials are already well aware of limitations in animal models. He says that scientists apply an "intelligent filter" when looking at such tests, and that crude comparisons between the outcomes of animal and human studies do not capture this. But Peter Sandercock, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh and an author on the study, says the paper shows that more needs to be done on this front. If such a filter was applied, he points out, the animal models of head injury would have been repeated using a better design before human studies started. "This is not a polemic against animal research," stresses Sandercock. "But we need to be aware that there are biases in the animal trials."

BMJ. 16 December 2006,
Just how useful are animal studies to human health?
(Comparison of systematic reviews of animal trials with clinical trials)

Animal studies are of limited usefulness to human health because they are of poor quality and their results often conflict with human trials, argue researchers in a study on today. Before clinical trials are carried out, the safety and effectiveness of new drugs are usually tested in animal models. Some believe, however, that the results from animal trials are not applicable to humans because of biological differences between the species.

So researchers compared treatment effects in animal models with human clinical trials.
They used systematic reviews (impartial summaries of evidence from many different studies) of human and animal trials to analyse the effects of six drugs for conditions such as head injury, stroke and osteoporosis.

Agreement between human and animal studies varied. For example, corticosteroids did not show any benefit for treating head injury in clinical trials but did show a benefit in animal models. Results also differed for the drug tirilazad to treat stroke - data from animal studies suggested a benefit but the clinical trials showed no benefit and possible harm.

Some results did agree. For instance, bisphosphonates increased bone mineral density in both clinical trials and animal studies, while corticosteroids reduced neonatal respiratory distress syndrome in animal studies and in clinical trials, although the data were sparse.

Animal studies are generally of poor quality and lack agreement with clinical trials, which limits their usefulness to human health, say the authors. This discordance may be due to bias, random error, or the failure of animal models to adequately represent clinical disease.

Systematic reviews could help translate research findings from animals to humans. They could also promote closer collaboration between the research communities and encourage an interative approach to improving the relevance of animal models to clinical trial design, they conclude.

Contact: Professor Ian Roberts, London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine, London, UK Email:

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