Animal testing brought close to home
Animal testing is a contentious issue worldwide, inspiring lobbyists both for and against the issue. But were you aware it takes place at this university? Jess Groling, Laura Mitchell and Chris Calvert of the Animal Rights Society comment on testing in our back yard
Durham University is tested on animals. Mice, rats, rabbits, fish and frogs are routinely experimented on in Durham labs, in the name of progress. We are assured that procedures involving the use of live animals are scrutinised by an Ethics Committee in a “transparent and ethical manner”. The process is, according to the University, “strictly regulated, licensed and regularly inspected by the Home Office,” in alliance with the Ethics Committee.
So who is this committee? What you may not be aware of is that the appointments of Chair and Vice-Chair of this committee are made “in consultation” with our own Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins (below), Director of the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Sciences Centre, and ardent supporter of the pro-vivisection lobby.
Most decisions to be made by the Ethics Committee are delegated to sub-committees, which in turn are tied to the individual faculties – and the minutes of these proceedings are not made available to the public. Perhaps it’s not so transparent after all.
Not only is our money being used for many of these experiments but we are also being deceived into believing that they are necessary: “Many of the world’s major medical breakthroughs have been thanks to many years of scientific work carried out with animals which share many genes and diseases with humans”, says Higgins, on behalf of the University. “Animal testing is usually the only option for testing treatments are safe before progressing to clinical trials in humans.”
Of course many medical advances have involved animal testing – because this has been the law ever since the Thalidomide tragedy of the 1950s and 60s. Thalidomide, a drug developed to reduce morning sickness in pregnant women, had been ‘proven’ safe in primates at five-hundred times the dose, and yet went on to cause more than 10,000 birth defects and thousands of fetal deaths. Ironically however, Thalidomide resulted in a call for more animal testing. Thalidomide is just one in a long list of drug disasters that call the scientific validity of animal testing into question.
Recall arthritis drug Vioxx, which resulted in 140,000 deaths, or TGN 1412, the drug involved in the recent Northwick Park Hospital incident. Adverse drug reactions are now the UK’s 4th leading cause of death and with 92% of all new drugs failing in clinical trials on humans after passing safety tests in animals. It’s no surprise that the scientific community are finally waking up to the possibility that vivisection could be a waste of time and money – not to mention human lives, wasted either as a direct result of drug side effects or because effective treatments are actually being lost because they don’t pass animal tests.
The development of Insulin for diabetics was delayed for years because of misleading results in animals. If it wasn’t for in vitro research, we might never have discovered it. If the current legislation demanding the testing of all new drugs in at least two animal species before clinical trials had been in force when Fleming made his world-changing discovery of Penicillin, the conflicting results he obtained from in vitro versus animal tests might have jeopardized the whole field of antibiotics. Luckily it only delayed the development of Penicillin for a decade. The list goes on: the Polio vaccine, for instance, was only developed successfully through research on human cell cultures, the animal model having resulted in a misunderstanding of the mechanism of infection and a delay in the development of the vaccine.
Today our studies are at the cellular level, where the differences between species are greatest. Animals do not develop the human AIDS syndrome, their cancer is different to ours, and fundamental pathological and physiological differences mean that whole-animal studies are even more misleading. We’ve cured cancer in mice for many years but animals only ever predict correctly for humans 5-25% of the time. Gene expression is what counts; taking a mouse to represent a human is about as useful as taking a map of Paris to navigate around London.
Why, therefore, do people like Chris Higgins insist it is necessary? Animal testing is well-funded, easily published, self-perpetuating and lucrative, but crucially has never been scientifically evaluated, contrary to the many alternatives that are currently being developed. The Medical Research Council is part of the Coalition for Medical Progress, an organisation which opposes an independent and transparent scientific evaluation of the clinical relevance of animal experiments. All this, despite a survey of 500 UK GPs finding 83% in favour of such an investigation. What are they afraid of?
Appealing instead to a debate that polarises the two extremes of (supposed) misanthropic, anti-science animal rights sentiments against life-saving research, people like our Vice-Chancellor are responsible for the continuation of this out-dated practice. “It’s a very straightforward and simple choice – if you want new medicines that are safe and effective we have to use animals. I would rather a new medicine was tested on a rat than tested on my child,” says Chris Higgins. Understandable. But it’s not a choice between humans and animals, or progress and disease; it is a matter of choosing modern alternatives that are scientifically validated and relevant to humans. EDM (Early Day Motion) 92, which calls for an independent scientific evaluation of animal testing, has been signed by Durham’s Roberta Blackman-Woods along with 249 other MPs so far.
It is time that Durham takes the lead in assisting the development of alternatives by breaking with its past in vivisection. It can begin by showing transparently to us students, who are expected to financially support this practice, that animal experiments such as those conducted here are only conducted “when no alternative is available”, and by putting somebody in charge whose personal career interests don’t lie in vivisection.
If you would like to hear expert speakers on the ethical and scientific cases against animal testing and have your voice heard in an extended question-answer session, the talk “Animal Testing Exposed” will be hosted on Monday 3 March at 7.30PM (venue TBA). Further information about this and a copy of this article with a full list of references will be made available at www.dur.ac.uk/animal.rights.