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The truth about animal testing

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

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

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)