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.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn is punished for his "friends" Hamas

In the face of David Cameron's unrelenting assault, the Labour leader still refused to withdraw his remark. 

When Jeremy Corbyn referred to Hamas and Hizbullah as "our friends" he certainly didn't imagine that he would one day have to defend the remark at Prime Minister's Questions. But that was the position he found himself in today as David Cameron remorselessly targeted him. Challenged three times by the Prime Minister to withdraw the comment, he refused to do so, though he came close when he insisted: "Anyone who commits racist or anti-Semitic acts is not a friend of mine". 

So unrelenting was Cameron's assault that Corbyn's questions on spending cuts were rendered irrelevant. The Labour leader instead returned fire by challenging the PM over Zac Goldsmith's noxious London mayoral campaign (which has painted Sadiq Khan as the friend of extremists). Suliman Gani, the iman whom Khan has been attacked for sharing a platform with, was a Conservative supported, Corbyn noted. He quoted a former Tory candidate who denounced Goldsmith's "repulsive campaign of hate". But Corbyn's lax response to anti-Semitism has weakened his moral authority.

Cameron gave no quarter in his defence of Goldsmith, defying the theory that he wants Khan to win in order to shore up the Labour leader. But he also undoubtedly hopes that the lines which appear to have failed in London will succeed elsewhere. With pure ruthlessness, he declared of Corbyn: "He may be a friend of the terrorist group Hamas but he's an enemy of aspiration." Labour was left to rue how its leader's back catalogue crowds out its attacks on government policy. Should Corbyn make it to the next general election, it will face far worse. "A party that puts extremists over working people" was Cameron's parting shot. 

After this brutal electioneering, It was left to the SNP's Westminster leader Angus Robertson to return the debate to policy. Cameron confirmed that the government was preparing a climbdown on accepting more unaccompanied child refugees. "We're already taking child migrants in Europe with a direct family connection to the UK," he said. "I'm also talking to Save the Children to see what we can do more, particularly with children who came here before the EU-Turkey deal was signed." He added: "It won't be necessary to send the Dubs amendment back to the other place [the House of Lords]".

The other notable moment came when Cameron announced that the Chilcot Inquiry would finally be published "not long after" the EU referendum. It this occasion that Corbyn is likely to use to make his long-promised apology for the Iraq war (for which, of course, he bears be no blame). But as today made clear, there will be no such remorse for the wrong "friends". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.