How and why do we use animals in research?

There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. This is your chance to have your say.

At a meeting recently, one of our clinical scientists described how she had given a talk to prospective medical students about her research. They expressed surprise that medical research involved the use of animals. How, she wondered, did they think new drugs were developed?

There is a lot of misunderstanding and, for want of a better word, ignorance, about how and why animals are used in research. At a series of recent focus groups, for example, participants believed that cosmetics were still tested on animals. In fact, this practice has not been allowed in the UK since 1998 and was outlawed across Europe in 2009, and from this year no cosmetics tested on animals can be sold in the EU, regardless of where the testing took place. 

It is misconceptions such as these that drive home the need for scientists to talk about their work and which partly underlie the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research being developed by Understanding Animal Research (UAR).

Animals are essential for improving our understanding of health and disease, from how mental illness arises from the circuitry in the brain, to improving surgical procedures and developing new medicines to keep us – and our pets and livestock – healthy. We are constantly refining our techniques: in many cases, we are able to replace animal use with new technologies. Of course researchers would like to see the day when animals are no longer required for medical research.  Unfortunately we are not there yet.

As a nation of animal lovers, it is understandable that many of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that we deliberately make our animals sick in the name of medical research. This is why we believe that scientists must be open about their work and what it entails so that the public can scrutinise it and hold them to account.

The UK has some of the strictest legislation in the world when it comes to research using animals. Every researcher who wishes to use animals must apply to the Home Office for a licence and must show why animals are required and that the eventual benefits of the research outweigh the harm to the animals involved. In addition, the Wellcome Trust, like all other major funders of research, insists that researchers demonstrate a commitment to the "3Rs" – the reduction, refinement and replacement of the use of animals in research.

We thought the research community was doing a reasonable job of communicating what they do and how they do it, but towards the end of last year we received a wake-up call. A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the government showed that the number of people who ‘could accept the use of animals in research’ had fallen – not by a huge amount, but a decline in support nevertheless.

Ironically, one reason for this decline may be the safer environment in which scientists now conduct their research. A decade ago, animal rights activists waged a campaign of intimidation towards animal researchers, with threats of physical violence, attacks on labs and even bombs. A small, but courageous, cohort of scientists stood up to them publicly, explaining their work and why it was important. Now, thanks to measures aimed at tackling extremism, such attacks are a thing of the past, but this has meant that scientists are no longer called on as often to explain why using animals is necessary for scientific and medical progress.

When the results of the survey were released, a group of funders, charities, learned societies, universities and pharmaceutical companies united to sign a "declaration of openness", committing to becoming more open about the use of animals. This declaration was only intended to be the start of the process, however; we also committed to developing a ‘concordat’ that would detail the measures that we would take to be more open.

Over the past year, UAR has been leading discussions to pull together this concordat. They have sought input from organisations that carry out or fund research using animals, and organisations that are concerned with animal welfare.

The final version of the concordat is due to be launched in spring next year, but today UAR is launching a public consultation to find out what people think about the proposals and what "openness" around the use of animals in research means to them.

Much is made in the scientific world about "public dialogue" and "public engagement" – the need not to talk at the public, but rather to talk and, crucially, listen, to them. There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. It would be very easy for the research community to assume it knows what people want to know. This is your chance to tell us what you really want to know.

To take part in the public consultation, please visit www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk.

Nancy Lee is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust

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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.