11 June 2005

Where is the frank and open debate on animal testing?

By Jacqui McCarney

Open debate and animal testing are not natural bedfellows. Polarised accusations abound in the media - 'terrorist' (campaigner) or 'monster' (scientists). This plays into public fears - the subject has become such a hot potato that few politicians are brave enough to tackle it.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has listened to experts on all sides and thrown some much needed light on the subject, via a two-year study and report (just published) on the ethics of animal experimentation. They call for all sides to improve the quality of the discussions, introduce more openness about research on animal testing, and engage in a more democratic debate.

Would anybody want to cause unnecessary suffering to animals? Most people feel very deeply about this issue. In the UK public concern led to the runaway success of companies like The Body Shop whose cosmetics were free from animal testing. The Government followed suit with a ban on animal testing for cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco.

Unfortunately, the law is not without loopholes. Most crucially, the Government has not banned the importation of cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco products that have been tested on animals. Another example is that botox, intended for cosmetic, anti-wrinkle treatment is tested on animals, is also a medicine, and in production no distinction is made between batches destined for cosmetic as opposed to pharmaceutical use. In these tests, mice are subject to toxicity tests, described by the UK Government as a "severe procedure", outlawed in 1999 except in "exceptional scientific grounds", as the mice involved suffocate as their diaphragms are paralysed.

Whilst it is commonly argued that animal testing is essential for research into disease and cancer, recent Home Office statistics indicate that the growth in animal testing is for household products (75% annually).

Each 'New' 'Improved' 'Mountain Fresh' product, whether it is washing powder or bathroom cleaner is tested on animals - sprayed into eyes, ingested, and douched on skin. The competition between companies means that results of experiments are not shared and experiments are duplicated many times. Yet, these companies could use combinations of the thousands of ingredients for which safety data already exists - it is surely unnecessary to continue these 'new' product developments.

What about medical research? A frightened public confronted with cancer and other ills are often willing to accept animal experimentation as 'a necessary evil'. Perhaps the real question is how effective is animal testing in medical research?

Evidence, over the years, shows that animal models in medical research are an unreliable predictor of how humans will respond to the same drugs, giving both false 'negatives' and 'positives'. This has led to both huge number deaths and injuries due to undiscovered toxicity, and the unnecessary delay in successful treatments which showed problems in animals.

Perhaps the most famous false negative is Thalidomide - no animal tests detected it. Dogs failed to predict the heart problems caused by encainade and fiecainide which led to an estimated 3,000 deaths in the USA. Asbestosis was denied for decades because asbestos had no adverse effect on animals. Conversely, benign to humans, aspirin and insulin cause birth defects in primates.

This leads to the strange paradox that 50 drugs on the market, which cause cancer in laboratory animals, are allowed because it is admitted that the animal tests are 'irrelevant'.

These limitations of animal experimentation are reflected in case law. With thalidomide, despite the human cost, producers were acquitted in court after numerous experts agreed that animal tests could not be relied on for human medicine.

Medicines, tested on animals, which consequently prove to be harmful, can not be prosecuted against because, in the words of the medical expert in the 'Surgan' case, "data from animals could not be extrapolated safely to patients". Indeed 88% of doctors agree that animal experiments can be misleading "because of anatomical and physiological differences between animals and humans".

There are research organisations committed to humane methods, such as Dr Hadwen's Trust, who fund research without the use of animals. There are 450 methods that could replace animal testing from computer modelling, synthetic skin, magnetic resonance (MRI) and human volunteers.

Do 22 animals have to die every second in labs? A German doctors' congress concluded that 6% of fatal illnesses and 25% of organic illness are caused by medicines, all animal tested. The Nuffield Council concluded that alternative ways of conducting medical research should be found. This change will not only protect animals from suffering but will also protect many humans from unnecessary suffering too.

Geoffrey Thomas of the Dr Hadwen Trust is speaking at 6:30pm in the Congregation Hall at UEA, today, 11 June 2005. Entry is free.