Scientists told: reduce animal experiments

Alternative ways of conducting medical research should be found to spare animals being used in experiments, an influential group of scientists and ethicists says today.

Alternative ways of conducting medical research should be found to spare animals being used in experiments, an influential group of scientists and ethicists says today.

A two-year study on the ethics of animal experiments by the Nuffied Council on Bioethics, published today, concludes that researchers should be more open about the experiments.

The committee, made up of scientists, philosophers, members of animal protection groups and a lawyer, said it was unrealistic to assume that all animal experiments will end in the short term. But it added that practical advances in replacing animals would be a good way to reduce conflict between people on different sides of the debate.

Anti-vivisectionists welcomed the report as a vindication of their view that animal experiments should eventually be phased out of scientific research.

The report acknowledges the enormous contribution made by animal experiments to medical science but said a "thorough analysis" of the scientific barriers to replacements must be carried out.

"A world in which the important benefits of such research could be achieved without causing pain, suffering, distress, lasting harm or death to animals involved in research must be the ultimate goal," said the report.

The report highlighted some of the challenges to replacing animals, including the difficulty in simulating (in computers or in test tubes) the diversity of cells and tissues that make up a person. There was also the problem of conservatism in science, with some members of the working party reporting that, in their experience, researchers who had always used animals had been hesitant to enter into serious discussions about the potential for replacements.

Last year, there were almost 2.8m experiments on animals in the UK. The number was up on previous years but was around half the number of experiments carried out in the 1970s.

In the last few years, anti-vivisectionists have intensified their campaigns to halt animal research. Cambridge University abandoned plans to build a neuroscience research lab last year, citing increased security costs after protests.

Oxford University's contractors for a new animal research lab, Montpellier, pulled out last July after intimidation from activists. The university says it is determined to finish the lab and has kept details of the replacement builders secret. Last summer, the government gave police more powers to help them crack down on animal extremists.

Against this background, the authors of the Nuffield report condemned violence and intimidation as ways of securing a resolution to the debate between pro- and anti-vivisectionists, calling the action "morally wrong". The report urged all sides to improve the quality of the public debate by producing fair and balanced literature.

Pro-vivisection groups welcomed the Nuffield Council's calls for more research to find alternatives to animal research as well as its acknowledgement of the value of the research.

Philip Connolly, director of the Coalition for Medical Progress, pointed out that this was the third independent report - after the House of Lords select committee in 2002 and the Animal Procedures Committee in 2003 - to say that animal experiments enable scientific and medical advances. "It's a common argument by certain anti-vivisectionists that they don't," he said.

Dr Maggy Jennings, a member of the working party that produced the report and head of the RSPCA's research animals department said: "The report ... defines the many sources of suffering that can occur throughout the animals' lives. It sets these alongside the reasons why the research is done, so that it is clear what a terrible price animals pay for human wants and needs."

David Thomas, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said the government needed to spend more on the search for replacements.

"What is needed is the political will to ensure that the potential that is there is tapped as much as possible," he said.

The government set up an institute for this task in May last year - the Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research with an initial budget of £660,000. Today the government sealed its commitment to the centre with an announcement of long-term funding of £3m from 2006-2008.

The Nuffield Council added that the replacement of animals should have a higher profile in universities and urged funding agencies such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust to consider funding a new professorship in the area.

The report also pointed to the need for more detail on how animals are treated in the annual statistics published by the Home Office on the use of animals in experiments.

The unnecessary duplication of experiments on animals was also criticised. For example, companies often refrain from publishing their results to prevent others copying their ideas.

Contributor

Alok Jha, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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