Animal tests 'key' to brain disease cures

Last updated 05:00 18/09/2014

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Qualms about animal testing could condemn tens of thousands to life with dementia, anxiety and depression, a Victoria University researcher says.

Professor Bart Ellenbroek said that, if scientists truly wanted to cure these debilitating diseases, medical research on animals needed to be expanded - to new, better tests.

In an inaugural lecture next week, he will discuss how, despite decades of announcements about potential "wonder drugs" to cure such illnesses, modern medicine is still unable to treat between 60 and 70 per cent of patients with brain disorders. And many major drug companies worldwide have cut their research programmes to develop possible treatments.

Ellenbroek said fewer than one in 12 drugs aimed at treating such diseases ended up being a success - and putting medicines through all the regulatory loopholes was a billion-dollar task. "Pharmaceutical companies - their main goal is to make profits. Their stockholders don't want them to invest any more."

Rising public concern about the use of animals in medical research was thought to be one reason why success was so low, he said.

"If you look at the numbers of new drugs that have come on the market, it has rapidly dropped since 1995, and that's about the time when the new approach started . . . the pharmaceutical companies, in the last 10 or 15 years, have tried to minimise the animal research as much as possible."

Early on in the testing regimes, medical research aimed to recreate a human disease in an animal such as a mouse or rat, by tweaking the DNA or environment of the subjects to mimic symptoms such as Alzheimer's or psychosis. The animals were then given the medicine being tested to see if the symptoms subsided.

But a number of commonly used tests had proved to be poor mimics of what was actually going on in human brains, causing pharmaceutical companies to pour millions of dollars into developing drugs that ultimately had no effect, Ellenbroek said.

In that way, actions to improve animal ethics might have ended up doing the opposite, he said. "We're ethically wrong if you have the wrong [test] - most of our animals don't suffer - but you do cause animals discomfort and do use up animals for the wrong purpose."

Until there was a suitable alternative - a move he would welcome with joy - such research was a necessary evil, though investment was needed to develop better tests to stop both research animals and money being wasted needlessly, he said.

The failure to develop these tests would come with a heavy price for the one in three people who would suffer a brain disorder in their lifetimes. "They'll be the ones that end up in a nursing home."

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In terms of treatment and lost productivity, mental conditions cost the country more than cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular illness combined, and were set to grow as the population aged.

Ellenbroek's lecture, Crisis? What Crisis?, will be held in Victoria University's Hunter Council Chamber next Tuesday.

- The Dominion Post


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