The truth about animal testing

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable, but no one can deny that something needs to change.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of women run the five-kilometre Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research UK. They probably don’t like to think about it, but some of that money is spent on procuring animals for use in experiments.

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable. Every drug licensed for treatment has to be tested on animals. It’s not just a legal issue. Many of the cures we celebrate – and let’s remember that cancer is now more survivable than ever – were developed only because researchers were able to carry out experiments on animals.

In the 1990s, deaths from breast cancer dropped by nearly a third. Much of that success was due to the introduction of tamoxifen, a treatment that helps prevent breast cancer among those with a family history of the disease. The drug’s development involved research on rats and mice that explored how hormonal changes induce tumours.

Since its introduction, tamoxifen has been cited as part of the solution to animal experimentation: tests show that it kills human tumours grown in Petri dishes, demonstrating that such cell cultures are a good model for what happens in real patients.

Alternatives to animal testing are welcomed by all involved; this is not a zero-sum game. When the Home Office recently reported that the total number of animal testing procedures increased by 2 per cent in 2011, the campaigning group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) called it “another broken promise” from a government that had committed to reducing the numbers. In some ways, Peta is right. It would be a better world if alternatives to animal testing could be found sooner; we should applaud Peta for donating more than half a million pounds to labs trying to pioneer non-animal tests. But scientists are just as eager to get there.

Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, scientists aren’t monsters. If you have ever received treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, some of the procedures involved were tested on rabbits in labs run by Robert Winston. Those rabbits, Winston says, were petted and stroked every day. Much of last year’s 2 per cent rise can be ascribed to a general increase in the levels of scientific research going on.

And not all of the reportable procedures are detrimental to animals’ well-being. Just putting an animal into any form of isolation – on its own in a cage – is classed as a “procedure” that must be reported. Breeding a genetically modified animal is also a procedure, whether or not the modification causes distress (most don’t).

There has been a rapid rise in the number of such breeding procedures because knocking out certain genes gives us an idea of how to find cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In plain sight

That is not to say there aren’t unpleasant things going on. Yet “substantial” procedures account for only 2 per cent of the reported experiments. This is why all sides are keen to see a review of Section 24 of the Animals Act. Currently, no one can find out anything about what kinds of experiments are going on without making a Freedom of Information request. This understandably makes animal rights advocates angry and it makes scientists look sinister.

Take the case of cats. The number of cat “procedures” rose by 26 per cent over the past decade. That seems shocking, but most of the increase was due to studies on nutrition – testing claims of pet food manufacturers, for instance. When the secrecy surrounding that kind of work can lead to bombs under your car and death threats routinely dropping through your letter box, no one can dispute that something needs to change.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

A lab worker displays a bald mouse used in medical research. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty
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Another trade minister walks away from David Cameron's failed project

Francis Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

After just nine months in the role Francis Maude has announced he will be stepping down as trade Minister. It means David Cameron will have gone through four trade ministers in six years.

The nine months that Maude has been in the role have not been happy ones – for him, or the British public.

Our trade deficit in goods has grown to a record £125bn and our overall trade deficit has risen to £34.7bn. Meanwhile, under the Tories the current account deficit increased to its largest level since 1830 – when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister.

We’ve also seen a widening gap between the Chancellor and the Trade Minister in that time. While initially championing Osborne’s much vaunted “£1 trillion trade target by 2020” recent weeks have seen Maude pouring cold water over the target – referring to it as a “big stretch” and indicating it is unlikely to be met. The “stretch” he refers to is the whopping £350bn that the Office of Budget Responsibility says Osborne’s 2020 target will be missed by.

Despite saying yesterday that he would be stepping down having devised a plan to tackle Britain’s huge trade problems these new figures – incidentally released on the same day as Maude announced he’d be leaving - are evidence that if there is a plan, it’s done no good so far.

While Maude might be able to just walk away from Britain’s dire trade situation others aren’t so lucky. Domestic export industries such as steel and manufacturing, where output is still lower than 2008, have come under huge pressure in recent years from soaring energy costs and cut price competition from markets such as China.

Boosting exports is key to tackling the historic deficit, but the government shows no sign that it really understands this. While Osborne fails to provide crucial support to the steel sector, which has seen devastating job losses, he isn’t failing to take every opportunity to court the increasingly unstable Chinese market which leaves Britain even more exposed to global headwinds. It was just a few months ago the Bank of England warned that if Chinese GDP were to fall by three per cent relative to its trend then the output in the UK would be around 0.3 per cent lower as a result, yet Osborne is undeterred.

It is workers in Britain that will be paying the price for these failing policies. Those losing their jobs at Tata steel, small manufacturing businesses suffering in the industry’s stagnation and many other ordinary workers are not lucky enough to walk away from the situation like Maude.

Their situation is compounded by the Government attacking ordinary people on middle and low wages in other ways.

Although Osborne pledged in November to stop all tax credit cuts, he is still going ahead with a proposed cut to the income disregard costing 800,000 people an estimated £300 a year. This is on top of the IFS’s analysis from just a few days ago that shows the Government’s planned cuts to Universal Credit will see 2.1 million working people lose out by an average of £1,600 a year.

And coming down the line Osborne’s ‘tenant tax’ which will force all but the very poorest council tenants to ‘pay to stay’ – charging them huge market rents to stay in their home – which many will be unable to afford.

Under the new measures a couple earning £15,000 each per year – scarcely over minimum wage each – would be asked to pay market rent for their home, or reduce their working hours in order to take them out of the income bracket.

Osborne claims to want the Tories to be ‘the Party of the workers’ but this policy shows how much of a farce that is. People who work hard on low pay will be forced from their homes.

Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.