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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  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What MUST be done. of course should be done for the sake of your child & mine, or perhaps inevitably you & me. It must be done with respect for one of God's creatures, with a genuine feeling of gratitude that suffering is taking place, likely to the point of death. It should never be done in room that accommodates any other animals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    With scientific advancements into cell growth, perhaps now is the time to leave animal testing in the past and invest in technology that grows cells and organs for testing.

    Whoever says animal testing is ethical is a liar or a psychopath. However, testing is bourne out of necessity. We are the top species on the planet, and humans do come first. Necessity doesn't equal ethical though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I worked in the R&D part of the Pharmaceutical industry a few years ago and, as a Zoology student was very keen to get a behind the scenes look at the animal testing. After initially being very skeptical I was pleased to see the level of care taken in ALL experiments and procedures done on animals was astounding! If cruelty to animals is what worries you, point a finger at the food industry

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This is the second article i have read today on this subject, there will always be for's and against arguements on such a contronversal subject, this is not a bad thing because it does lead to improvements, what was a horrific abuse of animals i.e cosmetics to a much more regulated system i.e. medical research which is being constantly monitered. Maybe the day will come when it won't be needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Give people who don't mind animal experiments a special card to carry that can be used to fulfil prescriptions or buy any of the various products we know are safe as they have been tested on animals.

    If you don't agree, don't carry the card and enjoy your life as best you can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Finally, someone who has put up some facts rather than clever sophistry on the issue! Indeed, animal research is a vital part of biological research. Unfortunately, the systems biologists are studying are extremely complex, and so little can be predicted about their function, so animal models are the only choice at present. However, strict rules are followed by all scientists in this field.


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