Vivisection is necessary despite the search for alternatives, says Simon Festing
No one wants to use animals for medical research if it can be avoided. It's controversial. The public doesn't like it much. It's expensive. And out of the otherwise sensible laws we have to protect animals, the government has created a mass of pointless paperwork that hinders research.
So why not invest more in alternatives? Since animals are far from perfect models, we could use advanced technologies such as computer imaging and at the same time reduce animal use.
The problem is that in pure biomedical research there is no separate area of activity known as "alternatives research". Rather, there is extensive development of alternatives going on within all areas of science. Because it is embedded within research programmes, it is not defined as research into alternatives.
An example would be the major advances in imaging techniques that led to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (Pet) scans. The development of MRI merited a Nobel prize and has provided an important alternative to the use of animals through human volunteer research. But it wasn't developed through any programme of alternatives research.
In another example, a leading cancer charity recently funded research into the use of cell culture models of prostate cancer. This work provides an ideal resource for investigating therapies without using animals but was never classified as alternatives research.
Anti-vivisectionists suggest that alternatives research is neglected. Far from it. Medical research charities and other funding bodies spend hundreds of millions of pounds every year on non-animal technologies. This investment puts them at the forefront of alternatives research.
But there is pressure to do more. A House of Lords select committee on animals in scientific procedures recommended that a "Centre for the 3 Rs" be set up, consisting of a small administrative hub that coordinates research units in existing centres of scientific excellence. The 3 Rs stands for replacement alternatives for animal use, reduction of the number of animals used and refinement of experiments to minimise suffering.
Predictably, anti-vivisectionists have jumped on this bandwagon, calling for a centre for replacement alternatives only. This proposal would neglect the welfare of research animals by ignoring refinement and is contrary to the advice of the Lords committee.
While the Lords recommendation is welcome, there are limits to what can be done. Better coordination and sharing information on the 3 Rs always help, but there is no point searching for alternatives that do not exist. Even those research teams that mapped the human genome are turning to animals to tell us what those genes do. The most powerful supercomputers in the world cannot yet reproduce all the complex interactions of a whole living organism.
Duplication of effort is another potential pitfall. The new Centre for Best Practice for Animals in Research is already running at the Medical Research Council and doing excellent work to improve standards of laboratory animal welfare across the 3 Rs. Any new initiative must fit in with existing projects and ensure scientists are genuinely involved. Otherwise the 3 Rs could become divorced from reality.
Throwing money at a problem simply to be seen to be doing something is evading the issue. For the foreseeable future there is simply no alternative to the use of animals if we want new treatments and cures. It is better to face facts now than to raise false hopes and expectations for the future.
Simon Festing is a doctor and director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities.
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