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Scientific community unites in defence of primate research

The Backstory

It’s been a busy few weeks for those who wish to explain the role of primates in research. Last week the NIH held a workshop on “Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates” (watch it back here). The Congressionally mandated workshop resulted from report language that was associated with a PETA campaign. PETA hoped the workshop would question whether primates should be used in research at all. Instead PETA were disappointed when many experts came together to talk about how primates remained important to medical and scientific research. Days before the event, PETA activist, Professor John Gluck, wrote to the New York Times to criticise the use of primates in research. Speaking of Research posted a response – “The ethics and value of responsible animal research” – that was signed by over 100 scientists. Other organisations have subsequently written back to the newspaper with letters published this week.

Over in the UK, a group of 21 academics (primarily anthropologists) including Sir David Attenborough (notable broadcaster and naturalist) wrote to the online-only Independent newspaper to call for an end to certain neuroscience experiments involving primates. This provoked a backlash from the research community, who accused him of being “seduced by pseudoscience“. They may have had a point – Attenborough’s letter,  organised by Cruelty Free International, backed itself up with a recent paper “Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity” (authored by two staff at Cruelty Free International). The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate Neuroscience Research told The Independent:

“We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. “

The paper (by Bailey & Taylor, 2016) itself suggests that several medical advances – such as Deep Brain Stimulation – did not rely on animal studies. This would not seem to match what can be seen in the academic literature, indeed Alim Benabid, who won a Lasker Award for his role in developing the technique noted the important role of animal models, including primates.

Researchers Unite!

There are many other events which have played into a frustration by primate researchers, but the response was huge. Understanding Animal Research coordinated a letter on the role of primates in research. Within a few days hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists had signed up. Notable signatories included: Sir John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, for their work in reprogramming mature cells into early stem cells; Sir John E Walker, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for elucidating the mechanisms behind the synthesis of ATP; Professor Mahlon DeLong and Alim Benabid, who jointly won the 2014 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their research developing Deep Brain Stimulation as a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s (the same discovery that the Bailey & Taylor, 2016, paper suggested did not require  primates); and Professor Miguel Nicolelis, whose Walk Again project allowed a young paraplegic in an exo-skeleton to kick a football.

neuroscience-starsOver twenty organisations, including Speaking of Research, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), and the American Psychological Association (APA) signed their support ( a full list of signatories can be found here). The letter was published by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, on 13th September (and the following day in print), along with an accompanying article.

Furthermore, around 400 researchers also signed on to the letter:

Nonhuman primates have long played a key role in life-changing medical advances. A recent white paper by nine scientific societies in the US produced a list of fifty medical advances from the last fifty years made possible through studies on nonhuman primates. These included: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; the MMR and hepatitis B vaccines; and earlier diagnosis and better treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer.

The biological similarities between humans and other primates means that they are sometimes the only effective model for complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. More than ten million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide, and a recent study estimated that one in three people born in 2015 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Primate research offers treatments, and hope for future treatments, to patients and their families. Already over two hundred thousand Parkinson’s patients have had their life dramatically improved thanks to Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, which reduces the tremors of sufferers. This treatment was developed from research carried out in a few hundred monkeys in the 1980-90s.

Given that primates are intelligent and sensitive animals, such research requires a higher level of ethical justification. The scientific community continues to work together to minimise the suffering of primates wherever possible. We welcome the worldwide effort to Replace, Refine and Reduce the use of primates in research.

We, the undersigned, believe that if we are to effectively combat the scourge of neurodegenerative and other crippling diseases, we will require the careful and considered use of nonhuman primates. Stringent regulations across the developed world exist to ensure that primates are only used where there is no other available model – be that the use of a mouse or a non-animal alternative and to protect the wellbeing of those animals still required. The use of primates is not undertaken lightly, however, while not all primate research results in a new treatment, it nonetheless plays a role in developing both the basic and applied knowledge that is crucial for medical advances.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

Get involved – show your support!

While, the letter itself is published. Understanding Animal Research are continuing the accept signatories from neuroscientists and primate researchers (signatories must be from academia and must hold a PhD, MD or equivalent). These are being updated on a regular basis on their website.

So if you wish to sign – click here:

Already they are up to over 550 signatories – just one week after they started collecting (considerably more than the 21 signatories that Cruelty Free International managed in their letter, and with a lot more expertise in the area of Neuroscience).

Speaking of Research

Of White Papers And Commentators: The Use Of Nonhuman Primates In Research

Two weeks ago, nine scientific societies, including the American Physiological Society, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Academy for Neurology, published a white paper entitled “The critical role of nonhuman primates in medical research“. The paper, which notes how nonhuman primates are critical to all stages of research, provides a huge number of examples of medical breakthroughs made possible thanks to studies in nonhuman primates. Among the paper’s appendices is a list of over fifty medical advances from the last fifty years alone; these include: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B; and surgeries such as heart and lung transplants. This is no small feat considering the group of species accounts for around only 0.1% of animal research in most countries (that provide data).


On September 2nd, 2016, John P. Gluck wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher“. Gluck is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. However, this Op-Ed has not come out of the blue. Gluck has long worked alongside PETA and other animal rights groups to condemn nonhuman primate studies. This op-ed is timed for just before today’s NIH workshop on “Ensuring continued responsible research with non-human primates” – a workshop that PETA is petitioning congress about. The article explains why Gluck stopped conducting animal research, his ethical stance against it, and concludes by saying:

“The federal government should establish a national commission to develop the principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research. We already accept that ethical limits on experiments involving humans are important enough that we are willing to forgo possible breakthroughs. There is no ethical argument that justifies not doing the same for animals.”

This is disingenuous of Gluck. The strict regulatory system that exists in the US, and most other developed nations, is the very embodiment of principles aimed to guide decisions on when and how we should conduct studies on nonhuman primates (as well as other species). Some countries have specific regulations surrounding primate research (e.g. the UK considers them a specially protected species and researchers must explain why no other species can be used instead). In the US, all primate research is governed by the Animal Welfare Act (enforced by the USDA), and any research receiving federal funds will also be subject to the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Animals (PHS policy; enforced by OLAW). The PHS Policy also endorses the US Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Use in Testing, Research and Training, which forms the foundation for ethical and humane care and use of laboratory animals in the US. Every research protocol must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – a group made up of including scientists, veterinarians and lay-persons – who review and evaluate the study, recommending ways in which it could be improved (both scientifically and from an animal welfare perspective).

Other commentators have noticed this as well. As Wesley J Smith writes in the National Review:

Gluck would have readers believe there are no strict ethical regulations that govern primate research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Animal Welfare Act already has many stringent requirements governing research on monkeys-as the law should-including cost-benefit analyses, the requirement that any pain experiments cause be palliated, and the requirement that oversight boards approve the purpose and approach of proposed experiments.

Ultimately, Gluck’s article reads as an ethical objection to animal research with some scientific gloss. The heart of his objections is Singer-esque in nature (he mentions Peter Singer earlier in the article). He almost directly condemns our different treatment of humans and nonhuman primates as speciesist:

The ethical principle that many of us used to justify primate experiments seemed so obvious: If you are ethically prevented from conducting a particular experiment with humans because of the pain and risks involved, the use of animals is warranted. Yet research spanning the spectrum from cognitive ethology to neuroscience has made it clear that we have consistently underestimated animals’ mental complexity and pain sensitivity, and therefore the potential for harm. The obvious question is why the harms experienced by these animals, which will be at least similar to humans, fail to matter? How did being a different member of the primate grouping that includes humans automatically alter the moral universe?

No doubt our understanding of the cognitive abilities of animals has improved, and with it has come a greater appreciation for their capacity to suffer. We are a long way from the 17th century philosophers, like Malebranche, who thought animals could not suffer. Our greater understanding of the capacity of animals to suffer pain or distress informs the way we treat animals in laboratories. For example, it was not until the early 1990s that the USDA adopted regulations requiring group housing of nonhuman primates (DiVincenti and Wyatt, 2011), this was thanks to many years of studies showing that nonhuman primate welfare was best met by keeping primates in social groups. As such, it is wrong for Gluck to claim that harm to animals “fail to matter”. While we may give animals a different consideration compared to humans (it is legal to eat animals and keep them as pets), it would be wrong to say they exist outside our moral sphere. The UK’s House of Lords set up a select committee in 2002 to look at animal studies; when assessing the ethics they concluded (s 2.5):

The unanimous view of the Select Committee is that it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering.

This is the heart of sensible moral consideration – that we should minimise the suffering of animals wherever possible while realising that we also have a moral imperative to conduct animal studies to reduce greater suffering among humans and animals.

Image from Californian National Primate Research Center

Photo by Kathy West.

Primates at the Californian National Primate Research Center. Reproduced with permission.

And there is no doubt we have a moral imperative. To return to the recent white paper:

Research with monkeys is critical to increasing our knowledge of how the human brain works and its role in cognitive, motor and mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression. This research is also fundamental to understanding how to prevent and treat emerging infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola. NHP research is uncovering critical information about the most common and costly metabolic disorder in the U.S. – type 2 diabetes – as well as the obesity that leads to most cases.

Without NHP research, we lose our ability to learn better ways to prevent negative pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. This research is also helping scientists to uncover information that makes human organ transplants easier and more accessible, literally giving new life to those whose kidneys, hearts and lungs are failing.

The eradication of these diseases is not worth giving up on. For some animals such research could be the difference between survival and eradication. Ebola has a 95% mortality rate for gorillas. An outbreak in 1995 reportedly killed more than 90% of the gorillas at a national park in Gabon. Overall it is estimated that one third of all the world’s gorillas have been wiped out by Ebola in the last 20 years. If nonhuman primate research (primarily in monkeys rather than great apes), can come up with a vaccine then it will be both animals and humans who can benefit. Humans are unique in that they are the only species with the cognitive capability of making a decision of this magnitude. In the words of Wesley J Smith:

This is the difficult fact that can’t be avoided: We need primate research if we are going to advance science, relieve human suffering, and bring new treatments into medicine’s armamentarium. At some point, we have to decide whether to help humans or not experiment on monkeys.

Looking forward to today’s NIH workshop (which will be streamed live online), it would seem they have struck the right tone. Reviewing the evidence, reviewing the policies, and looking to see what can be improved – that is the essence of science – while still appreciating that the duty of the NIH is to improve the health of a nation.

[T]he Office of Science Policy is taking the lead in planning a workshop on September 7th, 2016 that will convene experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare. Workshop participants will discuss the oversight framework governing the use of non-human primates in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research endeavors. At this workshop, participants will also explore the state of the science involving non-human primates as research models and discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies. NIH is committed to ensuring that research with non-human primates can continue responsibly as we move forward in advancing our mission to seek fundamental knowledge and enhance health outcomes.

Tom Holder

Hungary publishes 2015 animal research statistics

Hungary has published its annual statistics showing the number of procedures carried out on animals for scientific purposes in 2015. This post has translated much of the statistics into English and aims to interpret the data as a whole. In 2015, Hungary conducted 184,648 animal procedures on animals – all regulated under EU Directive 2010/63. This figure is 8% lower than in 2014.

Procedures on animals in Hungary for research in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Procedures on animals in Hungary for research in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Overall, 87.7% of procedures were done on mice, birds and rats. This figure rises to 93.8% when cold-blooded animal reptiles, amphibians and fish are included. Dogs, cats and primates together accounted for less than 0.15% of the total.

Trend over time in animal experiments in Hungary. Click to Enlarge.

Trend over time in animal experiments in Hungary. Click to Enlarge.

Using the trend graph we can see how – bar an anomalous year in 2013 – there has been a steady downward trend in animal procedures in Hungary from over 300,000 in 2007, to less than 200,000 in 2015. Perhaps coincidentally the 2013 high point coincides with the implementation of the EU Directive (and its rules around counting procedures), meaning it is possible that this figure is a statistical error caused by incorrect data from the first year under a new counting regime.

Animal Research by Species in  Hungary Pie Chart 2015

Other things to note in the Hungarian statistics:

  • Only 3.8% of animal procedures were on genetically altered animal – a much lower proportion than, say, the UK, where almost half of procedures were the breeding of a genetically altered animal.
  • 40% of procedures were for regulatory purposes, 34% were for translational or applied research, 21% was for basic research, and the remainder was for other purposes. It is common in smaller European countries for a larger proportion of animal studies to be for regulatory purposes.
  • Hungary also provided retrospective severity data for animal procedures. 71% of procedures were classified as mild, 15% as moderate, 6% as severe, and 8% as non-recovery (where the animal is not woken up after being anaesthetised for surgery).

Speaking of Research seek to be the best source of information on the internet on animal research and testing statistics. Unfortunately language barriers mean that we often find it hard to get statistics from non-English speaking countries. If you speak multiple languages and are able to help us out finding the statistics from other countries we would be very grateful. See more about how to help here.

Find more on the Hungarian stats here:

Speaking of Research

Research using sheep leads to a new device to record and stimulate the brain

A group of Australian and American researchers have used sheep to develop and test a new device (original paper) – the stentrode – for recording electrical signals from inside the brain. The research was published in Nature Biotechnology. This new technology removes one of the main obstacles to developing efficient brain-computer interfaces: the need for invasive surgery.

The “stentrode” is a group of small (750 µm) recording electrodes attached to an intracranial endovascular stent, which allows implantation of the electrodes inside the brain without invasive surgery. This allows high quality recording or stimulation of specific areas of the brain, without many of the risks associated with invasive brain surgery.

Image courtesy of the University of Melbourne

Image courtesy of the University of Melbourne

A stent is a tube-shaped device whose walls are made from a metallic mesh, designed to navigate inside brain’s system of blood vessels, until a desired position is reached. Once in place the mesh is expanded, securing it against the blood vessel walls. Importantly, stents are designed to be implanted by inserting them through a large blood vessel, like the jugular vein, and gradually “pushing” them into the desired position, by twisting and turning at critical juncture points where veins branch. During this implantation procedure the surgeons observe the stent’s location using a non-invasive imaging technique named cerebral angiography.

Recording the electrical activity of brain cells with high fidelity is the basis of new technologies to restore quality of life to many people with neurological diseases. For example, through brain-computer interfaces that interpret neural signals, people paralysed by damage of the spinal cord have been made able to control external devices, such as wheelchairs, robotic arms, and exoskeletons. Much of this work was initially done in monkeys– getting them to also control wheelchairs and robotic arms. Moreover, brain recording devices can be used to detect the timing and location of seizures with great precision, which helps minimise damage to healthy parts of the brain when treatment involving surgery is necessary.

One obvious problem with the current technologies is that there is a clear trade-off between the quality of recordings obtained, and degree of invasiveness. To explain this, let’s look at two extremes of techniques for recording brain activity – electroencephalogram (EEG) and microelectrode arrays.

EEG, recording from the scalp, is by far the least invasive technology: electrical activity of the brain can be recorded through a cap dotted with electrodes, and no surgery is required. However, because the signals being measured are so weak (due to the distance between brain cells and the recording electrodes), this technique can only detect the combined activity of millions of brain cells, when they work at the same moment (signals from small groups of cells tend to average out, not producing an electrical “spike” large enough to be detected far away). Thus, devices controlled by brain-computer interfaces based on EEG tend to be difficult to control, and have few “degrees of freedom” (how many different actions can be specified by the user). Moreover, it is difficult to determine exactly where the signals of interest are coming from, and electrical activity from regions well inside the brain is much harder to detect.

EGG. Image courtesy of Saint Luke’s Health System

EGG. Image courtesy of Saint Luke’s Health System

At the other end of the continuum are recordings using microelectrode arrays- small devices that are implanted directly in the brain, which contain many small metallic probes each capable of “listening” to the electrical activity of a single neurone, or a small groups of neurones. This technique, developed over many years of studies in rats, cats and monkeys, has been used recently to demonstrate the ability of a tetraplegic patient to control its own muscles again, using a brain-computer interface which included a microelectrode array to record the signals that encoded the participant’s intention to move, coupled to stimulation devices attached to different arm muscles.  Much more refined control can be achieved with this method, as one can potentially record individual signals from thousands of neurones, across many brain areas. The disadvantage, however, is clear: these devices have to be implanted directly in the brain, requiring complex neurosurgical procedures. Moreover, the insertion of the electrode arrays in the brain causes local damage, which triggers inflammatory tissue responses that, over time, can reduce the quality of recordings. Although this damage can be minimised by using larger electrodes that lie on the surface of the brain, instead of penetrating it (electrocorticography, ECoG), the need for invasive surgery remains.

Microelectrode array. CC Image by Richard A Normann. Tbe actual size of this array is 4 x 4 mm

Microelectrode array. CC Image by Richard A Normann. Tbe actual size of this array is 4 x 4 mm

As we can see, the stentrode has the potential to be the best of both worlds – offering the accuracy of microelectrode arrays and the benefits of avoiding non-invasive surgery usually associated with technologies like EEG.

Part of the problem solved by the stentrode developers was to find an adequate animal model, which would yield information valid to the situation of the human brain. Sheep were chosen due to the similar topology of the brain’s venous system, and the similar diameter of the critical blood vessels. The stentrodes were implanted inside a large vein that lines the somatosensory cortex – the part of the brain that encodes sensory information about touch, as well as muscle contraction and position of the body’s joints. Importantly, once implanted, they stayed in place without damaging the brain or blood vessels, and allowed stable neural recordings for over 6 months – while the sheep were freely moving around.

Stock image of sheep in research (in the UK) by Understanding Animal Research.

Stock image of sheep in research (in the UK) by Understanding Animal Research.

Currently envisaged applications of this new technique include “reading” signals for control of artificial limbs and seizure prediction in epilepsy. With some modifications, the same technique can be used for localised electrical stimulation of the brain, which may allow new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Deep Brain Stimulation, a currently used treatment to treat the tremors associated with Parkinson’s, requires invasive brain surgery to implant electrodes – this process could be made easier and safer using stentrodes. Besides being good news for people who may one day benefit from an easier way to have electrodes inserted in the brain for treatment of diseases, this story also illustrates two important points. First is the usefulness of animal models to develop treatments that directly benefit people. The sheep brain is not identical to the human brain, but can be judiciously used to model a critical feature of the latter, in a manner that is directly relevant for testing a device intended for human use. Second, that results take time to translate from basic research in animals to human use. The current generation of brain-computer interfaces would never have been developed were it not for decades of research on seemingly “basic” topics, such as how to best record different types of electrical signals from the brain, how and where the brains of various animals encode information for sensation and movement, and how blood vessels are organised and function. This is however just the beginning, and a lot more needs to be done on the way to useful and safe devices.

Marcello Rosa and Tom Holder

Original Paper: Oxley, Thomas J., 2016, Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recording of cortical neural activity, Nature Biotechnology34, 320-327. Doi:10.1038/nbt.3428

Switzerland’s animal research in numbers for 2015

The statistics for animal research conducted in Switzerland in 2015 were released last week. We have translated these tables to English and these data are summarized below.


Animal Research in 2015 in Switzerland. Click to Enlarge

Number of animals used in research in Switzerland in 2015. We have added a column titled "Total 2014" to aid comparison. Click to Enlarge

Number of animals used in research in Switzerland in 2015 in greater detailClick to Enlarge

Overall, there were 682,333 animals (not including invertebrates except Cephalopoda and lobsters) used in research and animal testing in Switzerland in 2015. Most of these animals were involved in basic research (66.1%), with “discovery, development and quality control” being the next most common (19.2%). The remainder were used for other reasons including disease diagnosis, education and training and protecting the environment. Mice were again the most prevalently used species (60.4%).

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

92.2% of the animals used in research and testing were conducted on mice, rats, fish and birds, similar to other European countries. Monkeys (198), cats (621) and dogs (2,518) together accounted for 0.6% of all research animals, with an overall decrease of 547 animals from 2014 for these species.

Animal Research in Switzerland

Animals used in research in Switzerland in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Pain, suffering and harm, were also measured and classified under four grades of severity; 0, 1, 2 and 3. In 2015, 42.9% of experiments were Grade 0, 34% were Grade 1, 21% were Grade 2 and 2.1% were Grade 3. These are defined as follows:

The following four categories are used for constraints on animals resulting from procedures or measures in the context for animal experiments:

  • Severity grade 0 – no constraint: Procedures and actions performed on animals for experimental purposes that do not inflict pain, suffering or harm on the animals, engender fear or impair their general well-being;
  • Severity grade 1 – mild constraint: Procedures and actions performed on animals for experimental purposes that cause short-term mild pain or harm or a mild impairment of general well-being;
  • Severity grade 2 – moderate constraint: Procedures and actions performed on animals for experimental purposes that cause short-term moderate or medium to long-term mild pain, suffering or harm, short term moderate fear or short to medium-term severe impairment of general well-being;
  • Severity grade 3 – severe constraint: Procedures and actions performed on animals for experimental purposes that cause medium to long-term moderate pain or severe pain, medium to long-term moderate harm or severe harm, long-term severe fear or a severe impairment of general well-being.
Severity Data in Switzerland since 1997. Click to Enlarge

Severity Data in Switzerland since 1997. Click to Enlarge

These numbers are relatively consistent across time, with on average 78% of all animals being exposed to no or minor short-lasting pain and distress.

Trend over time in animal experiments in the Switzerland. Click to Enlarge.

Trend over time in animal experiments in the Switzerland. Click to Enlarge.

Overall there has been a steady downward trend in the number of animals used in research in Switzerland over the last 30 years, despite the observed increase in the number of animals used between 2014 and 2015. According to SwissInfo, Switzerland’s federal veterinary office said in a statement that “the increase in animal experiments was linked to studies involving large herds of animals and to species conservation projects”.

See details of Switzerland’s 2014 statistics

Speaking of Research

A New Culture of Openness in Animal Research

Animal research has been credited with improving human health and leading to many medical breakthroughs. However, animal research still remains a controversial topic, with many animal rights groups believing that animal research is wasteful and pointless. One way to improve the public opinion of animal research is through education and openness. Openness can be achieved by showing the public what an animal research facility looks like and what research takes place there, in addition to discussing how that research affects human health.

In order to address the goal of transparency and openness in animal research, 72 organizations involved with bioscience in the United Kingdom (UK) launched the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research. Currently, over 100 UK organizations have signed the Concordat and pledged to “be clear about when, how and why [they] use animals in research”, “enhance [their] communications with the media and the public about [their] research using animals”, “be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals”, and “report on progress annually and share [their] experiences”. The Concordat, and the new environment of openness it seeks to encourage, has led many institutions to become more open to the media.

Last week, The Sun published an article about animal research at the University of Leicester in the UK. The University had opened its animal research facility to a journalist and a photographer who had an opportunity to witness the research first hand as well as talk to the researchers and staff at the facility. The article is a great example of not only openness in animal research but in research in general.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

Andrew Fry, Director of Research in the College said:

“At Leicester we’re very keen to make sure that we are completely open about the animal research that we undertake and that it fully adheres to all national guidelines. Our research on animals is entirely aimed at improving human health and includes important studies on some of the most common and devastating illnesses, from cancer and heart diseases to diabetes and obesity. Many important breakthroughs have been made as a result of our animal research and it’s vital that we explain this clearly to the public.”

The article provides an accurate and unbiased view of animal research. The author describes the research on the animals truthfully and details the care and dedication the researchers have for the animals they work with. Also provided within the article are pictures from inside the lab documenting the living conditions of the research animals involved in the studies. While media visits inside labs are becoming more commonplace in the UK, it is still amazing to see that journalists were allowed to watch and capture images of research procedures – such as the injection of a gel into the brain of a rat, followed by suturing of the incision.

Rat in Surgery

Overall, The Sun piece has been met with optimism from the animal research community.

Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research who supported the University throughout the project, said: “Many congratulations – I know its nail-biting stuff doing visits like this, but pitch-perfect coverage like this shows that it is so worth persevering.”

Openness from researchers in animal research has not always been easy. Efforts to open up have often met resistance from those with memories of the “bad old days”, when acts of animal rights extremism were still the norm. These tactics were used by a small minority of animal rights activists in an attempt to force the end of animal research. Although extremism is not gone, it is at an all-time low in most countries – including the UK. Furthermore, animal rights extremism can be countered by scientists speaking openly about their research and trying to inform public opinion by providing facts about animal research.

Although this article is a step in the right direction for a new culture of openness in animal research, as several of the commenters suggest, there is still more work that can be done to continue to educate the public of the importance of animal research. However, continuing openness by animal researchers, not only in the UK but around the world, can help the public better appreciate the importance of animal research.

Sarah Elkin

Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense

On 21st July the UK government released its stats on how many animals were used in UK research and the race was on. Many British universities raced to tweet the numbers of animals they’d used in 2015 and draw attention to their webpages on the subject. Science organisations raced to explain to the media what they were looking at in terms of real-world research. Animal rights groups raced to get their fantasy narrative into as many newspapers as possible.

Upon hearing of a 0.5% increase from 2013, Michelle Thew of Cruelty Free International said “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. This is perhaps unsurprising: in 2012, Thew noted of a 2% rise that “the lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; In 2013 (8% rise), Thew noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; and in 2015, after stats showed a 6% FALL in the animal statistics, she still noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. Perhaps it’s time for a new speechwriter?

Cruelty Free International also press released that “A shocking 30% of experiments were assessed by animal researchers and the Home Office as being moderate or severe”. This was a bit of statistical trickery. Having just mentioned that there were “4.14 million experiments* completed during 2015”, the 30% only referred to “experimental procedures” and not “procedures for creation and breeding of genetically altered animals” (see table below). The truth is that of the 4.14 million procedures, only 18.2% were moderate or severe (13.7% vs 4.5%), down from 19.2% in 2014 (14.4% moderate vs 4.8% severe)**.

*CFI’s press release uses ‘experiments’ and ‘procedures’ almost interchangeable. The UK tends to prefer ‘procedures’, which is any intervention, or set of interventions, which have the potential to cause suffering or harm equal or greater than a simple injection.

Severity of animal research in the UK in 2015

Severity of animal research procedures in the UK in 2015

Hyperbole came thick and fast from PETA, whose own press release noted “126,000 animals didn’t regain consciousness after experiments classified as ‘non-recovery’” before going on to mention severe experiments. Non-recovery studies mean animals are put under with anaesthetic and intentionally given an overdose of anaesthesia to ensure they never wake up**. These animals do not suffer from the procedure – they are completely anaesthetised from the beginning of surgery until death.

**For more information about severity categories in the UK, please read “Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures“. 

A special distinction, though, goes to Julia Baines from PETA, who wrote an article for International Business Times that gleefully twists reality to the point that Mark Twain would probably have considered it a credible piece of satire.

“Four million animals were used in British experiments in 2015 – why aren’t we using alternative methods?”

The title is fairly quickly answered by the fact that in the UK, it is illegal to use an animal if there’s an alternative. The author knows this, but still decides to spend another 651 words not mentioning it.

“Britain is officially one of the worst offenders in Europe for scientific animal testing. According to the annual government statistics released today, cats, dogs, monkeys and other animals were used in a staggering 4.14 million experiments in 2015, a figure comparable only to France and Germany throughout the continent.”

Well on a purely empirical level this is false. British, French and German figures are all considerably lower than those in Norway, which used 4.82 million animals in 2014 (mostly fish). Then there is the rather tricky description of animals used. Rather than mention the mice, rats and fish that account for over 93% of research, they pick three species which  together account for 0.2% of animal studies in the UK.

PETA misinforms public over statistics

“Currently, despite evidence that experiments on animals systematically fail to benefit humans, scientists in Britain …”

This huge statement is taken as fact. No “evidence” is provided. Perhaps she does not wish to bore us with details.

“continue to withhold food and water from animals in order to make them cooperate with experimenters; poison them with ever-increasing doses of toxic chemicals until they die; and attach bolts to their skulls so that they can be “fixed” to a chair.”

There is NOTHING in the article linked to, which suggests food was withheld, or even restricted. The study did restrict water intake for 6 days per week (It was not withheld; animals were always given adequate hydration). We spoke to the study author, who told us:
All animals get as much food and liquid as they want and need, and the animals are not food or water deprived. We maintain controlled access to food or liquid and give specific amounts for behavioural reactions, and we supplement food or water if they don’t get enough during experimental sessions.

The second claim is even more egregious, as of the list of 19 studies linked to, NOT ONE involves repeatedly increasing the dosages of a compound until an animal dies. Rather, studies are full of phrases like “Animal welfare costs are minimised by the careful selection of dose levels to reduce the likelihood of unexpected toxicity” and other such animal welfare considerations.

The final claim is misleading due to the information left out. The description seems to evoke images of Frankenstein’s monster. The original paper says “The monkeys were trained to sit in restraining chair in front of a computer with the head fixed”. Surgical screws are required to fix their head. The surgery is done under anaesthesia in a sterile environment.

“Worse even than the fact that these tests are ineffective is that for decades, some doctors believe experiments on animals have actually derailed medical progress. For example, according to Steven R. Kaufman and Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, we delayed our understanding of polio transmission, heart disease, and diabetes because we studied them in other species.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have previously been criticised for their activism and claims by the American Medical Association, who passed a resolution in 1990 that condemned PCRM for “implying that physicians who support the use of animals in biomedical research are irresponsible, for misrepresenting the critical role animals play in research and teaching, and for obscuring the overwhelming support for such research which exists among practicing physicians in the United States” [Page 123]. Their claims about the delayed understanding of polio transmission, heart disease and diabetes have been thoroughly debunked by us before:

All of this also seems to ignore that monkeys were key to our understanding of polio and development of an oral vaccine; a number of animal models were essential for the development of treatments for cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation; and dogs were indispensable for the discovery and isolation of insulin to treat diabetics.

Indeed the president of the Royal College of Surgeons said in 1993, “I think there is no doubt whatsoever that all forms of cardiac surgery which depend upon the heart-lung machine were developed through experiments on animals. There is no way that the heart-lung machine could have been devised and developed other than through studies on living creatures”.

“And Richard Klausner, the former head of the US National Cancer Institute, has also admitted, “The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.””

Now we come to the misrepresentation of someone who does have credibility, Dr Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute. Speaking of Research has mythbusted before the claim that “We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.”, but it was a throwaway quote lifted from this Los Angeles Times feature. Back in its proper context, it’s a reaction to the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, i.e. it means ‘we’re trying!’ Of course, other treatments for cancer based on animal studies did/do work. Why does Dr Baines think we don’t have cancer treatments? Breast cancer drug Herceptin is based on a humanised mouse antibody. How would Dr Baines have acquired this without a mouse?

Dr Baines’ next few paragraphs discuss alternative technologies such as ‘organs on a chip’ and 3D human skin cultures. No doubt these are exciting and important methods which, in their rightful place, can help to improve our understanding of medicine and disease. However, they are just one of a number of tools – including animals – which are used together to build up a picture of biomedical research. To this end I must return to my earlier point that under UK law you must use non-animal methods instead of an animal wherever they can be used. However, sometimes we need a full, living organism – for example neither skin cultures nor organ on a chip  get pregnant – they are of limited use in such research. The Home Office website clearly states “Implementing the 3Rs requires that, in every research proposal, animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible”. Alternatively check the original legislation – Section 5 (5).

Implementation of the 3Rs in UK law

“Seventy-nine per cent of the British public wish to see more exploration of these kinds of non-animal methods. The problem is that at the moment, the scientific community and the government lack the political will to end animal tests. It is unconscionable that of the £300 million in UK government funding for biosciences, only about 1 per cent is directed towards replacing animals in experiments.”

It is unclear where Dr Baines got her £300million figure from since just one of the UK’s bioscience funders – The Medical Research Council (MRC) – allocates some £678 million [p.20] each year to research. Other government funders of animal research include the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  (BBSRC; £334m) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Not all of this funding is for animal studies, for instance the MRC estimates one third of its research programmes involve animal studies. This is likely to be much lower for the EPSRC.

Calculating funding into replacements is similarly hard. The National Centre for the 3Rs, which looks at developing alternatives to animals, had an annual budget of around £10 million (the actual amount changes year to year). The BBSRC estimates they spend £1.5m on 3Rs research. Many other Government-funded projects will involve furthering the 3Rs, but will not be noted as this if it is not the prime objective of the research.

Another problem is in comparing funding for the developing of non-animal methods, with funding for using animal methods. Dr Baines has not attempted to look at the millions of pounds spent using non-animal methods – computers, tissue studies, human studies. Nor has she compared funding into developing replacements with funding for developing new, better, animal models – which will account for only a small proportion of overall animal studies. Apples and pears indeed.

There’s a just a bit of time to fit in some scaremongering before she leaves us.

“But if this nation continues down the same road it always has regarding animal testing, then uncoupling from EU legislation could lead to lowering animal welfare standards and permitting tests on animals that are currently deemed illegal under EU law – betraying both humans and animals.”

This is of course about the UK leaving the EU. What Dr Baines fails to mention is the fact that EU regulations around animal research have never been policed at the European level – they’re transposed into a UK law via Parliament so leaving the EU should not affect them. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that EU law was heavily based on the UK system, which has been in place since 1986.

Chimpanzee in IB articleFinally is the question of pictures. It is unclear if those responsible for the choice of images are Dr Baines or IB Times. The first image is that of a chimp. Now, chimps aren’t used in UK research. No Great Ape has been used for over 30 years in regulated research in the UK, and reading the caption the picture was taken in Germany in 1995. How illustrative of UK research! For good measure we also have some rats but they’re not from the UK either, they’re from China in 2008, a country with less strict animal research laws than exist in the UK. We can see how the images contrast with those taken by The Sun newspaper a few days earlier, showing what a UK lab actually looks like.

Overall, what’s striking about the article is how divorced its narrative has become from reality and I can only wonder at what mental gymnastics are required by the author to convince themselves they’re not purposely trying to misinform.

While we have taken apart PETA’s claims one statement at a time, not everyone has the scientific knowledge to do so. Many are left innocently believing, and even repeating, the claims made by PETA. Dr Baines, on the other hand, should know better. It is disappointing to see any scientist abusing the trust her position affords her by writing articles like this.

Chris and Tom

Speaking of Research