Animal research – are the results too good to be true?

Analysis of neurological studies on animals reveals widespread bias.

The road to market for a promising new therapy can be notoriously long and treacherous. Before the first small-scale clinical trials in humans can even be contemplated, a new therapy (such as a drug or surgical procedure) must first pass muster in preclinical animal studies.

A study published in PLoS Biology has uncovered considerable bias in the reporting of results from animal studies into neurological diseases. The result is that some treatments could be progressing to human clinical trials on the back of flimsy preclinical evidence. The discovery could also help to explain why promising results in animals often fail to translate into promising results in humans.

Although logistically simpler than human clinical trials, animal studies are not without their limitations. For ethical and financial reasons, studies aim to keep animal numbers to a minimum. The problem with limiting animal numbers is that studies can end up with ambiguous results. A new drug might have improved outcomes for some of the animals, but the difference between the animals taking the drug and those taking the placebo could be too close to make a confident call.

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