There has been a great deal of hot air exhaled by animal rights activists in the UK over the past week who think that animal research carried out within universities is unnecessary.
A Freedom of Information ruling found partly in favour of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) in its attempt to gain details of Home Office licenses that allow experiments on primates at Newcastle University.
The BUAV claimed it as a landmark victory against "highly controversial and invasive experiments carried out on monkeys at a public institution" and where non-invasive alternatives exist.
Last week at Leeds University, another anti-vivisection group, Animal Aid, protested against experiments on dogs co-funded by the charity the British Heart Foundation. Animal Aid claimed that since 1988 over 100 dogs had died in experiments that were "medically irrelevant". Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, said the experiments were 'unproductive and cruel' and called on people to withhold donations to the charity.
Thankfully, Betty McBride, Policy and Communications Director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), stood her ground. Mcbride countered that such research had "contributed to incredible medical advances over the decades" and that the BHF "funded this work because it will save countless lives in the future".
That really is the trump card. In a week in which minor animal rights protests and tribunal rulings took the headlines, what has been missing in the coverage of these two events is the essential role that animal research continues to play in medical advances and life enhancing procedures.
For David Pruce,Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research the importance of the use of animals in research cannot be denied, "Animal research is never undertaken lightly, but animals are essential in scientific research, in medicine development and safety testing. Many life saving developments that have had clear clinical benefit originated from research carried out at UK universities."
For example, deep brain stimulation (DBS) for Parkinson's disease has transformed the lives of an estimated 40,000 patients. Monkey research led by neurologists at Oxford University identified a potential target for DBS: a structure in the brain known as the subthalamic nucleus (STN). Continuous stimulation delivered by a wire inserted into the STN and driven by a battery stimulator implanted under the collarbone blocks the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremor and other Parkinsonian symptoms.
The development of monoclonal antibody therapies were dependent on mouse research at Cambridge University from the 1960s onwards. This has resulted in Herceptin to treat breast cancer, rituximab for lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis, and many other targeted antibody treatments.
A new treatment for muscular dystrophy, an inherited degenerative muscle wasting disease, is now in clinical trials. This disease is caused by mutations in a very large gene, so attempts at 'conventional' gene therapy have been unsuccessful. The new type of gene treatment based on mouse studies has been developed by a collaboration of university researchers, many working in London.
Three UK groups of researchers in London, Oxford and Edinburgh have collaborated to develop a gene therapy to treat cystic fibrosis (CF) which is currently being trialled in humans. This has been developed over 20 years since the creation of the first genetically modified mice to carry CF gene defects. These mice showed that gene therapy was possible and the challenge has been to develop a safe and effective way to deliver a replacement gene which has involved tests in both mice and sheep.
Currently, academic research with Zebrafish is leading to better understanding of how the heart can repair itself. Zebrafish can repair their own hearts, so scientists are trying to unlock their secrets to learn how we can repair ours too. Several stem cell therapies for heart disease, based on mouse stem cell research in UK and European universities, are also in clinical trials.
Animal Research, inside and outside of academia, has clearly played an essential role in medical advances. This fact is persistently overlooked in the emotive and overblown claims,and reports from groups such as the BUAV and Animal Aid.
This is a disservice to the researchers who have advanced science, and the humans who have benefited and will benefit from their work