by Zoë Pollock

A reader writes:

“I’m sure,” McWilliams admits, “that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research.” His honesty is disarming, but this statement reflects a painful misunderstanding of research. Researchers can’t and don’t design research projects as one-to-one responses to individuals’ diseases or injuries. Instead, they examine what is known about a disease as it is found in thousands of cases, look for potential natural models of the disease, refine any such models of the disease to understand this or that physiological mechanism, scour the literature of basic and non-targeted research for clues about the etiology of the disease, conduct double-blind experiments of a number of different interventions, and test the effectiveness and safety of any treatment (first on animals, then on persons). This is a huge and necessarily collaborative effort, and it requires more than one animal or even one species for each afflicted child.

McWilliams’ most significant oversight is his neglect of basic research.

When we talk of NIH-funded animal research, we aren’t talking, usually, of testing. Testing confronts a known condition with a fully characterized drug or procedure to be sure that the latter is effective and safe. Instead, we are talking about discovery, which has to do with the unknown. Most biomedical researchers are explorers, following one question or another to where it leads them. When questions are answered or even when they reveal that a certain path is a dead end, they lead not to immediate application but to the store of physiological knowledge. The time between discoveries and the eventual application of new knowledge has been estimated at about 40 years.

Finally, McWilliams fails to note an ironic truth: it is through animal research that scientists have learned as much as we know about the feelings of animals. This knowledge has contributed greatly to animal well being.

Another goes into detail on biomedical research:

One important bottom line for all of your readers to understand is that figuring out how to treat and eventually cure complex diseases processes is a 'whole organism problem' because of the complexity of the interactions between the different organ systems (e.g., the liver detoxifying the blood, kidneys clear waste, and so on…lots of other important systems like cardiovascular, immune, endocrine – to say nothing of the brain and central nervous system). As such, biomedical research questions often need to be examined in whole organisms. Sometimes that can be humans – especially in clinical trials for the latter stages of drug development. But before we can get to studying things in humans, we need to understand the underlying biology – the genetic, biochemical and physiological processes. And those are questions that are not easily answered by studying humans.

One important thing in the scientific method is the control of extraneous variable – and laboratory testing is the best method (for now) for scientists to isolate and study the experimental variables in question. Someday, these questions might be able to be studied using computer models, but we're not there yet – and even when we do get there, we will still need whole organisms to continue comparisons since few computer models are exactly right the very first time.