For decades, building on experiments of the gastric secretions of dogs, researchers began cutting the vagus nerve to treat stomach ulcer patients. It was believed that if the acid in digestive juice could be reduced, ulcers would be cured. This theory flew in the face of the knowledge, even in the late 19th century, that the digestive action of the stomach lay in an enzyme called pepsin, and not in acid itself (OH Wangensteen, et al, The Rise of Surgery, W M Dawson & Sons, 1978).
Sometime after the 1940s, the role of the vagus nerve of animals was soon discovered to be different from humans, especially dogs the very species on which the technique was originally developed. Nevertheless experimentation continued, and the canine model, and eventually its equivalent in rats, was used to develop drugs which would reduce stomach acid secretions. These drugs include those acting upon the histamine system, such as cimetidine or the proton pump inhibitors like omeprazole, which act upon another stomach enzyme. It took until the 1980s for researchers to discover the H pylori bacterial connection.
False Patterns of Disease
The fact that the laboratory animal is relatively healthy before the experiment means that disease and or trauma has to be induced by artificial and often violent means. This bears no relation whatsoever to the spontaneous ways in which humans develop illness, often through faulty lifestyle and diet.
Consider the case of osteoarthritis, a human degenerative disease resulting in painful deformities of the joints. In order to mimic human lameness in dogs, cats, sheep and pigs, researchers beat the joints of animals with hammer blows, inject them with irritating liquids, subject them to ionising radiation and/or dislocate them. Of course, the resulting fractures, haemorrhages, thromboses, contusions) and inflammations bear no relation to human osteoarthritis. Drugs which are then tested on such artificially diseased, non human animals cannot possibly yield results relevant to a spontaneously occurring human disease.
Better drugs, not more drugs
Clearly we don't need as many drugs as there are in the marketplace. Indeed, in 1981, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, in collaboration with the WHO, published a list of only 26 drugs, from the 205,000 on the market, which were considered "indispensable", with nine of these being considered more indispensable than others (quoted in H Ruesch, Naked Empress).
According to Peter Mansfield, it is "by luck, rather than good judgement" that we have, over the past thirty years, stumbled upon many useful drugs which have a known range of safety and danger, and which "will continue to be used in appropriate and well defined circumstances." But while there will be a continued need for drugs, Mansfield envisages a day when the whole paradigm of medical care will change.
"Science is really a method for answering questions. If we ask a stupid question, scientific methods will faithfully produce for us a stupid answer. We must debate carefully, therefore, what questions we ask our scientists to tackle.
"The drug industry can be relied on to ask for the best drug solution to each medical problem. We must broaden the question: what is the best solution overall? Sometimes it may be a drug, more usually not. A drug may relieve the pain and inflammation of displaced muscles and joints, but only a manipulative treatment stands any chance of curing it. Diet offers major benefits in dealing with rheumatism, which drugs cannot improve in the long run. The likelihood is that drugs will retain a major part in the first aid treatment of many diseases, but that other methods will offer better chances of long term benefit and prevention of relapse."