2 thoughts on “‘Phasing out animal experiments’, 8 December 2016, Brussels, Belgium

  1. This letter (below) was sent to the NCad in response to their brochure on Synthesis of Research on November 3rd, 2016.

    Research Synthesis and Systematic Reviews of Animal Studies: Suggestions for the NCad.

    Science is cumulative but we are now learning that research synthesis has rarely played a part in the research process. So this means that current medical research is based on a process that could be described as little more than cumulative hearsay like ‘Chinese Whispers,’ leading to misleading information and lack of sound evidence.

    In 2008 Glasziou and Chalmers found that 85% of biomedical research is wasted because it has not been assessed through good quality research syntheses. Last year (2015) epidemiologist Michael Bracken said in his Gordon Lecture Award at NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series that more than $200 billion dollars is spent worldwide annually on biomedical research and that the 85% waste arrived at by Glasziou and Chalmers may be a conservative estimate. He said while the extent of poorly evaluated research was high in clinical research animal research is even higher, lagging behind clinical research in efforts to address the problem by about 40 years, and he said there is little evidence of much recent improvement in waste control and the risk of being misled by research results is very high.

    We could deduce from these statements that animal research must be nearly all a waste of valuable resources. Yet only last week the commonly heard statement “virtually every medical advance of the last century depended on animals” was reported in the media again and that primate research would be increasing over the next 50 years. https://theconversation.com/using-monkeys-for-research-is-justified-its-giving-us-treatments-that-would-be-otherwise-impossible-67283? So we need to ask “how do you know that is true?”, “what research have you done to answer that question” and “how is it that most animal research is funded without first providing sufficient evidence for its necessity.”

    In 2002 the British Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate produced a document ‘Refugee integration: Can research synthesis inform policy? Feasibility study report’ in which the authors described systematic reviews and research synthesis as follows:

    A systematic review refers to the entire process of collecting, reviewing and presenting all available evidence. The process is a methodological tool that researchers use in a science called research synthesis. Research synthesis is a relatively new science that aims to assemble evidence about the benefits and harms of a variety of medical and social interventions using explicit, scientifically defensible methods (systematic reviews). The aim of this process, in contrast to traditional approaches to assessing research evidence, is to minimise bias, and to seek and appraise research studies in a systematic and standard way. The process aims to make the best estimate of the “truth” about what works and what is harmful, and highlights gaps in knowledge.

    This description is useful when explaining systematic reviews (SRs) to the public, but Dr. Jeremy Grimshaw, Senior Scientist at Ottawa University has prepared a chapter on research synthesis which offers a detailed and precise treatise on the subject for researchers. There are many sources of quality information on research synthesis and his chapter references the most important ones, such as the Cochrane Collaboration. So, it is disappointing to see that in the position statement of the Netherlands National Committee for the Protection of Animals used for Scientific Purposes (NCad) https://english.ncadierproevenbeleid.nl/documents/publications/16/7/19/soe on the synthesis of evidence in laboratory animal research, the authors misconstrue the purpose and value of systematic reviews and use the concept Synthesis of Evidence (SoE) as an umbrella term in a way that depreciates the role of SR’s. Research synthesis is the science of accumulating and evaluating evidence from data on almost any topic but the NCad position statement has come about following various consultations with those with a vested interest in animal research who seem to take the view that SR’s are only relevant in very limited and specific situations. They reason that this is because SRs are difficult to perform, take a long time, are very costly, there is often not enough evidence to perform an SR, they are not worth performing on new topics that are explored for the first time and that ‘SR is an extension of the narrative review’ and they are only one of many other tools, such as narrative reviews, for use in SoE. It concludes that ‘the precise chosen SoE form depends on the specific research question and available knowledge.’ The NCad intends to ‘adapt’ its position statement on SoE in a European Code of Practice in December this year.

    It is unfortunate that the NCad’s position statement misrepresents the role of systematic reviews particularly when the progress of research depends on identifying waste and continually improving quality. It was found by systematic reviewers in 2004 that animal research has at least eight problem areas in animal research methodology and in 2007 Perel and colleagues found that systematic review of animal research is needed in order to evaluate the quantitative as well as qualitative value of the research. Therefore, it is particularly unhelpful for NCad to undermine the value of SRs when the Dutch Parliament has already passed a motion to ensure that they are carried out prior to any new animal research. [Further clarification on whether the Dutch Parliament’s decision is being carried forward is needed]. Instead, NCad should be looking to answer questions on the scientific justification for animal research and its’ economic cost assessment.

    Serious inadequacies in animal research are now well reported, such as the way it is funded, conducted, ethically reviewed and reported and much work is being carried out by SYRCLE which is leading the way to educate the research community on the important topics of research methodology and research synthesis. The EBRNetwork http://ebrnetwork.org/ has just published its own position statement in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on research synthesis in which it states:

    To embark on research when there are no systematic reviews showing that a genuine uncertainty exists, particularly when the research involves people and animals, is unethical, unscientific and wasteful. “To avoid waste in research, no new studies should be done without a systematic review of existing evidence.” Hans Lund and colleagues BMJ, 21st October 2016. http://www.bmj.com/content/355/bmj.i5440

    In 2015 SABRE published the 10Rs+ Recommendations for assessing preclinical animal research and a strategy for systematically reviewing the hypothesis that animals possess predictive value as models of human disease. These recommendations, if implemented, would help to identify areas of research waste, contribute to the 3Rs and better inform the debate about animal research by providing more reliable evidence. http://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-015-0043-7

    The Dutch Minister of Agriculture has called on NCad to make the Netherlands the first country to find non-animal technologies to replace animal procedures by 2025. But unless there is more effort to adequately evaluate animal research while it is still in use to ‘underpin’ clinical research, then we will continue to see harms to human health and waste of research, instead of progress towards a more evidence-based research. SABRE’s response to the NCad position statement is to urge the key players to learn how to practice the best available research methods, to adopt our own suggested research strategy and to listen to the clinical community with expertise in the science of research synthesis and accept their directions, perhaps then the Netherlands could lead the way in best scientific practice.
    Susan Green SABRE Research UK

  2. The NCaD replied to SABRE’s letter (previous post) on 06/12/2016 (below) and their final report was published on 15/12/2016 at: https://english.ncadierproevenbeleid.nl/latest/news/16/12/15/ncad-opinion-transition-to-non-animal-research

    Dear Susan Green,

    Thank you for your letter from Nov 3 2016. The NCad appreciates receiving your opinion about our advice regarding synthesis of evidence (SoE). Our advice about SoE was a first step to developing more elaborated guidelines regarding the realization of SoE by scientists and the use of the outcomes in science.

    The NCad perceived your recommendations as an encouragement for our goal to create a code of practice for performing synthesis of evidence. Our next step has been the formation of an international workgroup composed with members with a broad background. Besides Jeremy Grimshaw, experts from SYCRLE and also scientist with a clinical background, including Malcolm MacLeod, are members of this working group.

    The NCad’s advice underlined the importance of SoE, because there may indeed exist room for improvement in some types of animal research. We also would like to clarify that our advice points out that SoE can be performed in multiple ways, one of which is systematic review. It has not been our aim to undermine systematic reviews, but we pointed out that there are cases where alternative forms of SoE might be considered.

    In conclusion, we appreciate SABRE’s suggestion to urge key players to practice the best research methods and to listen to the clinical community. We would like to accelerate this endeavor by crafting a code of practice for SoE that researchers can use before designing their study.

    Cordially yours,

    On behalf of the NCad
    Pieter Roelfsema
    Wim de Leeuw

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