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What's wrong with animal research?

Dr Stuart Derbyshire would rather researchers spent more of their time experimenting on animals, and wasted less time apologising for it

According to Home Office figures the number of animals used in British research laboratories fell by three per cent last year, consistent with a downward trend beginning in 1970 ('Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals', 1997). But even this decrease did not prevent animal rights activists from going on the offensive about animal experiments.

Over the years organisations such as the Animal Liberation Front, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection have proliferated and their influence has grown. 'Medical progress is being threatened by the extreme tactics of those who are seeking to abolish animal research. They don't want better laboratory cages, they want empty laboratory cages', argues Andrew Blake, director of the group Seriously Ill for Medical Research (SIMR). This is true, and it could have drastic consequences for the future of scientific and medical research.

However sorry you might feel for animals in cages, the fact is that without past animal experiments virtually all the medical advances we take for granted would be unheard of, or would have been introduced at great human cost. Transplant procedures, insulin treatment, anaesthetics, vaccines, antibiotics, bypass operations, psychotropic and asthma drugs, and even life-support systems for premature babies, are all included in this category. Nor would our knowledge of blood circulation, the function of the lungs, antibodies, vitamins, nerve impulses and tumour viruses exist if it were not for experiments on animals.

Animals are needed for new developments in medical science. Research at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has demonstrated that small gaps in the spinal cord of rats can be bridged with nerve grafts resulting in partial restoration of movement. This research brings hope to the many thousands of paraplegics, like Christopher Reeve, who might yet be able to walk again. This year in America researchers demonstrated that cancer tumours in white mice could be sent into full remission by suspending the tumour's blood supply. As this research moves on to the higher primates and then to human clinical trials, we can hope for an eventual cure for cancer. Less dramatic steps in curing disease and illness occur every day in animal laboratories all over the world: consider antifungal drugs, HIV vaccines and gene therapy for such things as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. All these developments, and countless others, depend on animal models that are ongoing and will be further developed in the future.

It is worrying that this work, which could literally change the future for millions of people, is at risk from an increasingly confident and successful anti-experimentation lobby. And one measure of the PR success of animal rights organisations is precisely that we do not hear enough about the medical benefits of animal experiments.

The more tangible consequences of the impact of animal rights arguments on research are the regulatory hoops and hurdles that any researcher proposing an animal experiment now has to overcome. In the UK the researcher needs a licence from the Home Office and any experiment must undergo ethical assessment. Invariably the ethics committee will insist on considerable justifications for any procedures that involve distressing the animal, and will press for the use of an animal further down the phylogenetic tree (such as replacing a primate with a rat).

In America there is no specific law requiring ethical assessment of proposed animal experiments, but in practice one is always required. Virtually all universities have their own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees which voluntarily carry out the roles of the Home Office and ethics committees combined. It often takes months to get a study approved. Vast quantities of documents must be submitted, resubmitted and resubmitted again, with no guarantee of success. Ostensibly the committees are impartial, but in practice they discourage and demoralise the would-be animal researcher - no effort is ever made to encourage more animal research or the use of higher species, excepting, of course, humans. Little wonder that many researchers have decided it is not worth the burden.

Why has the scientific community not been more vociferous in its opposition to the new methods of regulating animal experiments? I welcome the fact that prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking, and organisations such as SIMR, the Research Defence Society and the American Foundation for Biomedical Research, have responded to the propaganda of the animal rights activists. But unfortunately they have too often tended to do so in a defensive, at times even apologetic, manner. Rather than try to win the argument for why it is unproblematic to use animals in research, the scientific community has tried to meet the protestors half way; endorsing existing legislation limiting animal research, addressing their concerns over animal welfare, and promising further reductions in animal experiments.

For example, Andrew Blake of SIMR is keen to emphasise that he supports 'high standards of welfare for animals in laboratories'. In many ways this is common sense: anybody conducting science knows that mistreating the animals would waste time and possibly ruin the experiment by introducing unnecessary confounding factors. As a scientific judgement this is fine: but if its motivation is the welfare of animals per se, problems arise.

Professor Colin Blakemore, a researcher who has been targeted by animal rights activists, was recently moved to suggest that 'in some cases, the potential suffering [of animals] may have increased to the point where it may be unacceptable. It is almost like saying, "would it ever be justifiable to kill people if the benefit was a guaranteed cure for cancer?"'. Focusing on the suffering of animals in this way stretches credibility and beggars belief. Giving animals AIDS and other diseases, carrying out experimental surgical procedures and infusing untested drugs is clearly antithetical to the animals' welfare. Mistreating animals is unacceptable because it ruins experiments; but this is a very different matter from positively protecting their 'well being'.

The results of the accommodation of medical research to the ideas of animal welfare are now becoming clear, through the application of the so-called three Rs: refinement, reduction and replacement. In short, refinement refers to a modification of the procedure so as to minimise distress caused to the animal. Reduction covers any strategy that will result in fewer animals being used or in maximising the information obtained per animal used. Replacement can mean either using an alternative (such as tissue cultures or computer models) or using an animal further down the phylogenetic tree. The reduction of animal experiments is now the official policy of both governments and institutions that support animal research.

At first blush the three Rs appear reasonable. All animal experimenters want to reduce the amount of stress an animal is subjected to (refinement) so as not to hinder discovery - a stressed animal will be less likely to behave or respond normally. Equally, researchers will naturally tend to use fewer or less costly animals or techniques (reduction and replacement) so as to get quicker results from limited funds. But the three Rs were not developed from the perspective of good scientific practice; they were developed from the perspective of animal welfare. This makes the three Rs disastrous, reinforcing a lowlife opinion of animal researchers and encouraging the notion that animal experiments are problematic. Once the 'perspective' of the animal is adopted, it is inevitable that all experimentation will be seen negatively. No animal experiments are in the interests of the animal.

The three Rs may also be dangerous. Using the animal of choice will often be the best research tool. And adopting the three Rs means that animal experiments are never likely to be extended or expanded, even though medical prudence may sometimes suggest that they ought to be. Thalidomide, for example, was tested only on non-pregnant animals before being given to pregnant women; it should have been tested on pregnant animals. After the disastrous results came to light, tests on several laboratory animal species showed the same effects on the animal fetus as had already been tragically observed in humans.

Animal researchers and their advocates cannot have it both ways. Professed concern for the welfare of laboratory animals is simply inconsistent with the reality of laboratory experiments that almost invariably result in distress and death for the animal. Medical research is not concerned with the welfare of animals and nor should it be: its aim is to get answers about diseases and problems that afflict humanity.

In this context, defending the welfare of animals means placing the life of a mouse, rat, cat, dog, monkey or whatever above that of the seriously ill. If even scientists are unable to reject that insulting idea with confidence, we can expect far less from medical research in the future.

Dr Stuart Derbyshire is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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