Individual European governments are currently working out how to translate a new EU Directive on Animal Research into their own national laws. It would seem a good time for governments to be talking about the benefits of well-funded, humane research using animals. Wait a minute …. the British Parliament are.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to change the regulations governing experiments on animals.
On the 24th October 2011 the British House of Lords (Upper House of Parliament) debated the issue of animal research regulation (click for full text of debate). In response to Lord Wills’ initial questions on the impact of the directive on UK law there was a flood of support for the medical breakthroughs made possible by animal research.
Lord (Professor) Winston, an eminent British scientist who works in both reproductive biology and the field of organ transplantation, spoke of the role of animals in experiments in his own field.
My field has largely been that of in vitro fertilisation and reproductive biology. It is interesting to consider that more than 1 million babies could not have existed without the research that has been carried out on rodents. That is true of my work in the screening of embryos for genetic disorders. This has been a revolution in reproductive medicine. It means that women can embark on a pregnancy knowing for certain that they will be free from having a baby which will die in the first few years of life. That was made possible purely through extensive animal research. Animal research has contributed hugely to physiological medical research in virtually every field, whether it be the liver, heart, brain or kidneys, or neuroscience or any major discipline.
Lord Winston also spoke of the need for the Government, and scientific community to engage the public on this issue.
It is quite shocking that every university in this country does not admit that we have an animal house where we do animal experiments. If we do not say this very clearly to the public, if we do not make that message clear, then of course people will start to think there is something clandestine or something to be ashamed of in our research programmes. I really do not think that is true
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, spoke clearly about the benefit of animal research and the high standards of care that exist in the UK.
From my previous experience in the university world, where a substantial proportion of medical research is conducted, I know that the highest standards of ethical behaviour are required and adhered to. That is as true in research involving animals as in other areas. Research using animals has been the fundamental basis for many of the medical advances that we now rely on. I do not think that I can do better than quote the Wellcome Trust, one of the most important funding charities in this field. It said:
“The use of animals in research has enabled major advances in the understanding of biology and led to the development of nearly every type of drug, treatment or surgical procedure in contemporary medical and veterinary practice”.
There is a long list of diseases and treatments where these advances have had an impact-tuberculosis, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure, stroke, asthma, Alzheimer’s, and anaesthetics. In the area of organ transplants, in which I have an interest as chair of the Human Tissue Authority, heart and kidney transplant techniques, together with vital anti-rejection medication, were developed using animals-as my noble friend Lord Winston described so vividly. In the financial year 2009-10, 3,706 people received major organ transplants through the NHS.
Using sentient animals in research places a huge responsibility on researchers and Governments. Regulation is therefore essential. Indeed, the UK was the first country in the world to protect research animals by law, in 1876. The UK is now widely regarded as having the tightest legislative control on medical research in the world, together with a reputation for high animal welfare standards. Perhaps even more telling, in order to obtain a license to experiment on animals, researchers must demonstrate to the Home Office that their research cannot be done using alternative non-animal methods.
Lord Taverne, founder of Sense about Science, spoke about the importance of
Public support is of course important-as many previous speakers have pointed out. The progress made in the three Rs also plays a part in this, and there is no doubt that there has been better education, but it could still be improved. I would add to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating, “All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals”.
It is for the sake not only of the health of human beings but of the welfare of animals that we continue to be vigilant to ensure that animal research proceeds effectively and with due care for the animals affected.
Lord Willis of Knaresborough, who formerly chaired the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (as an MP in 2010), gave the Government’s position.
Our priorities are: to promote high-quality science and patient benefits; to ensure high standards of animal welfare; to apply the principles of the three Rs; to harmonise EU regulatory requirements so that we do not have different levels in different countries; and to promote public confidence in humane animal research, which can be done only through openness and transparency. … You cannot achieve world-class research unless you treat your animal models with respect and care.
The British Government continue to affirm their commitment to well regulated biomedical research involving animals. Thank the Lords!