A small contribution to medical science
The medical profession has expressed cautious optimism about a breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancer.
Trials on mice of a drug to suppress a protein usually present in the disease have been remarkably successful and there are hopes that immunisation may be routinely available within a decade.
Cautious optimism is always the right note to strike when reporting research results. Any other note would jar. TS Eliot once observed that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Apparently it has an equally strong aversion to excessive hope.
Academics, clinicians and breast cancer charities are dutifully lining up to restrain our optimism. They remind us that in the UK alone, nearly half a million women will have been diagnosed with breast cancer by the time the drug has completed the long process of clinical trial and approval, and that at current mortality rates about a quarter of them will die.
They point out, too, that mice are not infallible predictors of medical science. We may be biologically close to this species of rodent, but the similarity can be misleading. Mice are wonderful genetic models but not in every case. Humans and mice react almost identically to some carcinogens and quite differently to others. If these small but crucial differences did not exist we could dispense with clinical trials on humans altogether and cut the time from mouse to market in half.
Mice are the clinical researcher’s favourite proxy humans for another reason: they respond well to genetic programming. Characteristics that mice are not born with can be added later. If mice are not naturally prone to a particular condition, a quick tweak of the rodent genome and it’s sorted.
News of the latest development in breast cancer treatment broke in the same month as the results of another mouse related study came to light. It seems that the faces of mice respond to pain in much the same way that ours do.
The stated aim of the study is to prevent unnecessary suffering of mice in laboratory conditions. This sounds commendable for the split second before it strikes you as absurd. What exactly will be done with such evidence? Will future generations of researcher study the little faces of their subjects and stop when they see the first sign of pain? Will we develop more sophisticated ways to screen rodent volunteers involving questionnaires and consent forms?
Are there any cancers you particularly dislike? Tick this box if you don’t want us to grow an ear on your back.
Needless suffering is deplorable but most other kinds of suffering resist such neat categorisation. Many people experience moral discomfort from the dilemmas posed by animal experimentation, but most continue to put a higher value on the lives of the people we know than on those of creatures whose other main practical contribution to human life is the contamination of food.
This is of course an entirely selfish point of view, but selfishness is a condition of evolutionary success. If mice shared our capacity for reason as well as our biological profile, they would be the first to acknowledge the truth of this. On the downside, they might also show less willingness to submit to our experiments.