Rodent of the Week: What do animal studies tell us?

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Rodent of the Week is devoted to highlighting promising animal research. We shine this little spotlight on animal research because, typically, it’s an area we tend to ignore. While often fascinating, animal studies are conducted at such an early stage in the research process that it’s irresponsible to publicize the findings of most of these studies. Doing so can inadvertently raise hopes that the research is destined to translate into gains in human health.

A study published this week in the journal PLoS Biology speaks to this dilemma. [An earlier version of this post said the study was published in the journal PLoS Medicine.] Researchers analyzing animal research found that about one-third of animal studies led to human, randomized clinical trials. And only one in 10 of those human clinical trials resulted in therapies approved for use in humans.

The reasons animal research frequently looks good in animals but fails to pan out in humans are many. Sometimes, there are methodological flaws in the animal studies. In other words, what looked effective really wasn’t. It’s also possible that some things work in animals and not in humans because we are, after all, different species. Also, only animal studies that succeed may end up being published.

A good example of the problem with animal studies is in stroke research, the authors point out. In animal models, almost 500 therapies have been shown to be effective in protecting neurological functioning following a stroke. But only two treatments have been proven useful in humans.


This doesn’t mean animal research is worthless. Indeed, animal research is often necessary. To minimize the number of animal-to-human research failures, however, the authors recommend that animal studies be conducted using the same high standards as those used in human trials. This means doing things like paying attention to the sample size in the study, conducting blinded experiments (when the researcher doesn’t know which treatment the animal is receiving) and strict control of variables.

For the rest of us, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that success in a 1-ounce, furry creature with red eyes and a tail doesn’t mean we’ll benefit, too.

-- Shari Roan