The government has been accused of breaking its promise to reduce animal experimentation after figures released on Tuesday showed that the number of medical tests of animals rose by 8% last year.
While the Home Office insisted that animal testing is a key part of scientific research in the UK, animal welfare groups attacked leaders for not doing enough.
Among them was Michelle Thew, the chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), who said that the government had "failed" its pledge to cut animal testing, adding that: "This lack of progress is completely unacceptable. We need to see meaningful and lasting changes for animals in laboratories."
In 2012 a total of four million procedures took place, 317,200 more than the previous year but defenders of animal research, including the Wellcome Trust and a number of other scientific charities, argue that research goes a long way towards finding treatments for serious human diseases and and helps us better understand human and animal biology.
So, should the government being doing more to curb animal testing?
Blogging for the Huffington Post UK today, the BUAV's Michelle Thew, argues that the government has lost control of its targets, arguing that there has been no "serious effort" is being made to cut animal testing.
She says: "The Government would be reflecting public opinion if it at least took action to cut back speculative and non-medical research. Instead, it looks on impotently as the figures spin out of control."
However, the UCL Institute of Neurology's Professor Elizabeth Fisher argues that while animal research brings up ethical dilemmas, the likely benefit of the research usually outweighs the harm:, adding that we owe many cures and treatments to animal testing and must continue to do so for the greater good.
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Should the government do more to curb animal testing?
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The Government's commitment in 2010 was quite clear: to "work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research". Since then, the number of experiments has risen every year, and the rise is accelerating. This week it was announced that in 2012, over 4.11 million experiments were carried out, with a 9% increase in the number of animals used. Rarely has a broken promise been so directly exposed by reality.
Moreover, this increase includes many of the most controversial types of experiment. For example, there was a 22% increase in the number of experiments carried out on nonhuman primates, and a 22% rise in genetic modification, which involves harmful genes being inserted into animals. Many of these mutant animals do not 'display' the required characteristic and are simply killed without any testing being carried out at all; others are used to conduct speculative research with no direct link to humans. A staggering 425% rise in experiments for nutritional purposes spearheaded the expansion of experiments into areas with even more remote links to serious human disease.
One would expect there to be a decrease in animal experiments in those areas where there are valid alternatives. However, shockingly, the numbers of animals used is still unacceptably high or has even increased. For example, both skin irritation and Draize eye irritation tests were carried out on rabbits during 2012 despite there being a valid alternative. Furthermore, there was a 9% increase in pyrogenicity (fever causing) tests that use rabbits and a 20% increase in controversial acute lethal toxicity tests (mostly carried out to test botulinum toxin, commonly known as botox). Both these types of batch tests have validated non-animal alternatives, but the government is simply not enforcing their use.
In view of the Government's commitment, one might expect that action is being taken to reverse this disturbing trend. Instead, the Government is steadily pulling back from involvement, with the number of Home Office inspectors down to 17.7 full-time equivalents - giving each inspector the impossible task of personally supervising over 200,000 experiments.
So, what does happen in UK laboratories? Despite government rhetoric about the UK having some of the strictest legislation in the world, a recent BUAV investigation revealed shocking evidence of poor practice and high levels of animal suffering inside a laboratory of a world-leading University, Imperial College London. The BUAV exposed a catalogue of shortcomings and wrongdoing by staff and researchers including: breaches in and lack of knowledge of UK Home Office project licences; a failure to provide adequate anaesthesia and pain relief; incompetence and neglect and highly disturbing methods used to kill animals, including decapitation.
The reality is that no serious effort is being made to reverse the rise in animal experiments, even when it uses controversial methods such as the genetic modification of species. The Government would be reflecting public opinion if it at least took action to cut back speculative and non-medical research. Instead, it looks on impotently as the figures spin out of control.
A ministerial statement also published this week, promises announcements in the autumn but given that the number of animals used in research has increased in each of the three years since the Coalition Government took office it may be too little, too late, to achieve the promised reduction before the 2015 General Election.
The last decade has seen an 8% rise in the number of animal procedures carried out in Britain. Although over 97% of animal research is carried out using mice, rats, birds and fish, much of the coverage of the 2012 government statistics will probably carry pictures of monkeys, cats and dogs (together less than 0.2% of research animals) under headlines criticising the government's failure to bring the total numbers down.
Medical scientists use many methods, including computer models, cell cultures, DNA chips and human studies to better understand human and animal bodies, and the diseases which affect them. But the fact remains that currently animal research can still be necessary for progress in medical research.
In the past year animal research has been key to many medical breakthroughs including: the Gila monster's (South American lizard) venom is a key ingredient in Lixisenatide, a new treatment for diabetes; genetically modified mice were key to the development of Lonafarnib, the first ever treatment for Progeria (a condition causing extreme premature aging in children); and pioneering research in macaque monkeys has contributed to the possibility of "three-parent IVF treatment", which has recently come closer to being approved to avoid inherited mitochondrial disease.
We carry out research in my lab into why Alzheimer disease is relatively common in people with Down Syndrome, we crossed two different types of mouse together and saw a result that was both unexpected, and that would have been impossible to see in cells grown in a dish. We found an unexpected interaction between an 'Alzheimer gene' and the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome. This novel finding takes us another step closer to developing potential treatments by shedding light on Alzheimer disease in people with Down syndrome, and in the rest of us.
So why the increase in numbers? The last decade has seen a large rise in both private and public investment in the life sciences. This investment has resulted in rises in both animal and non-animal methods being used in medical and veterinary development. New research opportunities have also supported this rise, with genetically modified animals, which are able to more accurately model aspects of diseases, now accounting for almost half of all research animals.
Nowadays we all take for granted the medical breakthroughs of the 20th Century: diphtheria and polio vaccines, antibiotics, modern anaesthetics, the treatments for childhood leukaemia that have allowed so many children to live full and healthy lives. These all owed a huge debt to animal research. If we are to address the unmet medical needs of the 21st Century such as cures for dementia and stroke, then it is likely that some animal research will be necessary.
Animal research does bring up a critical ethical dilemma: does the likely benefit of the research outweigh the likely harm to the animal? To deal with this, the UK has implemented strict regulations to provide some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. All research must pass ethical review with lay people to justify the use of animals, and scientists must show how they have considered alternative, non-animal methods before they can receive a licence to use animals for their research projects. Given these strict conditions, we have to be realistic and accept the rise in animal research this year as a necessary step towards the medical treatments of tomorrow while continuing to develop new methods to reduce numbers in the future.
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