The European Union is about to publish a revised draft of the law that governs animal experiments across Europe. Our vision is that Europe and the UK should remain world leaders in advanced biomedical research which will allow us to develop new medicines to save lives and alleviate the suffering of millions of people. A small but vital part of that research will involve the use of animals.
The last decade has seen intense controversy about animal experiments in the UK. Much of the debate in the national media has been highly polarised. There is genuine public concern about the well-being of animals used for research. But at the same time there is strong public support for properly and humanely conducted medical research using animals. In the review of European laws, we see an opportunity for a more sophisticated debate.
A number of expert committees in the UK have published detailed reports on animal research, including a House of Lords Select Committee, a government advisory committee, and the respected Nuffield Council on Bioethics. They have all backed well-regulated research, but have called for more informed debate and greater efforts to replace and reduce the use of animals in research. There are signs of progress already. As well as having the most comprehensive laws to protect animals, the UK now produces more information about animal research than any other country in the world – through the publication on the Home Office website of summary information about animal research projects.
Although many medical advances are still likely to depend to some extent on animal-based research, we must recognise that animals can and do suffer in research. This will always raise difficult ethical issues. Alternative methods should be used when available, and the best regulatory system to protect animals is essential. Animal welfare standards must be high, and animals should be well treated and used in minimum numbers.
The UK government has responded sensibly to the debate about animal research. It has set up a new organisation called the National Centre for the 3Rs which will help find ways to reduce the numbers of animals used, to replace the use of animals with alternatives, and to ensure that any experiments are refined to minimise suffering to the animals (the ‘three Rs’).
There has been much debate in recent years about the extent to which we really need to use animals in research. A number of leading scientific organisations have outlined ways in which we can bring forward methods to replace and reduce animal use. Vast investments are being made in non-animal techniques which will help to achieve these objectives.
But where there is no alternative to using animals, we must also find ways of improving the results from animal studies, through better design and analysis of the experiments, and through advances in science and technology.
In the short term, we have to recognise an inescapable truth. The number of animals used in research is going to go up. This is partly because the use of genetically modified animals allows us to study the underlying basis of diseases in a more powerful way. It is also because new and sophisticated medicines are being developed which can target diseases more effectively. An example is the medicine Herceptin which was not only discovered and tested in mice, but actually comes from mice. It saves the lives of many women with breast cancer.
None of this will stop the onslaught from vitriolic animal rights groups, who continue to claim that animal research does not work and that scientists go to work every day to abuse animals. They presumably are talking about the fish, rats and mice which make up the vast majority of animals used. These absurd arguments have no credibility and should be ignored. We need to address the far more important issues outlined above, especially continuing to improve how we care for and use animals across all research centres in Europe. It is time to get away from the polarised debate, and face the real ethical and scientific challenges of tomorrow.
Dr Simon Festing is executive director of the Research Defence Society