The Malignancy in Cancer Research

The Rise for Animals Team, February 2, 2024

February 4th is World Cancer Day, a self-described “global uniting initiative” focused on “raising worldwide awareness, improving education and catalysing personal, collective and government action” to save lives through equitable treatment. 

This year’s theme emphasizes “making sure our leaders know that we demand a commitment to prioritising cancer”, including by “investing our resources to achieve a just and cancer-free world.”

Here’s the problem: cancer research has been prioritized over the last 50 years . . . it just hasn’t contributed to either a just or a cancer-free world. 

Since 1971, when President Richard Nixon launched the “War on Cancer”, cancer research has received “allocations unprecedented in history”. Indeed, the collective “we” have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on cancer research – we just don’t have much good to show for it. 

By both exploiting non-human animals and failing to achieve any “significant public health benefit”, U.S. cancer research has served primarily to “enrich Pharma, researchers, doctors, and universities”. Meanwhile, “the incidence rate [of new cancer cases] has skyrocketed since the War on Cancer began”.

Put simply, all of us except the “researchers [and others] paid by the funding” have realized an “alarmingly poor return on the investment”. 

But you wouldn’t know this from listening to mass media, because, true to form, the animal research industry has relied heavily on “propaganda machines” to “churn out” support for its animal research predilection. 

  • The life expectancy of those living with cancer has improved, the industry tells us.
  • Only it hasn’t: cancer patients aren’t living longer; they are merely living longer post-diagnosis because they are being diagnosed earlier.
  • Scientists are developing cures for all different kinds of human cancers, the industry suggests
  • Only they’re not: they continue causing and curing cancer in mice, but these cures have not and will not translate to human cures.

These, and the animal research’s industry’s countless other sleights-of-hand and outright lies, are nothing more than part and parcel of its public relations strategy – a strategy that was laid bare as far back as 1987 when the federal government’s General Accounting Office admitted publicly that the National Cancer Institute (“the government’s leading cancer research facility”)  had ‘artificially inflate[d] the amount of true progress made in the area of cancer research’”. 

In truth, even though “[m]ore animals have been sacrificed to find a cure for cancer than for any other disease”, “cancer has been on the increase for half a century.” 

Or, to use World Cancer Day’s vocabulary, we have sacrificed any semblance of justice in direct perpetuation of a cancer-ridden world. This is because our unethical exploitation of other-than-human animals in human cancer research is preventing true scientific progress: experts recognize that, though the “obstacles to winning against cancer are immense, complicated and multifold”, “the failure is in large part due to our proclivity for animal experimentation.”

Studies have demonstrated repeatedly and unequivocally that “animals are not predictive for humans either in finding chemicals that cause cancer or finding treatments.” Moreover, it is known that “cancers are specific to species” – that “their molecular, immunological, and genetic differences always subvert comparison” – and that “[h]uman cancers are greatly different from artificial tumors caused by experimenters in the laboratories”.

The consequences of not heeding this knowledge are severe: not only does animal research fail to translate into improved human health, but the tremendous “physiological differences between human and animal cancers” result in “erroneous conclusions” that “delay[] the discovery of solutions”. 

Even  oncology researchers themselves have described cancer research that relies on animals as “dangerous” and concluded that the arguments against the use of non-human animal models are even more convincing with regard to cancer research. 

Say they, “ . . . oncology is one of the fields in which translatability problems are greater and the failure of traditional models is recognised”, such that “continued animal-model studies confound efforts to make real progress”. 

Yet, the self-interested animal research industry – which only pretends to care about anything other than its own financial wellbeing – remains determined to profit off of the use of other-than-human animals in cancer research.

Fixation on animal models (specifically, mice) for cancer research can be traced back to the political and financial dealings of Clarence Cook Little, a researcher who promoted eugenics and continued to deny the existence of a link between cigarette smoking and cancer after it had been established in humans. 

After spending decades inbreeding mice and founding the animal breeding behemoth Jackson Laboratory, Little became “director of what is now the American Cancer Society and recommended the diversion of government funds to animal research and mouse breeding centres.” Little’s success in his political dealings for personal profit ensured that, “ . . . by the 1930s, ‘[Jackson Laboratory] mice’ were being touted as the answer to cancer.

(Today, the American Cancer Society remains a “big bankroller of animal-model research” and a big player in a corrupt and unethical industry that harms both humans and other animals.)

To achieve its goals, World Cancer Day will need to advocate for the adoption of human-relevant, non-animal research methods.

Human disease models have already achieved major advances against cancer, but they are vastly underfunded (and, therefore, underutilized) in today’s animal-research-dominated arena. 

Commentators have lamented how animal research represents a serious, societal “liability” that siphons “funds that could be put to better use in fighting cancer in other ways” – not only through investment in human-relevant research but also through investment in cancer prevention (as will be discussed next):

[T]he reason there has been no change in adjusted mortality, that no cures for human cancer have been found, is that we have been curing mice of cancer, not humans. With all the money relegated to animal-based research, we have starved human-based research–such as clinical studies, epidemiology and in vitro testing–of resources.”

Human-relevant methods of cancer research emphasize:

  • Clinical observation, or investigating and treating disease in humans. The first successful treatments for cancer were discovered in this way (“on the battlefield”), and ”[a]ll of the drugs in wide current clinical use were only put into animal model systems after finding clinical clues to their therapeutic possibility.” 
  • Epidemiology, or the study of “populations of people and linking lifestyle to disease (‘who gets cancer and why?’).” It was actually epidemiology that linked lung cancer to smoking after “[a]nimal experiments failed notoriously to demonstrate a smoking-cancer connection for over half a century.”
  • In vitro research to “screen[] chemicals for carcinogenicity and curative potential” and  to develop “very specific treatment plans” for cancer patients.

Yet, the federal government – including the NIH, the “largest public funder of biomedical research in the world” – still barely funds and has “no programme dedicated to these innovative approaches”. This remains so even though such investment would be financially savvy, with scientists themselves acknowledging both that animal studies “necessitat[e] more time and money before being approved” and that human-relevant technologies “could reduce the cost of future development tomorrow.”

To achieve its goals, World Cancer Day will also need to advocate for investment in cancer prevention.

Many studies have shown what even the CDC has admitted: cancer is largely “preventable”. Indeed, “mainstream cancer research suggests that one-third of all cancers could be eliminated through lifestyle changes.”

Yet, the National Cancer Institute (the same federal government agency caught misleading us by overinflating cancer research progress) spends only about 0.02% of its multi-billion dollar budget on cancer prevention efforts ( . . . even as it admits that animal research “may miss effective chemotherapeutic medications and do[es] not predict the successful ones”). 

How can this be?

It can be…

  • Because “prevention lacks the glamour and the potential for profit offered by discovering and developing new treatments and pharmaceuticals” through animal research.
  • Because “the cancer industry is [] blinded by the model of the megalithic industrial approach to disease, that bigger is better and bigger and more research is best of all.”
  • Because, as the “search for knowledge has become an end unto itself rather than means to an end”, “physician-scientists who want to think systematically about cancer or the organism as a whole–or who might have completely new approaches–often can’t get funding.”
  • Because of a “dysfunctional ‘cancer culture’–a groupthink that pushes tens of thousands of physicians and scientists toward the goal of finding the tiniest improvements in treatment rather than genuine breakthroughs; that fosters isolated (and redundant) problem solving instead of cooperation; and that rewards academic achievement and publication over all else.” 
  • Because, even though we have a lot of knowledge “about what causes cancer”, “we lack the political will to do anything about it.” (Indeed, the federal government remainsever-sensitive to offending Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Chemical”, which expose us to “carcinogens from medicines, vaccines, meats, processed foods, sugar, and chemical-laden agriculture”.)
  • Because “[t]he ritual of animal experimentation, the ritual of solemn declarations of biologists about progress in cancer research, distracts the public from the political impotence of the government.” 
  • And, because the private animal research industry has captured its governmental regulators.

This World Cancer Day, we need to shine a spotlight on animal research and, then – in the interests of justice and health for all – work to end it.

We join with World Cancer Day in not only dreaming of a cancer-free world but also in celebrating that “every single one of us has the ability to make a difference”, and that, by working together, we “can make real progress in reducing the global impacts of cancer”.

And, to this end, we call on World Cancer Day to join with us in seeking the abolition of animal experimentation once and for all. 

Check out the important work of the Center for Contemporary Sciences (which Rise for Animals is super proud to have spun off!) and the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (for which we are super proud to fund a fellowship!). If there is a just and cancer-free world to be had, they will be helping to forge the path. 

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