Q&A: Animal research

 
Lab rat Animal studies "have contributed greatly to scientific advances", a Parliamentary report found

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News that all ferry companies and all but two airlines have stopped importing animals destined for research laboratories has led to warnings that it could setback the search for new medicines. But how important are animals in medical research and what are they used for?

How much animal research is there in the UK?

There were 3.7 million "scientific procedures" on animals in 2010 according to figures from the Home Office. This total includes the breeding of genetically modified animals which nearly half that total. Excluding breeding, the number of procedures was 2.1 million.

The UK has among the strictest rules in the world. Licences are permitted under the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act only when there is no non-animal alternative, the expected benefits outweigh the effects on the animals, and the number of animals used and their suffering is minimised. France and Germany carry out roughly the same number of procedures as the UK each year.

What sort of animals are used?

The vast majority of animals used are mice (72%), fish (13%), rats (8%) and birds (4%). Dogs, cats and non-human primates account for less than 0.5% of procedures. The range of tests is broad, but the largest single category - 466,000 procedures - involve the immune system, followed by the nervous system. All new drugs have to undergo safety testing (toxicology) involving animals. Nearly 400,000 such tests were carried out in 2010.

Why is animal research needed?

Every major medical research body agrees that animal research is essential in the quest to understand human diseases and to develop new treatments. Advances in the understanding of genetics mean that animals can be bred with specific genetic traits that allow researchers to explore a range of conditions from cancer and heart disease to stroke and dementia.

There have been numerous inquiries looking into the issue. In 2002 a House of Lords select committee report into animal research concluded: "We are convinced that experiments on animals have contributed greatly to scientific advances, both for human medicine and for animal health." In 2006 the Weatherall report commissioned by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust concluded there was a "strong scientific and moral case" for using non-human primates in research.

Is animal research ethical?

Animal research has always been controversial. Many people strongly oppose the use of any animals in experiments arguing they are cruel and unethical. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has campaigned for more than a hundred years to end all animal experiments. Repeated public opinion surveys over the past decade have shown strong support for the research - on the crucial proviso that it meets certain conditions: there is no unnecessary suffering, it is for serious medical or life-saving purposes and there is no alternative.

Is animal research useful?

Opponents of animal research believe it is not simply cruel but pointless. Animals are not humans and many species do not get the same diseases as us. But despite the differences, animal models - mostly mice - are seen by the scientific community as vital in the quest to understand disease. Leading scientists point to a wealth of medical advances which have been made with the help of animal research. These includes new vaccines, treatments for cancer, Parkinson's disease, asthma and HIV. Last year a review led by Prof Patrick Bateson into research involving monkeys found the work was generally useful and should continue. But it said that for nearly one in 10 projects, no clear scientific, medical or social benefits had emerged.

 
Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 26.

    6.Greenoakroundhouse - "All this effort to prolong human life & population size at any price. Animals, the environment & the climate would be much better off without humanity"

    A lot of reserach is into quality of life, not prolonging it, like the brain surgery that cured my epilepsy & has allowed me to work again etc.

    Can't disagree with your second statement though, mores the pity....

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    Comment number 25.

    By protesting against testing in the UK, activists are simply causing the work to be done abroad in countries that don't have anywhere near the same level of concern for the animals involved. Our safeguards ensure that at all times the wellbeing of the animal is paramount. Currently, it's a necessary evil, so why not choose the lesser of the two evils? It's not perfect, but it's the best we have.

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    Comment number 24.

    As a scientist working in animal research I face this moral dilemma on a regular basis. PETA base a lot of their arguments on the low success rate of drugs developed using animal models. Let's hear the success rate for drugs that don't use animal models as a comparison? Also, animal work is expensive, extensively regulated and quite inflexible. In vitro alternative - favourable but unavailable

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    Comment number 23.

    I can understand the comment by Aidy, if people disagree with animal research then they should be exempt of all medicines that have involved animal research (probably most conventional medicines). This idea in itself is unethical and should never happen, however may provoke thought in more moderate objectors.

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    Comment number 22.

    @Wucash

    Computer modelling is out of the question for the foreseeable future. I worked in a QM/MM group. The problem is biological and chemical interactions are far too complex. To put things in context, I attended a lecture (2010) where a single enzyme/substrate reaction was modelled to completion. It took 3 months to calculate. Dozens reactions would need to modelled for a real drug.

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    Comment number 21.

    Animal research is largely done very badly. I speak as a scientist and statistician. It doesnt benefit medical science even a small fraction as much as people think. I am a researcher, and know this to be fact. It needs to be stopped, and it needs to be stopped now.

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    Comment number 20.

    5.Wucash is winding himself up
    "...perhaps now is the time to leave animal testing in the past and invest in technology that grows cells and organs for testing"

    Then we'll have other people shouting about "playing god." Truth is we can either use animals, people or not bother at all. If you needed a treatment and it wasn't available through testing, I'd bet you would demand to know why

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    Comment number 19.

    I worked in R&D. People should understand that the animals are kept in perfect condition. Their diet, exercise regimes and general well being are paramount so that the affects of any potential drug can be clearly measured.
    Besides, If it's a choice, and it is, between 10,000 rats or a plague in India or wherever, then as far as I'm concerned the rats are history.

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    Comment number 18.

    Ultimately the perfect way to do animal experimentation is to create a line of human clones engineered to be non-sentient. Ok science fiction today but certainly possible within 10 to 30 years.
    The moral question is v difficult and requires a quantum leap from todays Luddite attitudes about human genetics but I'm pretty sure it will come. Ultimately human DNA is no different from any other animal.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 16.

    Animal research is expensive, much more so as the size increases. So it is rarely a first choice where other options are available. As Fergus alludes, suffering is pretty minimal in most cases, for good reasons: Stressed and suffering animals do not give reliable scientific data. For most experiments it is counter-productive.

    Beagles smoking 50-a-day is history. Quite a lot is just mouse-sex.

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    Comment number 15.

    New drugs and medicines cannot be reliably predicted to have the same effect in humans that they do in animals. Incidents of adverse drug reactions show this, e.g. 6 volunteers became seriously ill in 2006 after being given a new drug known as ‘TGN1412, which had been extensively tested on rodents, rabbits and monkeys without significant adverse effects, before being given to the volunteers.

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    Comment number 14.

    Unlike some here I don't assert that those who disagree with me are psychopaths.

    For psychopaths look at this 'http://blog.indexoncensorship.org/2012/03/01/abortion-bmj-free-expression-infanticide-medical-ethics/'.

    If (like many philosophers e.g. Singer) you assert that an adult chimp is a person and a human baby is not, this is where you end up.

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    Comment number 13.

    We have to distinguish between 'acute' and 'chronic' experiments. I used tissue from dogs who had been acute experimental subjects. These dogs were going to be 'put down' anyway but after the anaesthetic had been injected some experiments were done then the final drugs administered. The tissue I had would otherwise have been incinerated. So, dogs would be put down anyway but useful data found.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    I'm all for animal testing, especially if we get some kind of super monkey out of it like in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

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    Comment number 11.

    10.

    Don't give me that rubbish. Technological advancemnts follow desired paths. We had no satellites untill the race to the moon. All advancements we have today came out of desire. Perhaps we should start investing resources into this topic too. It's easier to say it's impossible than to try.
    Oh and building a whole human is silly, but my idea along with supercomputer modelling? It's a start.

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    Comment number 10.

    Re 5.

    > perhaps now is the time
    > to leave animal testing in the past and invest in technology that grows
    > cells and organs for testing.

    A pipe-dream I'm afraid. Toxicology is a complex thing to predict: you have to test it against an entire animaldue to inter-connectednessof the metabolic process. Unless you propose 'growing a whole human', which would be pretty unethical ...

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    Comment number 9.

    #8 cont
    Before more modern techniques were developed the only way to examine the brain functionally was using live subjects and direct invasive surgery.

    I should add that this work left me feeling very uncomfortable, especially since I had no choice but to use it. I also got the impression that some neurologists were annoyed that they were no longer allowed to do their live experiments on humans.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    As a scientist I can see arguments on both sides, but my own experience in reading neurology research turned me heavily against it on cruelty grounds.
    An experiment set I came across was effectively live brain dissection using monkeys. (c1990-95) The animals were kept alive for wks or months as their visual cortex's were gradually peeled apart to examine the individual circuits in a working state.

 

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