Posted by Dr Katy Taylor on 21st June 2016
Animal experiments are slowing down progress for ALS
Beware of funding cruel and pointless animal research this ALS Awareness Day
Motor Neurone Disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease (known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the US) is a rare condition that affects about two in 100,000 people, usually adults over the age of 40. ALS sufferers experience destruction of the cells in the brain that are responsible for controlling movement. This can lead to difficulties in walking, speaking, swallowing and even breathing.
We all remember the ALS ‘ice bucket challenge’ that went viral in 2014. Partakers were challenged to dump a bucket of ice water on their heads to raise awareness for ALS and generate charity donations. Sadly, what many people did not know was that a large proportion of the funds raised were spent on cruel and pointless animal research. The ALS Association received $115 million in 2014 and have already spent over $30 million on scientific research, which includes animal experiments1.
The most commonly used animals are genetically modified (GM) mice, who are bred to possess specific genes known to cause ALS. These mice develop some symptoms similar to human ALS, including paralysis so severe that they can no longer eat or drink properly, leading to weight loss and death. However, unlike human ALS, most of the mice actually die as a result of blockages in their guts.
Importantly, the majority (95%) of human ALS cases are actually sporadic with no clear genetic cause. This means that these cruel studies in GM animals are of extremely limited value to the huge majority of ALS sufferers. Furthermore, the most popular type of GM mouse used in most ALS drug tests (known as ‘SOD1’) mimics a type of genetic ALS that only accounts for 2% of cases in humans.
Over the past decade, approximately a dozen drugs have been tested on countless animals and got through to clinical trials for ALS. Yet all of these drugs have failed in humans except for Riluzole, which only has minimal benefit2.
To date, not one animal experiment has been able to reproduce all of the features of human ALS and despite the extensive use of animals in ALS research, the exact cause of the disease remains unknown and there is still no cure.
So before you reach for the bucket and ice cubes, please remember to direct your donations to support more ethical, reliable and human-relevant research. For example, the use of cells and tissues from ALS patients is actually considered the ‘gold standard’ for studying this very human disease.
- ALS ice bucket challenge commitments. ALS Association: http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge-spending.htm
- Preclinical research: make mouse studies work. (2014). Nature, 26 March: http://www.nature.com/news/preclinical-research-make-mouse-studies-work-1.14913