A scheme to build a research centre to experiment on primates has been abandoned by Cambridge University, because of rising security and building costs. The estimated cost of building the centre has jumped from £24m when the plan was proposed in 1998 to £32m now, at a time when the university is expecting a £19m spending deficit over the next two years.
The university's financial watchdog had criticised the project's planners for not telling them the centre would involve research on primates. The Cambridge pro-vice chancellor, Professor Tony Minson, said the decision was taken by the university council on Monday because of the rising costs. But he rejected the suggestion that animal rights group arguments had inherent merit.
"The animal rights group will, of course, claim this as a victory, but in our view they have won no arguments," he said. "We still believe this work to be of significant national importance and we are already exploring with the medical research funding agencies other ways of continuing this work."
But the university's embarrassment over its decision was emphasised when it admitted it had planned to release the news today, when the media's focus would be on the release of the Hutton report into the death of David Kelly.
The controversy over the experiments, which would involve tests on the brains of live animals, has led to the city of Cambridge being the target for repeated protests. In some cases, demonstrators have caused huge traffic jams, and police feared they would be called frequently to the centre - planned for Huntingdon Road on the outskirts of the city - if it went ahead. For that reason, they and the city council opposed the university's planning application.
The Government has repeatedly backed the scheme, first through statements by the minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, then by the unexpected decision at the end of last year by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to approve a planning application for the centre, despite local opposition.
Researchers studying brain disorders said the centre would have given valuable insights into disease processes and they vowed to find other ways to do the work. Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said yesterday: "We will try to make sure it goes on in Cambridge, but if not, it will go on elsewhere eventually, and it will be patients who benefit."
But animal rights groups were triumphant. Wendy Higgins, campaign director for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: "The news will save the lives of thousands of monkeys." But she feared the Government would still allow a research centre to be built, possibly on Ministry of Defence land barred to protesters.
A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "We are campaigning for a reduction in primate experiments and their replacement with humane alternatives. We need to move away from the use of these remarkable animals. This should not be beyond the bounds of scientific endeavour in the 21st century."
The centre would have been the biggest primate research laboratory in Europe, with about 100 apes and monkeys, the closest evolutionary relatives to humans. Researchers insist that only through brain studies on primates can the most useful lessons be learnt about comparable diseases and disorders in humans.
"Animal rights groups bring out experts saying animal research isn't of value, but we don't subscribe to that view," a university spokesman said. "They cite tissue culturing [which uses cells in test tubes rather than animals] and computer modelling as alternatives. But neither of those gives an idea of how the brain actually works." Professor Blakemore said: "The scientific system has strict limits. Animals can be used only when there is no alternative for finding the answer to important scientific questions."
THE ABANDONED PROJECTS
The work would have investigated how animals behaved under different brain conditions.
Some of the work would have been "non-invasive", using brain scans. Some would have required brain surgery to mimic conditions such as strokes, and some might have administered drugs to mimic effects. No further detail is available because the research grants would have described the work in detail only when the building was nearly complete.
Projects that were under consideration include research into degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases; traumatic brain injury; strokes; drug addiction; autism and schizophrenia.