Animal research is helping us beat cancer
This blog post was updated in June 2018.
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 involving 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) must be tested in animals before they’re given to people, 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. While animals continue to play a vital role in making progress against cancer, we fund and support research into ways to reduce and even replace animals in research where possible. But at the moment it’s not feasible to replace animals in medical research altogether.
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 currently it’s crucial to make sure more people survive this terrible disease.
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.
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. Sometimes, we fund animal research outside of the UK and, in these cases, we require overseas researchers to follow UK standards, even if they are stricter than the researchers’ national laws.
All animal research funded by Cancer Research UK goes through a strict ethical review process to ensure the highest standards of care and welfare for all animals involved 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 ‘3Rs‘).
Many of our scientists need to study cells and processes in living organisms. Some of them use flies, fish, worms and yeast because these can give scientists a good idea of how human cells behave.
But for other research it’s essential to use mammals – most commonly mice or rats – because the complex interactions between cells and tissues in the human body can’t be mimicked with 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.
Our researchers are committed to improving animal research by following the 3Rs outlined above. Scientists who apply to Cancer Research UK for funding submit applications that describe the research that they plan to carry out, and the potential benefit this will have for cancer patients. Independent experts then review these applications before Cancer Research UK decides whether to fund the research.
When animal research is proposed, the scientists must show that there are no feasible alternatives to using animals, that the experiments are properly designed and that all measures have been taken to address the 3Rs. They also have to ensure that animals will be cared for to minimise harm or distress, and that there are appropriate facilities to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare.
To make sure that the fewest number of animals are used in research, and that the maximum benefit comes from these experiments, we also fund scientists to develop ways of researching cancer that do not involve animals, or that use fewer animals than current methods. This includes experiments on cells grown in the lab, examining samples of human tumours and using sophisticated computer programmes to understand how cancer behaves.
For example, our PEACE study is shedding light on what happens during the final stages of cancer. Traditionally this type of research would have been carried out in animals, but this nationwide project is collecting samples from people who have died from cancer in a bid to understand how tumours spread and stop responding to treatments. In turn, this innovative approach could reveal new ways to tackle the disease.
You can read more about how we are replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in cancer research here.
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 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. New immunotherapy drugs called ‘checkpoint inhibitors’ which help the immune system recognise and attack cancer are just one example. These drugs have transformed the outlook for some people with advanced disease, such as melanoma, and wouldn’t have been possible without animal research.
This story is repeated time and time again with other advances in cancer research, and studies in animals continue to be vital in bringing benefits to cancer patients and saving lives around the world.
Right now, animal research is helping scientists study how tumours develop and change over time. And it’s this information that’s helping researchers identify new ways to tackle the disease, making treatments more precise. For example scientists can grow ‘avatars’ of people’s tumours in mice as a way to test out which drugs might be best for individual patients. Studies of dogs that naturally develop brain tumours could also guide researchers towards better treatments for these hard to treat cancers, benefitting not only people but canines, too.
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 – we seek to use alternatives wherever it’s possible, and fund research into alternative methods as well. 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, at present, a necessary means to an end: helping people with cancer to survive.
Dr David Scott, Director of Discovery Research and Research Funding
November 26, 2011
Just to pick out a few points:
–It says that because animals that were forced to inhale tobacco smoke didn’t develop lung cancer, vital health warnings (about the harmful effects of smoking) were delayed by many years.
–Vioxx, an arthritis drug, was withdrawn after 140,000 heart attacks and strokes were reported by its users – it was tested on animals and the effects weren’t evident from these tests.
–The ‘elephant man’ drug that left 6 men with organ failure after the effects weren’t found during tests on monkeys.
So it’s not just harmful to animals, it’s harmful to humans as well, therefore animal testing is a blatant waste of time.
October 29, 2011
Strongly disagree on using animals for testing even though my Dad died from Bowel Cancer & then it spread to Stomach, Intestines etc…. even though his 2 brothers (my Uncles) have prostrate cancer & my sis in law Liz is recovering from Breast Cancer Grade 3…… there must & r other ways of testing….. I will put my name forward now for testing on me… NO DEFENSLESS ANIMAL OR PERSON SHOULD BE USED IN TESTING… THERE ARE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WHO WOULD VOLUNTEER,…………….
October 27, 2011
Testing on animals is immoral. If you want to justify it to yourself, I understand, but that doesn’t make the act moral.
August 20, 2011
All I can say to D Collins is, when you have watched someone you love deeply and who has been part of your life for almost 40 years slowly die with cancer then I will be willing to entertain their views. Until that day he/she clearly does not know what they are talking about.
I challenge him/her not to have “an emotional reaction” under such circumstances.
August 20, 2011
Why is the survival of even one human more important than causing pain, suffering and enforcing unnatural living conditions on many other creatures? These creatures do not volunteer and are completely defenceless.
I can understand how people with cancer, or who have lost relatives through cancer have an emotional reaction to such issues. I also understand that there are companies profiting from animal research. But, logically humans have no more right to survive than any other species.
I don’t understand how anyone can think that creating death and disease deliberately, for whatever reason, is not unethical.
If, as stated in the article above, mice are very similar to humans, surely they will suffer in the same way as a human?
July 6, 2011
Everything I have read so far is a very good example of human ignorance, to think for one minute that testing chemicals on a living creature that can feel pain may be carried out in a humane way is stupid. if the option to have a strong and potentially lethal drug injected into someone for the good of mankind was offered to any of the people with the views and opinions i have read, i dont think there would be to many heros stepping forward. To inflict pain on an innocent and unsuspecting victim is a cruel act no matter what it is in aid of, there is NO justification for it!
Juanita T. Grassman
June 27, 2011
The Animal Aid report makes a number of very important observations about the unreliability of some animal models, and about peer review and publication bias. These points have been made by others in mainstream science journals. It is very disappointing that the report represents an attack on animal research in general, and that the charities and UAR have responded with a defence of animal research, in general. Would it be too much to ask for a response to some specific concerns e.g. on the value of mouse cancer models, or the NC3rs survey of the quality of published research?
It seems clear that ‘essential’ research often turns out to be failed research – not surprising, given the extreme difficulty of making progress on intractable and complex problems. Please stop claiming that every animal experiment is valuable -some are, and some are not.
Dr Paul Browne
June 22, 2011
Just so everyone can see exactly how Dr. Smallwood and his Animal Aid chums twist the meaning of…well everything.. I ‘ll add the entire post in the Independent, from somebody calling themselves Thrasos, that he suggests are encouraging violence against himself.
“As a direct result of reading this article I have just logged on to my bank account and increased my direct debit to Cancer Research UK. I urge everyone else who reads this to do the same. Let’s poke these evil Animal Rights people in the eye. ”
So, in Dr. Smallwood’s mind urging donations to medical research charities becomes a threat. Perhaps he has been associating with animal rights activists – the masters of the incitement to violence followed swiftly by a disclamer – for too long.
Though perhaps too we should be understanding of Dr. Sallwood’s anger, after all the principal effect of his campaign so far has been to encourage increased donations to the very charities he is targeting. Oops!
Well done to CRUK for standing by their principles, supporters and the patients who depend on their work.
Dr Adrian Stallwood
June 21, 2011
As co-author of the Animal Aid report, and a practising emergency doctor, I am gratified to find that Understanding Animal Research “particularly likes” a quote that defames me as evil and wishes me a poke in the eye. CRUK’s association with such folks does them a great credit.
June 21, 2011
PZ Myers has a piece on Animal Aid here http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/06/cutting_off_their_noses_to_spi.php – I would say that the comment section is currently (16.30hrs) quite mild but when the Animal rights movement starts commenting things will get lively/argumentative. If you do not like ferocious language be carefull
June 21, 2011
All mainstream medical and scientific organisations around the world agree that animals are essential in scientific research, medicines development and safety testing. Animal research is necessary to understand the body in health and disease, and to develop new and improved treatments.
The use of animals in research is never undertaken lightly. Every single animal research project must be approved before it starts by Home Office Inspectors who are all doctors and vets, and by local ethical committees. Funding has to be found and all funding organisations including medical research charities will only fund top quality, relevant research. The potential scientific and medical benefits of the research, and the possible suffering of the animals used, are weighed up carefully before any animal research project can proceed.
Millions of patients are alive today because of animal research. For the sake of future patients, we need to continue this vital research.
Understanding Animal Research
Sir John Savill
June 21, 2011
The use of animals in medical research remains absolutely essential. Animal research is an integral part of understanding how basic systems of the body work and what goes wrong with them to cause disease. Most modern medicine and surgery exists because of animal research.
When we fund animal research, we do so knowing that all the alternatives have been exhausted and our scientists are subject to the worlds strictest regulations.
We support those charities, universities and institutions that abide by the strict ethical and legal framework for use of animals in research we know their work has helped make advances in some of the biggest health challenges of today and will ultimately save lives.
Sir John Savill,
Medical Research Council
Professor Colin Blakemore
June 21, 2011
This is an utterly irresponsible attack by Animal Aid on the some of the most important charitable contributors to medical research in this country.
These charities have a duty to use money given to them in the most effective way to support patients and to understand and treat disease. They support research on animals only when it’s absolutely essential and where there’s no alternative.
If Animal Aid were successful in discouraging donation to medical charities, they would be guilty of delaying progress towards treatments and cures for devastating conditions.
Prof Colin Blakemore,
Professor of Neuroscience,
University of Oxford
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Animal research is helping us beat cancer
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