More people are surviving cancer than ever before.
Thanks to decades of research, survival from cancer has doubled in the last 40 years, giving thousands of people more time with their loved ones.
But this progress simply wouldn’t have been possible without animal research.
At Cancer Research UK, research using animals is part of our efforts to beat cancer. For a start, it’s a legal requirement in this country that all new drugs (not just cancer drugs) are tested in animals before they’re given to patients, to make sure that they’re safe to use.
This week the organisation Animal Aid has called for Cancer Research UK and other medical research charities to stop funding animal research. But cancer kills over 400 people every day in the UK, and all our work is aimed at reducing this death toll.
Our research is entirely supported by public donations, and cancer patients are at the heart of everything we do. Animal research is crucial to make sure more people survive this terrible disease.
What animal research does Cancer Research UK do?
Much of our work doesn’t involve animals, and wherever it’s possible our researchers rely on other methods. Some use cells taken from human tumours, while others study cell processes in yeast or bacteria.
But for many of our scientists working to beat cancer, animal research is an essential part of their jobs. In some areas there’s simply no other way to get the information needed to make progress against the disease.
Cancer Research UK’s own standards go even further – our ethical review process strives to ensure the highest standards of care and welfare for all animals used in our research. We make every effort to reduce the number of animals used in our research, to refine the research so that animal welfare is improved, and to replace the use of animals wherever possible (the so-called ’3 Rs’).
Many of our scientists need to study cells and processes in living organisms. Some of them use flies, fish, worms and yeast because these are good models for studying some aspects of how human cells behave.
But for other research it’s essential to use mice, because the complex interactions between cells and tissues in the human body can’t be modelled using simpler, non-mammalian animals. Mice are remarkably similar to humans in terms of their genetic make-up, so studying them helps us understand cancer in humans.
How has animal research helped to save lives?
Studies using animals have underpinned virtually all the progress that has been made in understanding and treating cancer over the past century, from giving clues to causes of the disease to showing us the best ways to treat it.
For example, the breast cancer drug tamoxifen – arguably one of the most important cancer drugs of all time – was developed with the aid of animal research. Over the years, it has saved hundreds of thousands of women’s lives.
The development of antibody treatments for cancer has also relied on animal research. Antibodies are molecules designed to recognise and target cancer cells, and early research in mice helped to find a way to produce large quantities of these molecules.
Antibodies can now be made in industrial quantities without using animals, and these treatments are used for many types of cancer. The breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) is one example, and antibodies such as rituximab (Mabthera) are used to treat leukaemia and lymphoma with impressive results.
This story is repeated time and time again with other advances in cancer research.
Animal studies showed the benefits of radiotherapy in the early days of cancer research, and surgical techniques such as keyhole surgery were first tested in animals. Even prevention strategies such as the cervical cancer vaccine have relied on animal research, and studies in animals continue to be vital in bringing benefits to cancer patients and saving lives around the world.
To give just one demonstration of the importance of animal research, survival from childhood cancer has rocketed from just a quarter of children surviving the disease in the late 1960s to more than three quarters surviving today. This amazing progress is a direct result of treatments developed through studies in animals.
A better future thanks to animal research
These are only a few examples of the countless benefits animal research has brought to people with cancer, but there are thousands of other drugs and treatment techniques that are built on knowledge from tests in animals.
And it’s not just cancer patients that benefit from animal research. As the Royal Society’s position statement on the use of animals in research points out, ‘virtually every medical achievement in the past century has depended directly or indirectly on research on animals.’
At Cancer Research UK, animal research is never undertaken lightly and we seek to use alternatives wherever it’s possible. But this fact remains – millions of people all over the world are alive today thanks to animal research. Much of this knowledge has also been used to tackle diseases that affect animals themselves, including cancer.
Many people working for and supporting us know first-hand how devastating cancer can be, and all of us are deeply committed to beating the disease. Animal research is a necessary means to an end: helping people with cancer to live longer lives.
Dr David Scott, Director of Science Funding
- You can find out more about animal research on the Understanding Animal Research website.
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