The NIH should review its misguided spending priorities
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To achieve its laudable goal of improving the health of our nation, the National Institutes of Health will soon advocate for an increase in its funding. But before NIH receives even one additional penny, its misguided, wasteful spending priorities need an overhaul. The Trump administration should turn a critical eye to NIH and demand the agency make funding decisions based on the best science, not on habit.

Each year, NIH awards fully forty percent of its research budget to experiments that use dogs, rats, monkeys, mice, and other animals as “models” of humans. The return on this investment has been dismal, with little of this experimentation translating into cures or effective treatments.

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Intrinsic biological and genetic differences among species mean that results of animal studies usually don’t translate to humans. Study results vary even among different strains of the same species.

A 2015 analysis concluded that as much as 89 percent of animal studies could not be reproduced, a fundamental step used to confirm the validity of scientific results. This amounts to a staggering $28 billion wasted every year.

The current NIH administration acknowledges the debacle. Director Francis Collins has written, “Preclinical research, especially work that uses animal models, seems to be the area that is currently most susceptible to reproducibility issues.”

A 2014 review published in the British Medical Journal found that “even the most promising findings from animal research often fail in human trials and are rarely adopted into clinical practice. For example, one study found that fewer than 10 percent of highly promising basic science discoveries enter routine clinical use within 20 years.”

Yet animal experimenters continue to give patients false hope. Witness the recent failure in a late-stage clinical trial of Eli Lilly’s much-hyped Alzheimer’s drug, solanezumab, which had been tested successfully in mice and monkeys.

These animals don’t suffer from Alzheimer’s disease—no non-human animal is known to—so experimenters fiddle with an animal’s genome to force the buildup of amyloid plaques similar to those in afflicted human brains. The result: Mice seem to have relief from symptoms that look like —but aren’t— Alzheimer’s. Human patients continue to suffer.

The clinical failure rate for new Alzheimer’s drugs now stands at a whopping 99.6 percent. Cancer drugs that work in animals have less than a seven percent chance of succeeding in even the earliest clinical trials. 

Multiple systematic reviews have documented the overwhelming failure of animal experimentation to benefit human health in other areas, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, addiction and more.

NIH is well aware of this, too.

In its most recent five-year strategic plan, the agency stated, “Petri dish and animal models often fail to provide good ways to mimic disease or predict how drugs will work in humans, resulting in much wasted time and money while patients wait for therapies.”

While NIH has expressed interest in reducing and replacing animal studies, it continues to fund dead-end experiments for which there is growing abhorrence on the part of the American public.

The agency must tackle this waste head-on by diverting funds from flawed animal experimentation to promising animal-free, human-relevant research methods.

In just one of many examples, tiny human brain “organoids”– models of living brains created from 3D cultures of neural cells–have allowed researchers to identify the root causes of a rare genetic disorder that leads to fatal brain malformations. Previous studies on this condition, known as Miller-Dieker Syndrome, relied on mouse models that scientists admit were critically flawed.

The NIH must also conduct systematic reviews of all areas of research in which animals are used. When chimpanzee studies were subjected to this analysis, it was determined that experiments on these primates could be performed in other ways. NIH acted on this information and shut down the funding, sparing both chimpanzees and our tax dollars.

We deserve the wiser use of our money. Patients deserve cures. And the animals deserve to be left alone. That’s something people of any political stripe can get behind.

Emily Trunnell, Ph.D. is research associate at Laboratory Investigations Department  at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.