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The Lancet 2007; 369:1147-1148
DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60541-8
Comment: Animal research: the debate continues.
David Weatherall . Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK

In 1875, Charles Dodgson, under his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, wrote a blistering attack on vivisection, which he circulated to the governing body of Oxford University, UK, in an attempt to prevent its establishment of a physiology department. Today, despite the subsequent evolution of one of the most rigorous governmental regulatory systems in the world, little has changed.

A report1 published at the end of 2006-The use of non-human primates in research-that was sponsored by the UK Royal Society, Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, and Academy of Medical Sciences attempts to establish a sounder basis for the debate on animal research through an in-depth analysis of the scientific basis for research on monkeys. In the UK, no great apes have been used for research since 1986. Of 3000 monkeys used in animal research every year, 75% are for toxicology studies by the pharmaceutical industry.1 Although expenditure on biomedical research has almost doubled over the past 10 years, the number of monkeys used for this purpose (about 300) has tended to fall. The report, which discusses mainly the use of monkeys in biomedical research, pays particular attention to the development of vaccines for AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, and to the nervous system and its disorders. The report assesses the importance to global health of these issues, together with potential approaches that might avoid the use of animals in research. Other research areas are also discussed, together with ethics, animal welfare, drug discovery, and toxicology. The report concludes that in some cases there is a valid scientific argument for the use of monkeys in medical research. However, no blanket decisions can be made because of the speed of progress in biomedical science (particularly in molecular and cell biology) and because of the available non-invasive methods for study of the brain. Every case must be considered individually and supported by a fully informed assessment of the importance of the work and of alternatives to the use of animals.

Furthermore, the report asks for greater openness from medical and scientific journals about the amount of animal suffering that occurred in studies and for regular publication of the outcomes of animal research and toxicology studies. It calls for the development of a national strategic plan for animal research, including the dissemination of information about alternative research methods to the use of animals, and the creation of centres of excellence for better care of animals and for training of scientists. Finally, it suggests some approaches towards a better-informed public debate on the future of animal research.

Although the report was received favourably by the mass media, animal-rights groups thought that it did not go far enough in setting priorities for development of alternatives to the use of animals. In fact, it investigates many of these approaches, including cell and molecular biology, use of transgenic mice (an alternative to use of primates), computer modelling, in-silico technology, stem cells, microdosing, and pharmacometabonomic phenotyping. However, the report concludes that although many of these techniques have great promise, they are at a stage of development that is too early for assessment of their true potential.

The controversy of animal research continues unabated. Shortly after publication of the report, two highly charged stories were published in the media.2,3 A study4 that used systematic reviews to compare treatment outcome from clinical trials of animals with those of human beings suggested that discordance in the results might have been due to bias, poor design, or inadequacies of animals for modelling of human disease. Although the study made some helpful suggestions for the future, its findings are not surprising. The imperfections of animals for study of human disease and of drug trials are documented widely.1,5

The current furore about the UK Government's ban on human nuclear-transfer experiments involving animals should not surprise us either.3 This area of research had a bad start when this method of production of stem cells was labelled as therapeutic cloning, thus confusing it with reproductive cloning. Surely licensing bodies and the scientific community should have anticipated this problem. The possibilities that insufficient human eggs will be available, and that insertion of human nuclei into animal eggs might be necessary, have been discussed for several years,6 but have been aired rarely in public; it is little wonder that the Government is confused.

Biomedical science is moving so quickly that maintenance of an adequate level of public debate on the ethical issues is difficult. I hope that the sponsors of the recent report will now activate its recommendations, not least how better mechanisms can be developed to broaden and sustain interactions between science and the public. Although any form of debate will probably not satisfy the extremists of the antivivisection movement, the rest of society deserves to receive the information it needs to deal with these extremely difficult issues.

I chaired the working group that produced The use of non-human primates in research. My opinions in this Comment do not necessarily reflect those of the report's sponsors.

References

1. UK Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, Royal Society and Wellcome Trust. The use of non-human primates in research. December, 2006: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=3696 (accessed Feb 14, 2007)..

2. Boseley S. Many animal tests are badly flawed, say scientists. The Guardian (London), Dec 15, 2006 http://www.guardian.co.uk/animalrights/story/0,,1972659... (accessed Feb 26, 2007)..

3. Connor S. Hybrid animal-human embryos face ban. Independent (London), Jan 5, 2007 http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/health_medical/article... (accessed Feb 22, 2007)..

4. Perel P, Roberts I, Sena E, et al. Comparison of treatment effects between animal experiments and clinical trials: systematic review. BMJ 2007; 334: 197. CrossRef

5. Krimsky S. Science in the private interest. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003:.

6. US Institute of Medicine. Stem cells and the future of regenerative medicine. Washington: National Academy Press, 2002:.


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