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Out of order: I am not an animal
September 2016
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author
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At a pivotal moment in the movie “The Elephant Man,” John Merrick is chased through the streets by a mob of men in top hats. As they corner him in a public restroom, he finally cries out: “I am not an animal. I am a human being.”
 
During an interview for last month’s Special Report on Stem Cells, Calimmune CEO Louis Breton recounted his company’s efforts at gene therapy for the treatment of HIV. At one point, he made a statement that I hear time and again in these interviews: “We tested that in animals with great results, but as everybody knows, animals are not humans.” (Note: The treatment is in Phase 1/2 studies.)
 
Last week—and this will be true no matter when you read this—a news item described amazing results by scientists to treat a disease, giving hope that the debilitating condition might soon become a thing of the past.
 
I know this, because like probably all DDNews readers, I had to explain to friends and family why the promise might be a bit overstated, if only because the study was done on lab animals, and well, you know.
 
Which brings me to my point: Why do we even bother to issue press releases about findings in animals?
 
In-vitro and animal models of disease are vital steps in the understanding of pathology and the discovery of therapies, let there be no doubt. It would be unconscionable to introduce a therapeutic to a human subject without feeling we had discovered all we could about its safety and efficacy.
 
But we also recognize that these models are just that: models. Despite our best attempts to make them as representative as possible, they are flawed. But then, so are clinical trials.
 
It is the nature of scientific enquiry to be flawed, if only because we don’t already know everything. If we did, you’d now be reading my commentary on actuarial tables or some other subject because we’d all be working in a different field.
 
But where we have the training and experience to understand this, to read scientific studies and interpret conference talks and posters with respectful grains of salt, my mom doesn’t. She is more apt to get excited by the results of the latest study into a disease germane to her world, not necessarily realizing that it was done in worms or sheep or knowing why that matters.
 
Instead, she excitedly posts a link on Facebook.
 
As the people doing the research, I completely understand the desire to share your work with others and to have people appreciate the importance of the stepping stone you have provided to the conversation. Trust me, I understand. My Master’s degree involved bacteriophage lambda, an organism that now largely resides in the backwater of biology.
 
And as the universities, government agencies and companies that rely on outside investment to continue your work, I get the need to keep people apprised of your progress, if only to ensure a continued influx of monies from donors, taxpayers or shareholders.
 
But how often can we cry preclinical victory and later disappoint people when the promises don’t survive the clinical jump before people stop believing us and, more importantly, in Science (the pursuit, not the journal)?
 
Already, the developed world is filled with non-believers who point at conflicting studies or highlight one failed drug after another as evidence that the system is rigged or that scientists haven’t a clue what is happening.
 
Sure, the media can take some of the blame here.
 
Despite the efforts of incredibly good science and medicine journalists, most writers and editors want the hot and sexy angle of a story. We all do. And what that translates to is readers not learning that the study was performed on mice until the last few paragraphs, if at all.
 
So fine, it is an education issue with journalists. But while we are teaching them the finer points of scientific enquiry and cautious optimism, can we not stop feeding the beast with hopeful allusion, excited overstatement and outright hyperbole?
 
Publish your scientific papers. Announce your findings at conferences. Share your thoughts and experiences with the trade press (e.g., DDNews). Populate your annual reports with status updates.
 
But until we have concrete clinical trial results with contextual analysis, let’s stop including my mom and her friends into the conversation. They get too excited at the announcements and depressed by the recalls.

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