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Report recommends animal experiment alternatives

25-May-2005

A two-year study has recommended a greater focus in looking for other methods of conducting medical research, as the continued use of animals in experiments is both unrealistic and ethically controversial.

The report was particularly critical of the formal nature of researchers and urged a more open atmosphere, in which more opportunity for discusions about replacements would be ideal to reduce tensions between different sides of the debate.

The problem of conservatism in science was the main obstacle to opening these discussions. Members of the working party reported that, in their experience, researchers who had always used animals had been closed to the idea of discussing potential replacements.

The study, which was complied by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, accepted that animal experiments would be the preferred method in the short term, crediting the enormous contribution made by animal experiments to medical science.

It becomes the third independent study, after the House of Lords select committee in 2002 and the Animal Procedures Committee in 2003, to say that animal experiments has benefited the scientific and medical arena.

However, the report acknowledged practical advances in finding substitute techniques would become increasingly important in the long run as 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 task in replacing animals is both a complex and economically challenging one as simulating (in computers or in test tubes) the diversity of cells and tissues that make up a person have proved elusive. In addition, the question concerning quality of data obtained in alternative techniques raises the issue of scientific credibility.

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.

In a recent speech at the CMP Parliamentary Reception, Lord Warner, Department of Health minister said: "Research is essential for progress, and research on animals has contributed to almost every medical advance of the last century."

"I think that quotation needs to be understood by a large number of people who actually criticise work in this area. But we have to go out and make the case to the general public so that people don't become frightened about the advantages and benefits of medical research and using animals in that particular area," he said.

Dr Maggy Jennings, head of the RSPCA's research animals department and a member of the working party, that was made up of scientists and members of animal protection groups said: "A strength of the report is that it clearly 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."

Jennings added: "The report has taken two years of hard work to produce and could have a real positive impact for animals - but it is vitally important that its recommendations are now taken forward and are not just left to fall into the proverbial black hole."

The findings by the Nuffield Council echo those of The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM), which only last month were seeking to reduce animal testing as part of the upcoming EU directive that aims to abolish animal testing in scientific experiments if an alternative test exists.

The BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) also responded to the report, saying it was pleased that the working group recognises that greater transparency was essential.

"We would like to see more information on what is to be done to the animals in laboratories, for what purpose and with what result, as until full information is given how can there ever be informed debate?," they said.

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.

The report also commented on research into animal replacements should have a higher profile in academia and urged funding agencies 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.