Would studying lab animals in the wild make them better models?

Data from animal models fails to translate to people. Could one of the reasons be because lab animals are housed in cages? Behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Garet Lahvis thinks so, and he shared his thoughts in a recent edition of Science.

Animals in the wild must find food, avoid predators, find mates and cope with changing environmental factors—complex scenarios that animals in cages do not face, even if they are housed with other companions and opportunities for enrichment.

Dr. Lahvis noted, “We haven’t had any big breakthroughs for psychiatric diseases; even with cancer drugs, the success rates have been very low. I think a contributing factor is that we’re keeping these animals in such unnatural conditions.”

He believes that one solution would be to have the lives of lab animals more closely mimic those of animals in their natural habitats. For instance, mice could be marked with a radio frequency tag and contained within a large barn from which they could not escape. If a mouse was used to test the efficacy of an anti-cancer drug, the animal could be caught in traps at regular times to monitor it during the experiment. Otherwise, it would be roaming free in a large space rather than a cage.

Some critics of this approach believe it is just too costly and labor intensive. There are also concerns that genetically-modified animals may not be suitable for such studies, as there is always a possibility that they may escape into the wild.

While NAVS commends the recognition that keeping lab animals in cages is unnatural, we remain concerned that this approach, which is being presented as a more humane and relevant way to conduct science, still ignores a fundamental issue—that extrapolating data from animal models to humans can give rise to misleading results because of the intrinsic differences between humans and other animals.

In referring to housing lab animals in cages, Dr. Lahvis said, “We spend money on experiments year after year that have no relevance to human health. We should spend more money and do it right.”

We agree that science should be conducted the right way. But we believe the way to move forward is to study human disease and human response to drugs and other chemicals in human-relevant systems—an approach that is less expensive and alleviates the ethical and scientific concerns of animal experimentation.

Source: Grimm, D. “Swapping a cage for a barn: Can lab animals be studied in the wild,” Science. June 21, 2018.


This entry was posted in News and tagged on July 16, 2018.
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