The Basel Declaration: Standing up for Medical Progress

Top European scientists have pledged to engage in more public dialogue, openness, and education about animal research. Concerned about threats to the future of medical research, the scientists met recently and drafted a declaration that affirms commitment to responsible research and animal welfare and calls for increased effort to facilitate public understanding of the essential role that animal studies play in contributing to scientific and medical progress.  The call for “trust, transparency, and communication on animal research” was adopted by the first Basel conference “Research at a Crossroads” November 29th.  The Declaration can be found here, along with an invitation to sign up to it.

Prof. Michael Hengartner, Prof. Dieter Imboden and Prof. Stefan Treue sign the declaration

The Declaration underscores the importance of a wide range of animal research, from basic research that seeks to understand fundamental biological processes, to applied research that seeks to turn such knowledge into new medical treatments, and the critical ongoing need for this work:

“Over the last 100 years biomedical research has contributed substantially to our understanding of biological processes and thus to an increase in life expectancy and improvement in the quality of life of humans and animals. However, the list of challenges and new opportunities remains long.

Without research using animals, it will not be possible to overcome the social and humanitarian challenges posed by these problems. Despite new and refined alternative methods, animal experiments will remain essential in the foreseeable future for biomedical research.”

The Declaration makes clear that:

“Biomedical research in particular cannot be separated into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research; it is a continuum stretching from studies of fundamental physiological processes to an understanding of the principles of disease and the development of therapies.”

A Nature report on the meeting and an accompanying editorial highlight the crucial considerations underlying the scientists’ call for action, including not only the actions of extremists, but also the broad consequences of failing to build understanding of animal research:

Biomedical scientists in Germany perceive a separate crisis — increasing legislative restrictions that make it more difficult to carry out animal experiments. Hearing little to the contrary from researchers themselves, the public tends to assume that animal experiments are an unnecessary evil, so politicians respond with more restrictions.”

That problem was a major motivation for the Basel Declaration — drafted and signed at a meeting in Basel, Switzerland, last week (see page 742). Its signatories pledge to engage in open debate with the public about their work on animal experiments, to stress the high ethical standards to which they adhere and to explain why they have to do it. They intend, for example, to visit local schools or to mention that their research used animals when speaking to the press about new results.”

Such efforts have already yielded dividends; the Nature report notes how a determined effort over the past decade by scientists in the United Kingdom to inform the public about the reality of animal research resulted in greatly increased support for it.

Speaking of Research applauds this effort and joins in urging others not only to sign on to the declaration, but also to act on the pledge to continue to increase efforts in outreach, education, and engagement.

In fact, there are many groups and sources for information and conversation to which scientists can turn to for advice on outreach. They include advocacy groups and collaborative networks such as Understanding Animal Research, Americans for Medical Progress, States United for Biomedical Research, and the Foundation for Biomedical Research. They also include scientific societies such as the American Physiological Society, Society for Neuroscience, American Association of Laboratory Animal Science, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.  Many academic institutions have actively built outreach and education programs that offer good models for others.

Speaking of Research also offers information, tools and support for those who choose to contribute to public discussion of animal research.  There are many resources and avenues to support individuals who want to learn more and identify a range of effective ways to contribute to the public discussion of animal research.

Before we finish we’d like to draw your attention to an excellent example of the importance of basic animal research, Christina Agapakis writes on the Oscillator blog about a fascinating study which used gene therapy to restore vision in blind mice.  This news comes only a few weeks after scientists in Germany reported that they had used a vision chip containing 1,500 light-sensitive elements to partially restore sight in patients who were blind due to damage to the light-sensitive cells in their eyes.  In an open access paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team who carried out this important clinical study highlight the importance of in vivo studies in rats, cats, and pigs, and in vitro studies using isolated chicken retinas, in establishing both the theoretical basis for this study, and subsequently in determining the safety of the implant they developed. These advances in vision research suggest that devices available to help blind people see in the 21st century will soon eclipse those that Star Trek predicted for the 24th century!

This is of course exactly the kind of groundbreaking biomedical research that the Basel declaration seeks to defend.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D*. and Paul Browne, Ph.D.

Speaking of Research

*The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

 

15 responses to “The Basel Declaration: Standing up for Medical Progress

  1. Just read the Declaration and agree with it. Unfortunately, I can’t understand (maybe because English isn’t my native language) one thing – should only medical researchers sign it, or everyone who want to support them should? I am not a medical researcher, but really want to support them.

  2. Ok, but could you give me an example of liquid water that didn’t consist of a ratio of 2 hydrogen atoms to every 1 oxygen atom? Or, how about an example of a bachelor who is not a man, and is married? In biology, are defined not by their actual physical characteristics, but rather by their lineage. Thus, birds are dinosaurs. Of course the characteristics will usually reflect the lineage or help determine the lineage, but lineage itself is immutable, and is essential. Thus if we were to discover a pigeon on a far away planet that was identical in every way to Earth pigeons, it would not be classed as the same species unless we were somehow able to explain how it could have got there from Earth. But this is almost beside the point. Even if people didn’t take ‘essential’ to mean what I take it to mean, I think most people understand it to be something more than just “important”. If the Basel declaration had said, more accurately, “animal experimentation remains important to biomedical research” it would be admitting that biomedical research can and would go on without it.

  3. Your definition of “essential” has little value in any field aside from pure maths. Only there do things have immutable charactersistics.

    If I asked you to give me the essentials of a table, I bet I can find an example which lacked your essential characteristics.

    • Ok, but could you give me an example of liquid water that didn’t consist of a ratio of 2 hydrogen atoms to every 1 oxygen atom?

      Or, how about an example of a bachelor who is not a man, and is married?

      In biology, are defined not by their actual physical characteristics, but rather by their lineage. Thus, birds are dinosaurs. Of course the characteristics will usually reflect the lineage or help determine the lineage, but lineage itself is immutable, and is essential. Thus if we were to discover a pigeon on a far away planet that was identical in every way to Earth pigeons, it would not be classed as the same species unless we were somehow able to explain how it could have got there from Earth.

      But this is almost beside the point. Even if people didn’t take ‘essential’ to mean what I take it to mean, I think most people understand it to be something more than just “important”. If the Basel declaration had said, more accurately, “animal experimentation remains important to biomedical research” it would be admitting that biomedical research can and would go on without it.

      • On the first point, saltwater.

        On the second one – you’re right I should have added definitions as well as pure math (I would put them in the same area – philosophical logic).

        The point has already been made that it is believed that biomedical research, as a large institution of research, can not move forward (as a whole) without the use of animals.

  4. “animal experiments will remain essential in the foreseeable future for biomedical research.” LOLZ. I don’t think these scientists understand the meaning of the word ‘essential’. Since biomedical research can occur without animal experimentation, it cannot be considered essential to biomedical research. One can argue that animal experiments are very important for biomedical research, but being important is not the same as being essential.

  5. Matt, in this case it’s clear that we are using “biomedical research” to mean the overall biomedical research effort. Animal research is essential to progress in most areas of medicine, so I think it is absolutely fair to say it is essential to the overall biomedical research effort.

    Many different approaches, including animal, clinical, and in vitro research that we mentioned in the piece above, are vital to progress overall. That is to say, they are not just important but necessary, even though in the vast majority of cases they are not by themselves sufficient.

    • Well, I guess we’re interpreting the word ‘essential’ differently. I’m using it in a philosophical sense: I take an essential property to be a property without which something else ceases to be. For example, an essential property of a square is that it has 4 sides. If an object does not have 4 sides, it cannot be a square.

      By this interpretation, animal experimentation is not essential to biomedical research, unless by definition biomedical research *must* include animal experimentation.

  6. “animal experiments will remain essential in the foreseeable future for biomedical research.”

    LOLZ.

    I don’t think these scientists understand the meaning of the word ‘essential’. Since biomedical research can occur without animal experimentation, it cannot be considered essential to biomedical research. One can argue that animal experiments are very important for biomedical research, but being important is not the same as being essential.

    • I don’t think some animal activists understand the meaning of science.

      What is essential is the ability to do invasive experiments, as the technology to obtain the required data non-invasible does not exist. We do such work in animals.

      Without this ability, much of the progress at the cellular and molecular level will come to a halt. If it stops, then it is essential.

      • Saying much of it will stop is not the same as saying all of it will stop.

        Non-animal biomedical research is also pretty important, and this would no doubt continue in the absence of animal research.

    • “Saying much of it will stop is not the same as saying all of it will stop.”

      True.

      “Non-animal biomedical research is also pretty important, and this would no doubt continue in the absence of animal research.”

      True, but it will be slowed down as well… As you will now lack the benefits of ideas or hypotheses generated via animal research.

      • Ok, I agree it would be *slowed down*, at least in the short term. In the long term though, it would force scientists to really focus on developing better alternatives. Necessity is the mother of invention. Funding that currently goes on animal research could instead go towards funding this research into alternatives. At least from a drug safety testing perspective, these alternatives should prove to be far more accurate than animal models, thus speeding up the drug development process.

    • Matt,

      Alternatives can be developed when you compare two different measurements: an original one and the one you intend to use for replacement.

      In our case, we are presumably talking about a non-invasive method that can be used in humans and an invasive method that is currently used in animals.

      For example, you could compare direct arterial blood pressure with non-invasive blood pressure measurements. Only after such validation takes place you can be assured the new technique can be applied to humans.

      Thus, the development of alternatives requires the use of animals too. By taking away the use of animals you are not stimulating the invention of alternatives, but doing exactly the opposite.

      • That may be true in some cases, but how about along the lines of growing organs from stem cells, for use in both transplantation and testing of new drugs? These wouldn’t necessarily require any animals to be used…though would of course benefit from human embryo research.