APPG on 'human relevant' science

What’s an APPG?

An All Party Parliamentary Group is a semi-formal Parliamentary group devoted to a subject, like a country, a medical condition, an issue, an interest or a cause. They usually have a secretariat provided by a relevant organisation, so the The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the BioIndustry Association (BIA) and the British In-Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA) jointly provide this service to the Life Sciences APPG, for instance. They can hold themed meetings, and call expert witnesses, although there’s no expectation to attend as there is with the more formal Select Committee hearings. UAR has been called as an expert witness to the APPG on Animal Welfare and the All Party Dog Advisory Welfare Group (thus named so it spells APDAWG) in the past.

What’s ‘human relevant’?

Good question. Normally it’s possible to point at a technology, approach or therapy and say ‘that’s human-relevant’, whether it’s an organoid, gm covid mouse, animal insulin or antibody therapy, whether animal-derived or not.

However, that doesn’t work in reverse, where one would say ‘X piece of information can never be relevant to human biology’.  

In its words, the group “…aims to accelerate the development and uptake of human relevant life sciences in the UK.” Which sounds reasonable, but it goes on:

“The APPG will be a discussion forum for politicians, the human relevant life sciences sector, third sector groups, scientists and stakeholders to promote new approach methodologies that provide unique insights into human biology, transform our ability to understand human disease and can develop effective new medicines more quickly and without the use of animals.”

Apparently there’s a ‘human-relevant life sciences sector’ now? This is quite a key point. It belies an unfounded belief that we can know ahead of time what research findings are or are not relevant to human medicine and sets itself up as the arbiter of what is or isn’t human relevant, rather than granting that distinction to anything that yields clinical results now or years in the future.

According to this group, what ‘human-relevant’ doesn’t mean is human relevant discoveries using animals or animal products that translate to humans, only human-relevant discoveries that come from other means such as organoids, non-animal-based diagnostics and human cell lines.

Those whose discoveries relied on animals, like the recipients of 99 of the 111 Nobel Prizes ever awarded for physiology or medicine, need not apply because apparently their work isn’t ‘human-relevant’. Likewise, this APPG is not for medicines which rely on species differences, like cancer drugs made from animal antibodies.

The term ‘human-relevant’ as it’s used here, then, appears to be predicated on an incorrect belief that animal data isn’t relevant to humans and animal products cannot have a therapeutic value. It’s a ‘gatekeeping’ logical fallacy of the ‘no true Scotsman’ class. The APPG is backed by a secretariat provided by the ‘Alliance for Human-relevant Science’, which is a marriage of convenience between anti-vivisection groups and companies that sell non-animal bioassays.

This Alliance produced a confused open letter calling for non-animal methods to be used to find a vaccine for Covid, citing the emergency regulatory permissions regulators gave to the vaccines produced by Moderna and Oxford University to undertake some animal tests alongside human tests instead of before. However, both of those vaccines had only been advanced after positive data from animal tests that the Alliance wrongly assumed had been skipped, basic facts that are rather salient.

Similarly, the APPG’s Chair, Labour MP Grahame Morris, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the current approach to developing new treatments is simply not fast enough to meet humanity’s needs. We urgently need to transition to new approach methodologies which promise to deliver safer and more effective medicines, more quickly and at less cost.”

This statement, if it refers to animals, seems to be unaware that the pre-human animal test research was lightning-quick during Covid, taking less than a month in the case of the Moderna trial. Sequence selection was completed on Jan 13, 2 days after the Chinese government released Covid’s DNA, and manufacture was completed Feb 7th. Moderna shipped its first batch of the vaccine to the FDA on Feb 24th and it was approved for human trials on March 4th. Other animal tests for things like formulation have been undertaken whilst waiting for the human data.

Every one of the other candidate vaccines relied on animal models and the only delay that affected some of them was breeding more research animals from frozen embryos since live colonies of GM mice weren’t maintained for animal welfare reasons. The bulk of the delay has been due to manufacturing and waiting for the results from human testing. It’s also worth noting that non-animal methods were used alongside the animal models during the preclinical research stage.

Yet APPG Vice Chair, Conservative MP Sir David Amess, said,

“The Government needs to provide much-needed financial support to boost growth in the human relevant life sciences sector and enable the UK to remain an innovative science superpower. As the country seeks a COVID-19 vaccine, this is the perfect time for parliamentarians to take seriously the growing evidence in favour of pioneering human relevant medical research techniques that are replacing the outdated use of animals.”

It's fascinating to think that anyone could look at a situation where animal assays proved to be the only effective way to quickly get some of the key data to solve a contemporary problem and conclude they were ‘outdated’. Indeed, it’s a bit like going on holiday to Greece but refusing to acknowledge the role of the airplane in conveying you from Heathrow to Kos.

Very often it’s not possible to tell prospectively what, if, how or when basic research will be relevant to humans whether or not it derives in animals. I’m sure if you asked Nobel laureate Sir John Gurdon in 1962 what the family tree of human medical applications his discovery that frogs could be cloned from a skin cell would yield for human health in 2020 and beyond he’d be unlikely to envisage personalised medicine and a hundred other things.

Likewise, the Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded this year to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for developing the CRISP-R gene editing method using bacteria in 2012. After several years of being used in animals, to refine the techniques involved, create therapeutics and develop better animal models, it headed for the clinic last year to treat two cancer patients in the US.

Sadly, this Nobel-winning clinical technique, literally being used to treat human disease, wouldn’t be considered human-relevant by this APPG.

Whilst there’s nothing at all wrong with promoting in vitro animal alternatives, there’s a lot wrong with gatekeeping the meaning of ‘human-relevant’ and it’s suspicious that an existing APPG, backed by the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, is being sidestepped.

At their heart, APPGs are an acknowledgement that tackling some issues requires transcending partisan lines. Redrawing new lines isn’t going to serve a single patient if it pushes people deeper into silos of thought rather than creating spaces where good faith discussion and, most importantly, unadulterated data can guide us towards working together to solve our shared problems.