Sunday, December 23, 2012

On animals first!

(Bulgarian readers can read the same post in my Bulgarian blog.)

During the Socialist era, there was rich folklore of political jokes in Bulgaria. One of them was about an old woman who went to the dictator Todor Zhivkov with a personal request but, because of age-related cognitive decline, couldn't immediately remember what it was. Zhivkov tried to help:

"Is your pension too small?"

"Oh no, it is quite OK. I buy bread and yoghurt every day and sausages "Dog's joy" every week."

"Then perhaps you have a housing problem?"

"Oh no, I own a one-bedroom flat. I share it with my son and daughter in-law and my grandson, and we are very happy together. I wanted just to ask you something, Comrade Zhivkov, but what was it? Oh, I remembered. Who has invented socialism as a system - politicians like you or scientists?"

"We, the politicians, have invented it."

"Thank you! This is exactly what I had guessed."

"How did you guess it?"

"Because, if it were the scientists, they would test it on animals first."

I remembered this joke today after talking with a young man who claimed to have been successfully treated with stem cells after a backbone injury. (The experimental treatment of neurological conditions with stem cells was subject of my 2008 post On the stem cell controversy. For more in-depth discussion, see Prometheus's post Stem cell therapy for autism.)

The former patient claimed that his arms, completely immobilized by the trauma, recovered fully after the "treatment". (I am calling him patient, although some more suitable words are crossing my mind, such as "survivor" or "victim".)

I pointed out that, although I had searched the scientific literature for stem cell treatment of neurological conditions, I had never found any such papers. Moreover, I had not found even reports of successful animal experiments of this sort.

The young man's reply was amazing. He didn't deny that nobody has so far done successfully on animals what had been done on him, but gave a good reason for this fact - there was allegedly no way to test the treatment on rats and mice because they had a different nervous system!

I said that it is not so different. I added that there is a the general rule: to be taken seriously, any experimental treatment must be first tested successfully on animal models.

My God, I would never guess that in the 21st century I'd have to explain time and again to intelligent and educated people what even the demented grannie from the old joke had understood! Namely, that before starting an experiment on humans, the same experiment must have been done on animals and must have produced excellent results that must be shown to the entire scientific community by publication in a peer-reviewed journal.


Unknown said...


(Great joke by the way.) Do you really think this "former patient" recieved the described treatment or just made the whole thing up? I can't believe any "doctor" would try this.

Maya M said...

I have no way to know for sure whether this particular youth was given the "treatment", but it is a fact that this procedure was administered on many patients, until a young doctor blew the whistle. After that, Bulgaria was harshly criticized by EU authorities and the worldwide scientific community, and only this stopped the unfortunate affair. See my earlier post:
The young doctor was forced to abandon his PhD study and leave the Medical University. He worked for some time in an emergency hospital, but when it became clear that he would not be allowed to make a career in Bulgaria, he emigrated to Germany.
Some of the people who organized the "treatment" were my superiors. I feared that my public criticism could bring something unpleasant on me, but nothing happened - they apparently do not read blogs.