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'Animal research should be conducted like human research'

Researchers should adhere to same strict conditions for scientific research, whether it involves humans or test animals, as this improves the quality of the studies and hence the care provided to patients.

Professor Arfan Ikram calls on other researchers to do this in the lecture he will present on Friday 23 February.

Guidelines
Arfan IkramThere are numerous methodological guidelines for research involving humans, but these are usually not applied with the same rigor in animal testing, despite animal testing being the first step to research on humans. Errors in the design of scientific research have far-reaching effects. In his lecture, Ikram uses examples from the field of Alzheimer's disease to illustrate why research on this disease has been heading in the wrong direction for years.

Take, for example, a patient who consults you as a physician concerning a certain condition. How do you determine the cause of the disease? What studies do you consult? What should you pay attention to? Arfan Ikram, Professor of Epidemiology says: "The field of Epidemiology does not just consist of large cohort studies on health and disease in populations as is often thought, but includes much more. Epidemiology is a way of thinking about research. It is actually about the purpose and design of research projects. In other words, researchers should ask themselves beforehand: will my research actually answer my research question? If this is not the case it can have far-reaching consequences."

Research involving human subjects is currently subject to more rigorous methodological conditions than animal testing, according to Ikram. "But even in clinical research involving patients considerable improvements can be made. As far as I am concerned, all studies must be set up in a careful and according to the same principles so that they can be reproduced at a later point in time. As has been shown in the field of Alzheimer's disease, much effort has been put into research in this field for years, but have they been doing this in a way that is based on the correct principles?"

Incorrect picture
Ikram explains: "If researchers study the causes of Alzheimer's disease by comparing a group of patients with a healthy control group, but selectively exclude one group of people with certain characteristics, the outcome of the study will be distorted. This incorrect picture can have major consequences for patients, as physicians can use the outcomes of the study in the care they provide to patients. For instance, I am concerned about the dilemma researchers worldwide face about whether Alzheimer's disease is caused only by accumulation of the amyloid protein or whether it can have multiple causes. In 2015, the scientific journal Nature even published an article suggesting that amyloid was contagious. This was widely reported in the media. Researchers disagreed on the topic because of its design. Nature responded to the discussion almost a year later, but this received less media attention. I now see new articles being published that quote this, in my opinion, questionable study and elaborate on its conclusion."

The solution would be to not only reflect epidemiological principles in population studies, but in all research projects. Ikram explains: "This means that basic, clinical and population research should always be conducted in accordance with epidemiological principles, such as an appropriately selected control group and in a blinded manner. For experiments, this means that neither the researcher nor the patient knows who received the active drug or a placebo. This should also be the case in animal testing. This improves the quality of the research and, in the long term, also the care provided to patients."

Date published: 22 February 2018.

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