Animal research is helping us beat cancer

Category: Science blog June 21, 2011 David Scott 13 comments

Cancer survivors at a Cancer Research UK Relay for Life event

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. In fact, more than half of all patients will now survive for at least ten years.

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. This includes discovering the faulty genes and molecules that cause cancer, investigating how the disease grows and spreads, developing and testing new treatment and tests, and exploring how our immune system can help fight tumours.

And 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.

Some animal rights organisations have 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.  We understand not everyone agrees with animal research, but it’s 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, others study cell processes in yeast or bacteria, and some use computer models to study cancer.

They’re also looking at entirely new approaches, such as ‘artificial tumours’ and tissue grown from stem cells in the lab.  

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.

All our researchers follow strict laws – some of the most stringent in the world – that ensure that animals are treated humanely and only used when there’s no alternative.

Cancer Research UK’s own standards at our Institutes go even further – our ethical review process strives to ensure the highest standards of care and welfare for all animals used in our research. Our scientists make every effort to reduce the number of animals used in research, to refine the research so that animal welfare is improved, and to replace the use of animals wherever an alternative is available (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 aspects of how human cells behave.

But for other research it’s essential to use mammals (like mice or rats), 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 targeted drug imatinib (Glivec) can now cure people with chronic myeloid leukaemia. The original studies that identified imatinib’s potential were carried out in mice.

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 enough quantities of these molecules to be used to treat patients.

Antibodies can now be made in industrial quantities without using animals, and these treatments are used for several 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 eight in ten 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 survive.

Dr David Scott, Director of Science Funding

Updated May 2014


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Animal research is helping us beat cancer