A Doctor and a Cancer Patient Call for a Medical Research Revolution
by Michelle Blake and Dr. Hope Ferdowsian
June 13, 2023
We’re a breast cancer patient and a physician.
We want to incite an ethical revolution in medical research.
You haven’t yet felt the earth move, but medical research science and ethics recently took a tectonic shift forward in a rare bipartisan move among a Congress often mired in partisan division.
When the bill crossed the president’s desk, one swipe of a pen ended an antiquated FDA requirement that had been in place since the Great Depression.
Simply, the bill allows drug developers to forgo animal testing in favor of reliable, modern methods.
Because many drugs deemed safe and effective in animal tests don’t work as expected in humans, this advancement will deliver better medicine and save lives.
However, we must ensure that this is only the start because we need an all-out revolution to bring the ethics and science of medical testing into our current era.
Consider that, until now, the medical research industry—funded by millions of tax dollars but often shielded from public accountability—answered to a 1938 regulation requiring a testing protocol known to be insufficient.
The research on which we all rely for medical advancements maintains a stultifying loyalty to outdated methods.
It is also plagued by ethics scandals that call to mind a period of moral reckoning during the 1960s and 1970s.
That era offers a roadmap to the kind of revolution we need now.
The Advent of Stronger Protections for Humans Used in Research
In 1974, Congress was pressed to respond to public outcry over government-funded medical research that exploited vulnerable human populations.
The most notorious was the 40-year-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study that denied treatment to Black men to observe the disease’s progression.
Others included a study that intentionally exposed nearly 200 developmentally-disabled children to hepatitis; surgeries and transplants performed on incarcerated men at San Quentin Prison; and STD experiments conducted on adults and children in Guatemala.
After several years of meetings, a Congressionally-appointed committee produced The Belmont Report, which set out principles that foster more ethically and scientifically sound human research.
Today, a new spate of scandals includes notorious puppy experiments linked to Dr. Mehmet Oz, Envigo’s mistreatment of 4,000 beagles, documented animal welfare violations involving nonhuman primates at Oregon Health Sciences University, and a whistleblower’s allegations that Elon Musk’s brain research firm injured and killed more than 1,500 pigs, sheep, and monkeys.
Research using animals fails more often than it succeeds due to biological differences between humans and other animals, and because animals’ physiological responses are altered by extreme stress and trauma from captivity, fear, and pain.
These facts also increase the risks for adverse events in humans and delay the discovery of new drugs.
The Human Costs of Failing to Embrace Modern, Ethical Research
Both personally and professionally, we see the human costs of these failures to embrace modern, ethical research.
Heart disease deaths, which declined for over two decades, are now increasing in some populations.
Deaths from breast cancer have held steady for decades; more than 43,000 US women will die from it this year.
One of us—PZI team member Michelle—underwent extensive treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer in the past year. During the same time, her mother and her closest childhood friend died from cancer.
And Dr. Ferdowsian, a double board-certified internal medicine, preventive medicine, and public health physician, has 20 years of experience treating patients who suffer from heart disease, cancer, and other debilitating conditions. She has also watched members of her family struggle with these diseases.
Generations of families—including our own—have heard promises that science is close to finding cures for these diseases. Those promises often fall short, despite massive investments from the government and private sector.
It’s Time to Revolutionize Medical Research
The institutions engaged in research on these and other diseases operate with little public accountability.
The largest public funder of medical research, the National Institutes of Health, spends about half of its $40.7 million budget on animal research, with virtually no public reporting.
The solution rests in transforming medical research in ways that are consistent with scientific and ethical advancements.
The Belmont Report is a helpful blueprint.
The cost of continuing our old ways is too high.
Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, president of Phoenix Zones Initiative, and an expert in research ethics and research policy.
Michelle Blake is a Phoenix Zones Initiative team member who works on public policy and partner engagement.