Helen Dunnett

Are scientists out of step with public on animal research?

Helen Dunnett November 8th, 2011 No Comments

Animal testing mouseAnimal Testing Perspectives is a platform for open debate on the use of animals in biomedical research and testing. To get an clear picture of the opponents to animal testing, I asked a journalist to take a look at their arguments.

The public is uneasy about animal testing yet research advocates shun the spotlight

Animal research has been back in the news again as controversy rages over major European laws which have been recently revamped by Brussels.

New EU rules on the use of animals in medical research are also due to be introduced across Europe in 2013 but anti-vivisectionist campaigners say the revised law was watered down by MEPs who were lobbied by pharma companies. For example, a clause that would have completely banned the use of primates was amended after industry and research organisations argued that this could jeopardise essential research into Alzeimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases

Critics claim that EU research agenda is driven by commercial interests and point to the composition of the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA) as a prime example. However in fairness the EPAA was set up to be a public-private partnership between the European Commission and industry to work together to find alternatives.

‘Tell me if this hurts’

The updated EU legislation on medical research classifies pain as “mild”, “moderate” and “severe” – a deeply subjective judgement made without the facility of asking the subject. How can anyone truly know the pain of another?

This definition matters. The decision to reuse an animal which has already been subjected to tests depends on whether scientists perceive that the animal in question has already endured “moderate to severe” distress.

The leeway given to researchers is, according to the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAA), a compromise won by vested interests. The group says that even some of the tougher aspects of EU laws will count for little unless enforcement is improved at national level.

On top of that, they say academic and industry researchers have shared very little information with the public about how and why animals are used in research. Ironically, those claiming to stand for science are accused of stifling scientific debate.

The ‘3 Rs’

There was a time when animal research was barely questioned. There were no ethics committees, no legislation and no animal rights activists. But those days are long gone.

Today, several stakeholders subscribe to the notion that the use of animals should be reduced; that animal-based research should be replaced with alternative methods where possible; and that experiments should be refined to minimise harm.

These “3 Rs” have been a guiding principle for half a century, yet there are now more animals used in research than there were then.

The trouble is the degree to which stakeholders think each principle should apply: anti-vivisectionists would like animal testing “replaced”, while researchers have found it easier to “refine” their experiments that to phase out animal testing altogether.

In addition to research designed to understand the body or to develop new medicines, animals are used as a routine part of vaccination production to test the consistency of one batch of vaccine to the next.

The Eurogroup for Animals says around 12 million animals are used for research and testing every year in Europe. It believes there is enormous scope for “replacing or refining” many of these practices and, in some cases, discontinuing them altogether.

Public perceptions

Whatever about industry groups and activists, what does the rest of the public think?

A Eurobarometer opinion poll shows the public is divided on the use of animals in experiments – even if researchers claim their work will lead to benefits for human health. This is particularly stark when people are asked whether scientists should be allowed to experiment on larger animals like dogs and monkeys for the improvement of human health.

Only 44% of respondents agree while 37% disagree. In some countries, such as Finland, Slovenia, Luxembourg and France more than half of those surveyed opposed such experiments, according to the ECEAE.

Worth the ‘sacrifice’

Animal rights groups argue that despite the millions of animals killed in the name of, for example, cancer research, medical progress has been too slow to justify the suffering.

Most experiments will not lead to medical breakthroughs and are conducted to test how animals respond to drugs, stress, foods or chemicals. Often this work adds little to scientific knowledge but the animals are killed – or ‘sacrificed’, to use the industry jargon – anyway.

Part of the reason for this, say activists, is that the genetic and physiological differences between humans and mice are greater than once presumed. Cures that work in animal models sometimes fail – or are unsafe – in humans, and vice versa.

‘Trust us, we’re scientists’

So between accusations that industry groups are lobbying policymakers behind closed doors and claims that scientists are shy about sharing details of their work, it’s clear the public have been left out of the discussion.

Expecting the public to support the use of animals in research simply because most scientists say it’s necessary will no longer wash. There’s a lot of explaining to do…

So, it’s easy to find information that points the finger at industry and the biomedical community at large. Silence has been the preferred response so far, but its time the research community to step forward to help us understand what they are doing, for whom and why.

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