Fake news: earthworms can replace animal testing on mammals

We live in a great world! Our goal is to simplify everything, to quickly diagnose diseases with genetics and big data, and now, we don’t even need to go through preclinical studies on mammals. These wonderful worms with a thousand cells, a super simple nervous system compared to the trillions of connections in the human brain, will replace everything. No more need to use these animal models of complex neurological and psychiatric diseases. Earthworms will do it, we’ll develop models of Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, autism and come what may. There is nothing else to do than to test the candidate molecules by measuring in a few hours if the worm is no longer parkinsonian and voila. A startup even proposes to do this automatically in a few hours: hundreds of earthworms are placed in small vials and their response to the candidate molecules is measured. In an article published by the Journal du dimanche, Dr. Mouchiroud, creator of a startup, promise us the end of the need to use animal models of mammals.

The inconsistency and misunderstanding of the pharmaceutical reality is striking. Mental illnesses are due to malformations in neuronal networks composed of millions of nerve cells and are not reproducible in an earthworm. One may test a mechanism of action of a molecule on a genetic mutation expressed in the earthworm, but the majority of these neurological and psychiatric diseases is not due to a genetic mutation and it’s involved, neuronal networks neurons react by generating aberrant electrical activities, direct causes of the disease. Also, we can’t wait to see how an “autistic or schizophrenic” worm acts, knowing that the diagnosis is clinical and therefore the molecule is supposed to act on the “autistic or schizophrenic” behavior. On mammals, we have difficulty to imitate neurological diseases (what is a schizophrenic mouse?) so a worm! Hundreds of processes generate infantile epilepsies because of poorly functioning networks, reproductions in the earthworm is an illusion.

The authorities do not give us permission to do clinical trials based on solid data from mammals, they will not take a drug that reduces who-knows-which parameter in an earthworm. In addition, approved drugs must undergo a series of tests for toxicity, genotoxicity, metabolic toxicity and other, and this is done on rodents, pigs, primates and as much as possible in human conditions. In other words, a molecule with an impressive effect on the earthworm will have to be tested on mammals anyway. Finally, to believe that the pharmaceutical industry will invest the hundreds of millions required to develop a new therapy based on results observed only on earthworms is a profound ignorance of the economic reality.

In summary, using earthworms -an approach that is well aligned with the dominant policy of linking a gene / protein with a disease- may be helpful in advancing in the better understanding of the mechanisms of action, but this will have to be repeated in mammals. Therefore, we do not reduce the need to work on mammals at all, we add a step. This campaign also strengthens the opponents of vivisection and other pressure groups that contest research based on animal models of diseases, and this has far-reaching consequences, policies conceding too easily lobbies.

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