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.