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Beware of scientific ‘breakthroughs’

Over this last year the BUAV has observed countless scientific ‘breakthroughs’ reported in the media where animal test data is hyped as the key to the success.  Sadly, many of these stories fail to present the full picture of animal suffering and the relative (un)importance of the results of animal experiments. We believe they also offer false hope to patients because these ‘breakthrough’ treatments rarely materialise. This year we reported on new statistics that showed that the success rate of drugs in human trials is now only 5%.

We also commented on a recent ‘breakthrough’ where lab-grown penises were claimed to be soon be available for human transplants after a series of grisly tests in rabbits that involved surgically removing their penises and replacing them with artificial ones. The report failed to mention that the rabbit tests had been done six years previously and successful human transplants had not yet happened.

And we commented on Newcastle University’s announcement of a scientific ‘breakthrough’ using macaque monkeys that they claimed would help paralysed patients regain the use of their hands. Once again, the contribution of important human studies were completely undermined, as was the intense suffering the monkeys would have experienced as a result of being temporarily paralysed, restrained, deprived of food and water and subjected to invasive brain surgery. 

It is in scientists’ interests to publicise exciting ‘breakthroughs’ based on animal research as a way to justify their work. Unfortunately, when we look beyond the surface of these stories we find that, in reality, there is not much cause for celebration. Many of these articles tend to underestimate the level of suffering experienced by animals and greatly overestimate the potential benefit to humans.

An article in the British Medical Journal this month has confirmed our impression by demonstrating statistically that scientists using animals do over exaggerate their claims. Researchers from Cardiff University looked at 462 press releases from UK universities describing a biomedical research breakthrough and compared them with the original scientific paper described in the press release. Out of those press releases describing results from experiments on animals, 36% had over claimed the relevance of the tests to humans, compared to what the researchers had said in their paper. In other words, they exaggerated the relevance of their work to humans in the press release. Press releases are what journalists pick up and report in their news stories so this is very important.

The researchers concluded that:

Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists for news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalised, or alarmist, our principle findings were that most of the inflation detected in our study did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press releases produced by academics and their establishments.

The researchers compared what the press release claimed about the relevance of the work to humans with what the scientific paper had said*. However they warned that even the scientific papers may themselves over exaggerate the relevance of the experiments on animals to humans.

“Given the likelihood that some statements in journal articles themselves would be considered exaggerated by other scientists in the specialty, our overall levels of measured exaggeration are likely to be underestimates.”

We all want to see medical progress but it is our experience that the crux of any successful development will actually be based on human research, and not speculative animal tests.


The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 10 December 2014)

*Note: The survey appeared to have included some press releases that included cell based work with the ‘animal’ based work, but that may be because researchers often report both cell (often animal cells) and live animal based work in the same paper.