BACKGROUND: The harm benefit analysis (HBA) is the cornerstone of animal research regulation and is considered to be a key ethical safeguard for animals. The HBA involves weighing the anticipated benefits of animal research against its predicted harms to animals but there are doubts about how objective and accountable this process is.
OBJECTIVES: i. To explore the harms to animals involved in pre-clinical animal studies and to assess these against the benefits for humans accruing from these studies; ii. To test the feasibility of conducting this type of retrospective HBA.
METHODS: Data on harms were systematically extracted from a sample of pre-clinical animal studies whose clinical relevance had already been investigated by comparing systematic reviews of the animal studies with systematic reviews of human studies for the same interventions (antifibrinolytics for haemorrhage, bisphosphonates for osteoporosis, corticosteroids for brain injury, Tirilazad for stroke, antenatal corticosteroids for neonatal respiratory distress and thrombolytics for stroke). Clinical relevance was also explored in terms of current clinical practice. Harms were categorised for severity using an expert panel. The quality of the research and its impact were considered. Bateson's Cube was used to conduct the HBA.
RESULTS: The most common assessment of animal harms by the expert panel was 'severe'. Reported use of analgesia was rare and some animals (including most neonates) endured significant procedures with no, or only light, anaesthesia reported. Some animals suffered iatrogenic harms. Many were kept alive for long periods post-experimentally but only 1% of studies reported post-operative care. A third of studies reported that some animals died prior to endpoints. All the studies were of poor quality. Having weighed the actual harms to animals against the actual clinical benefits accruing from these studies, and taking into account the quality of the research and its impact, less than 7% of the studies were permissible according to Bateson's Cube: only the moderate bisphosphonate studies appeared to minimise harms to animals whilst being associated with benefit for humans.
CONCLUSIONS: This is the first time the accountability of the HBA has been systematically explored across a range of pre-clinical animal studies. The regulatory systems in place when these studies were conducted failed to safeguard animals from severe suffering or to ensure that only beneficial, scientifically rigorous research was conducted. Our findings indicate a pressing need to: i. review regulations, particularly those that permit animals to suffer severe harms; ii. reform the processes of prospectively assessing pre-clinical animal studies to make them fit for purpose; and iii. systematically evaluate the benefits of pre-clinical animal research to permit a more realistic assessment of its likely future benefits.