The long fight against animal testing

By Peter Thatchell July 23rd, 2009 Published in The Guardian

The government has been assuring us for many years that animal experiments are only sanctioned for high priority medical research, as a last resort. We were told that the trend was for fewer laboratory procedures using animals. Indeed, the government boasted that it was committed to big cuts in animal-based research through the development of replacement methods. This seemed to be the case for several years, when the use of lab animals steadily declined.

It therefore comes as a major surprise to learn that in 2008 the number of medical experiments involving animals has shown the largest rise since modern records began. Home Office figures state that nearly 3.7 million experiments were performed on animals last year, a rise of 454,000 or 14% on the previous year. This is the steepest increase in animal use in medical research since 1986, when the government introduced new recording and monitoring procedures.

While most experiments in 2008 involved mice, macaque monkeys were used in 1,000 extra experiments, a hike of 33%. This trend is particularly disturbing and difficult to justify, given that macaques (and other monkeys used in UK labs) are intelligent, social animals. They share many human-like attributes, including language, tool-use, reasoning, emotions, improvisation, planning, empathy and the capacity to feel both physical and psychological pain. The mere fact of their imprisonment in laboratory cages – usually in solitary confinement – is a serious abuse of these thinking, feeling creatures.

The spike in animal experimentation coincides with the 50th anniversary of landmark proposals to find alternatives. Alas, for half a century successive governments have failed to fund the promised development of replacement methods – even though every scientist knows that animal models are flawed and imperfect approximations of the human body and human disease.

Over a decade ago, I was invited to join a working party based at the Medical Research Council’s head office in London. The aim was to look at ways of replacing animal research with credible, rigorous humane options. But in the end, despite the shiny promises, neither the MRC nor the government was willing to stump up the money to devise cruelty-free alternatives. The meetings were all talk and PR spin. I walked out in despair.

The recent jump in animal research has been condemned by animal rights campaigners who have called for a new co-ordinated effort to reduce the number of animals used in medical research. Additionally, “With the scientific expertise this country has to offer we should have seen far greater progress to replace animals with more advanced techniques,” said Sebastien Farnaud of the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research. The organization called on political parties to agree to a “roadmap to replacement” to reduce the use of animals in research. Furthermore, countries like China, Brazil, and India are gradually catching up on the idea of lab animal welfare and looking for alternatives to animal testing. Nevertheless, as an overall trend, animal use for science is on the rise, as genetically modified lab animals are becoming more common.

Replacement of animals is possible in many spheres of medical research. Remember how the supporters of vivisection used to say that it was impossible and dangerous to halt the animal testing of cosmetics and household products? Well, despite their scare-mongering, it has been possible to safely replace many animal tests that were previously said to be “irreplaceable.” The Dr Hadwen Trust has shown that alternatives are safe and effective. With tiny amounts of self-generated funding, it has already financed the development of successful, scientifically-validated alternatives to experiments that were once conducted with animals, including brain, kidney, diabetes and rheumatism research.

Of course, some animal research has provided breakthroughs in medical science. But these breakthroughs might have also come about through non-animal experimentation if they had been equally well funded. There is also a problem with information gleaned from animals in labs. What applies to mice, dogs, monkeys or rabbits may not necessarily apply to humans. Our physiology is sufficiently different to invalidate most cures devised by animal experimentation.

HIV, for example, is deadly to humans but not to most laboratory animals. So studying HIV in other species may not produce results that are applicable to humans. The same goes for any treatments devised for HIV. They may work in chimpanzees or cats, but not in people. Animal research is often bad science. Human-centred research invariably gets more accurate, effective and safe results. “The animals provide data – of course they do – but it’s the wrong data,” said Andre Menache from Animal Aid. “It applies to monkeys; it doesn’t apply to people.

“Whatever you discover, you will have to re-discover using people, so not only do the animals suffer using these experiments, the first few patients using these novel treatments will suffer, too. In fact, there are 700 treatments for stroke that work in laboratory animals – only one works in people and even that one treatment is controversial. We are doing something wrong,” he told BBC News.

For me, cruelty is barbarism, whether it is inflicted on humans or on other species. The campaigns for animal rights and human rights share the same fundamental aim: a kinder, gentler world without oppression and suffering, based on care and compassion. The abuse of animals in farming, sport, circuses, zoos, the fashion industry and medical experiments is a blot on humanity. The sooner we end it, the better.

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