Brussels, 02 Mar 2004
A debate has been launched amongst the UK's scientific community, which has recently seen the publication of two opposing reports by renowned scientific bodies on the value of animal testing.
The Royal Society has published 'The use of non-human animals in research: a guide for scientists', which it describes as 'offering a way for researchers, and interested members of the public, to gain an insight into the essential role research on animals plays in scientific understanding and medical advances, and the regulations governing it.'
This 'essential role' is however questioned by a group of UK and US researchers writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on behalf of the 'reviewing animal trials systematically' (RATS) group, who claim that there is little evidence of animal research benefiting humans.
The UK-US paper claims that there are many methodological problems relating to the use of animals in scientific research, and that many animal experiments are poorly designed.
Methodological problems include: the disparity between animal species and strains and the consequential variety of metabolic pathways and drug metabolites which can lead to differences in efficacy and toxicity; variability in the way animals are selected for study; methods of randomisation; choice of comparison therapy; and unreported nuances in laboratory technique that may influence results, for example, methods for blinding investigators.
Depending on whether and how the results are used, they could therefore endanger humans, or render the research inconclusive and therefore unnecessary. The paper therefore calls for 'urgent formal evaluation' of the contribution of animal studies to clinical medicine and analysis of existing experiments.
'Systematic review of animal research would increase the precision of estimated treatment effects used in calculating the power of proposed human trials, reducing risk of false negative results,' claim the scientists.
Such qualms are rejected by the Royal Society. Clive Page, a member of the academy, as well as its 'animals in research' committee, believes that: 'Life-saving medical advances, from the polio vaccine to kidney dialysis, have been made possible only because of the use of animals in research. The Royal Society believes that the benefits to both human and veterinary medicine justify the use of animals in scientific research.'
The academy's guide goes further, stating: 'It is no exaggeration to say that almost every form of conventional medical treatment, such as drugs, vaccines, radiation or surgery, rests in part on the study of animals.'
One of the examples given by the Royal Society is gastric acid secretion and histamine binding. Antihistamines are usually used to cure an allergic reaction by antagonising the effects of histamine - the substance produced in response to the presence of an allergen. However, antihistamines do not counteract all the actions of histamine, including gastric acid secretion. To avoid partial gastrectomies for all those suffering from this condition, research using animals was conducted during the 1960s.
Animals were required, claims the Royal Society, because the studies required observation and analysis of living, working organs.'[U]nderstanding the role of gastrin and histamine in gastric acid secretion and the development of therapies would probably not have been readily solved without the use of animals,' claims the guide.
Animal testing recently hit the headlines in the UK when plans to build a new primate research laboratory were shelved by Cambridge University for financial reasons. The costs of building the centre had escalated from 24 million GBP to more than 32 million. This was partly due to increased costs for new animal welfare regulations, but also the long-term and open-ended security costs.
Building the new centre had already been rejected by both local planning authorities and a public enquiry, but these views were overruled by the UK's deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who approved the laboratory 'in the national interest'. To access the contrasting reports, please visit: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/templates/pres s/showPressPage.cfm?file=508.txt http://press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/february /edd514.pdf
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