We All Agree About Cosmetics, But We Still Need Animals for Medicine

27/03/2013 18:50 | Updated 27 May 2013

The recent, fantastic, news that it will be illegal to sell cosmetics tested on animals across Europe has been a long time coming, and offers hope that the ban may one day spread outside of Europe. The use of animals for veterinary and medical applications, however, remains essential.

In the UK, it is illegal to use an animal if there is an alternative, and some species such as dogs have special protections which dictate that they can only be used if there is no alternative to that particular species, a general approach that has spread across Europe via a recently-adopted EU Directive.

The UK research community also seeks to minimise the number of animals used in experiments, replacing them where possible and refining the experiments to minimize suffering - the so called "3Rs" of reduction, refinement and replacement. In that sense, we enjoy common ground with organisations such as the Vegan Society, animal welfare and abolitionist groups.

Where we part company with the Vegan Society and the abolitionists (we continue to agree with animal welfare organisations) is their call for scientists to be forced to stop using animals in experiments altogether. In this, the Society has surprisingly adopted the stance of the research abolitionist groups not just in its misunderstanding of the science involved but also its misunderstanding of the industry that conducts the research.

Take for example an article by Jasmijn De Boo, CEO of the Vegan Society, who claims here that animal models are too limited to be worthwhile, and there are cheaper alternatives, yet:

"... the political will is not there yet to build on the Cosmetics Ban's potential and abolish all animal research and testing. An important reason may be that pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and similar establishments weighs heavily on the shoulders of our politicians."

This is a commonly-held, but flawed view, which it is surprising to hear repeated in an otherwise reasonable article but is fairly straightforward to unravel. The simple question is, if there are cheaper and better techniques available, and it is illegal not to use them, why would industry not adopt them?

What could possibly be in it for pharmaceutical companies to use an illegal method likely to cost them more money and yield dangerous medicines? Moreover, the Home Office licenses all experiments, and will turn down an application to conduct an animal experiment if there is an alternative available, and scientists generally don't want to use a model that doesn't work - that is not how one makes discoveries nor goes down in history, so there is a motive to use the most reliable methods available.

The truth of the matter is of course is a little more boring - animal models do have their limits but are, in fact, instructive. Most experiments are actually carried out by universities and medical schools, with only 26% carried out by industry. In the future we may see ever more partnership working between industry and academia, but the fact remains that animal studies are only one small part of bringing forward new medicines.

Animal research has also always been about more than "testing". It is about discovery and the application of that knowledge to human and animal medicine. Take for instance Sir John Gurdon, who 50 years ago took a cell from a frog's stomach and cloned another frog from it. More recently, Shinya Yamanaka, building on 40 years of science since Gurdon, reversed an adult human cell to a stem cell state, and work is already underway to use a skin cell from the arm to treat Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or repair post heart-attack scarring. Gurdon and Yamamoto won a joint Nobel Prize for their work in 2012.

The striking thing about this example is that it contains many lessons about animal research and indeed science in general. Firstly, it can take 40 years or more for scientific knowledge to become medical application. Secondly, in 1963 Dr Gurdon would not have been able to tell you exactly what applications his discovery would have, which makes a nonsense out of the idea that research should only be conducted where the applications are crystal clear. Thirdly, in common with most animal research, the original frog experiment was a long way from the alarming old pictures of monkeys and cats that adorn protesters' placards. Indeed, around half of all "experiments" are simply the birth of a genetically manipulated laboratory mouse, which is counted as a medical procedure and which I do not think most people would find particularly unsettling.

Nobody is saying, then, that animal models are pointless and nor are they perfect - neither position is supported by the evidence. The value one places in them is essentially a moral view, but what is "ethical" or moral depends on your viewpoint. I might consider it more "ethical" for instance, that a vaccine for badger TB cases was developed using animal research, than it is to cull thousands of badgers. The fact that animals were used, demonstrates that the "alternatives", such as computer modelling and tissue samples which are in fact used alongside animals in studies, did not, on their own, lead to the vaccine. As we are the only species in a position to protect man, animals and the environment from the iniquities of nature, opponents of animal research have to accept the suffering that comes about by failing to act, whilst being honest about the level of suffering that research may entail.

I suspect, then, that most people will find themselves somewhere on a scale, where some experiments are more acceptable to them and others less so, depending on their values and the individual experiment in question. It is as misguided to say there should be no animal experimentation in the absence of alternatives, as it would be to support experimentation on animals whatever the reason.

The position of Understanding Animal Research is to base the debate on the facts, bearing in mind that only animal experiments deemed medically and scientifically valuable receive a licence in the first place. We are "conditional acceptors" meaning we see experiments as valid only when there is no alternative and potential suffering is minimised. We cannot and will not try to tell you what to think, but can at least clear the air so that individuals can reach their own conclusions about the value of animal research.