Yesterday, we were greeted with an amazing study that demonstrated one of the problems in current medical research. In sum, this was the study's finding: We are not mice!
While this may not come as a big surprise to most of you, it has shaken up the scientific community. As the study's authors, members of the Inflammation and Host Response to Injury Large Scale Collaborative Research Program, explain, "A cornerstone of modern biomedical research is the use of mouse models to explore basic pathophysiological mechanisms, evaluate new therapeutic approaches and make go or no-go decisions to carry new drug candidates forward into clinical trials."
What's amazing is that this "cornerstone" had never really been questioned. In fact, this study, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was one of the first to carefully compare the two.
The roots of this study can be traced to a previous study the researchers did on people suffering from burns or severe trauma. In that multicenter study, the researchers collected blood from hundreds of patients with severe burns, trauma or infection to examine the genetic changes in the white blood cells. They were able to show consistent data and even some patterns that could predict who would survive. But when they tried to publish the study, they were turned down, in part because they had not shown the same genetic changes in mice!
While this may seem silly, it's actually not all that uncommon. So the research team decided to see if it was indeed the same in mice as it was in people. And they found that there were no similarities at all! The genes in the mice that responded to burns were different than those that responded to trauma or to infections. Yet in people it was the same genes, regardless of whether the injury was a burn, trauma or an infection. And these were different than the genes that responded in the mice! Initially, other scientists thought that the research team had done something wrong. But they hadn't. And now, their findings have astonished researchers everywhere.
Indeed, mice and humans are different! As Dr. Richard Hotchkiss, a sepsis researcher at Washington University who was not part of the study, told the New York Times: "To understand sepsis, you have to go to the patients."
There is no question that this research paper has given me new insights into the problems in breast cancer research. Initially, we thought that researchers worked on mice because they did not know how to find women. It was for this reason that we started the Love/Avon Army of Women, which has enrolled more than 371,000 women who are willing to participate in breast cancer research. But I now realize it is more complicated than that. The problem is that researchers are addicted to animal models -- because they can control all of the variables. As the authors of this new study note, "Studying disease in patients is much more complex than studying model systems." It's incredible that patients who were studied were very different regarding the type of trauma they had experienced, its severity, their ages, and more -- yet the results were very consistent in the humans and very different from the mice!
We are not mice. Our anatomy is different and our hormones are more complex, not to mention that we are usually not inbred or living in a controlled environment on a controlled diet. And as this study shows, our immune systems are very different too. While there have been a few very important insights into breast cancer that have come from the mouse model, there are many more studies that have not translated into humans. If we want to understand the cause and treatment of breast cancer in women we have to study women. The Love/Avon Army of Women stands ready for the task!
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