Tuesday, 9 November 2010

If #ScienceIsVital, then despite all the caveats, so is (carefully regulated) animal research

An edited version of this post is cross-posted at The Vibe Online, an excellent political internet magazine.

To many, science and politics just don't mix - oil and water, polar opposites, as the classic primary school experiment holds. Looking at the sacking of drugs adviser Prof. David Nutt, the continued public provision of magical empty placebo pills, and the apparent relegation of clinical evidence in deciding which drugs to provide to patients, recent evidence would hardly suggest otherwise.

And yet science is very much at the heart of the political discourse, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the likes of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), who in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election managed to put science centre-stage as a key battleground.

Further proof that science plays a role in political life came with the recent Science is Vital campaign, which successfully mobilised thousands of clinicians, lab scientists, lecturers and passionate supporters of the scientific world-view to affect real influence on government policy - as a direct result of the excellent work Dr. Jenny Rohn and her team did in such a short space of time, science now faces a cash freeze, which given the counterfactual of 25% cuts that were mooted, is some result.

The role of science in society once again emerged as a matter of political controversy yesterday as Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay Adrian Sanders wrote of the need for a targeted reduction in animal experiments.

Had he left it at that, I contend, there would be no controversy, no argument - it is crucial that animal experimentation be restricted as far as possible to the necessary, the useful, the justifiable - indeed, a central tenet of the Home Office regulations relating to scientific animal experimentation is the 3Rs - Reduce, Reuse, Recyc... oh no, wait, it's Reduce, Refine, Replace.

Mr. Sanders chooses to focus on the final R, that of replacing animals with experiments in vitro (cells in dishes), in silico (computerised model systems) or in homo (non-toxic tests on human subjects such as skin-tolerance tests). Again, had he chosen to do so on the grounds that such testing is more effective, had he presented evidence to back up his claim that
  • [d]espite the fact that many governments, international bodies and researchers are encouraging non-animal alternatives, they are not being implemented even though these tests are more reliable,
his stance may have been more credible. Instead, Mr Sanders chose to rehash some tired myths about the use of animals in research, and mistakenly conflated the use of animals for cosmetic testing with that for medical purposes.

Take the following examples:
  • Mr. Sanders says,
    The numbers of animals used in experiments has been rising steadily over the past few years; up to 3.6 million in 2009 (whilst the number of individual procedures is far higher).
    The fact is this is the number of procedures carried out and not animals used, and represents a reduction from 2008 of around 1%. The more long-term trend has been for a marked reduction in animal testing since its peak in the 1970s (at over 5.5 million), with a small rise since 2000 - again, according to official Home Office stats (Figure 1 in this report),
    There has been a significant reduction in the annual number of scientific procedures since 1976, this trend levelled out in the second half of the 1990s and in recent years there has been an increase in the number of procedures. The total number of procedures was a third (+33% or +905,000) higher than in 2000, mostly accounted for by breeding to produce GM and HM animals (+834,000 higher, of which mice +734,000). Excluding such breeding, the total was slightly higher than in 2000 (+3% or +70,000)

  • Mr. Sanders says,
    A recent poll conducted by YouGov in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic showed that the majority of people are against the use of primates, cats and dogs in animal testing, because causing severe suffering to any species for experiments which are not for serious or life-threatening human conditions is unacceptable.
    According to Home Office statistics (pdf),
    Dogs, cats and non-human primates combined were used in less than half of one percent of all procedures, with a combined total of 10,500. This was 600 lower than in 2008.
    indicating that they represent a very small and decreasing fraction of the totality of animal research - this doesn't negate the public's aversion to the use of such animals entirely, but is a point to which we shall return.

  • Mr. Sanders says,
    Targets [of how many animals should be used in research] may be able to signal that less suffering will be tolerated and certain types of experiments excluded, such as experiments that are motivated by commercial advantage.
    And yet, although I don't have the statistics to hand, I am willing to wager that the majority of the public would not reject out-of-hand commercially available treatments that have been tested on animals if they thought the benefit from those treatments were sufficient.
And here we reach the crux of the matter. In citing public opposition to the use of dogs, cats and non-human primates, Mr. Sanders seeks to justify his call for a blanket reduction of animal research - in his words - 'regardless of its scientific merits.' In using an emotive argument detached from the facts, Mr. Sanders falls into the trap that animal-rights groups all to often deploy - pulling on the heartstrings from the perspective of the animals, and failing to communicate the positive contribution that research on animals has had in modern medicine.

Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that if animal experimentation is unpopular, it is the responsibility of the scientific community to publicise the advances in their fields that are taken from granted but would not be possible without at least some animal testing. Of course some organisations such as Pro-Test and the Lasker Foundation do just that in some form, but clearly there is a long way to go to win over the public, and the harder that animals rights campaigners such as the BUAV make it for scientists to stand up and make their case the less chance there will ever be of us doing so.

Besides which, the public popularity or otherwise of animal research, whilst not an unimportant consideration, is only one of the variables we need to take account of in deciding how scientific research proceeds. Whilst the use of animals is not simply a utilitarian matter of pragmatic matter of cost-benefit analysis, the benefit to wider society must be accounted for when government sets its policy.

Which brings me to my final point. The government's current policy on the use of animals in research results in a robust regime, in which animal use is tightly regulated and controlled; as such it represents an excellent framework that insists on the 3Rs, whilst allowing medical research to progress towards a greater understanding of disease and of potential therapies - if we consider science to be vital, so is the judicious use of animals therein.


SUIRAUQA said...

Mr. Sanders seems completely focused on the cute/cuddly/fuzzy factor, since he puts an inordinate importance on dogs and cats, as well as primates - he has no love for lower animals, such as rodents. His view of animal research is flawed, as are his premises for opposing it. I submit a generalization that the anti-animal experimentation stance either is largely anti-science, or stems from a faulty understanding of the process, largely fueled by emotion and propaganda.

teekblog said...

@Suiraqua - agree regarding the cuddly factor - anything cute and furry seems off limits, rodent are fair game. Your generalisation probably holds a lot of water - I'm sure there are exceptions, but in my experience a stance such as that taken by Mr. Sanders is indeed largely fuelled by either ignorance (for which scientists must take some responsibility as I mentioned) and/or emotive propaganda from those with an ideological opposition to the use of animals.

btw, cracking blog you have :-)