Why ask this question now?
The Home Office yesterday published the latest annual statistics on the use of animals in scientific research in Britain. Once again the figures show that the number of animal experiments or "procedures" has increased, totalling just over 2.91 million in 2005, an increase of nearly 2 per cent over 2004, which itself was a slight increase over the previous year. A procedure can include anything from taking a blood sample to inserting an electrode into the brain.
More than one procedure can be carried out on an animal, which accounts for why the number of animals used in scientific research was slightly less than the number of procedures - 2.81 million animals in 2005, an increase of about 1 per cent over 2004.
Why the increase in experiments?
The reason is relatively straight forward. Advances in genetics, and in particular the completion of the human genome, has enabled scientists to recreate or "model" human diseases by placing different genes inside the developing embryo of mice and, less frequently, other laboratory animals.
Genetically modified (GM) animals are used to gain a better understanding of disorders that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to study with normal, non-GM animals. In short, GM mice can give scientists better and more predictive models of human disease.
GM animals were used in 957,500 procedures, which represents about a third of all experiments carried out in 2005. This compares with 32 per cent in 2004 and 8 per cent in 1995. Most of these GM animals, some 96 per cent, were rodents.
Animals that are used for breeding GM animals are also included in the Home Office statistics. In fact, more than a third of all procedures carried out in Britain in 2005 were for breeding purposes. Some people believe that including breeding animals distorts the total number of "procedures".
While there has been a sharp rise in the number of experiments on GM animals - which have more doubled in the past 10 years - the number of procedures on normal animals has fallen. If current trends continue, the number of GM animals used in British research will exceed the number of non-GM animals within the next five years.
What sort of animals are we talking about?
According to Home Office figures, the vast majority of experiments - some 84 per cent - involve mice, rats and other rodents. The remainder primarily involve fish (8 per cent) and birds (4 per cent) such as domestic poultry. Other animals, notably cats, dogs and primates - monkeys - account for less than 0.5 per cent of all procedures. These animals are given special protection under the law governing such research.
How does the law work?
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 is said to be the toughest legislation in the world governing animal experiments. Both the scientist and the research project have to be given separate licences and any changes to the project have to be registered and approved before the work can continue.
The Act controls any experimental or scientific procedure applied to a protected animal which may have the effect of causing that animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm. Animals that are protected under the Act include all animals with backbones - except Man - and one invertebrate species, the octopus, which is recognised as having a particularly evolved nervous system.
At the end of 2005, there were just over 14,000 scientists in Britain with licences from the Home Office enabling them to carry out research using animals. There were 2,886 project licences in force on 31 December 2005, almost all of which were classed as either "mild" or "moderate" in terms of the extent of the suffering to the animals. About 50 projects were classified as involving substantial suffering and a further 83 were unclassified - when the animals were kept under anaesthesia throughout the experiment until they were killed at the end of the procedure without recovering consciousness.
Why do we need to use animals anyway?
This is where things get more controversial. Scientists say that without animals, much of biomedical research would come to a standstill. They say that animal experiments have played a critical role in just about every medical breakthrough of the last century and that they are vital to test the safety of all drugs and vaccines, from common painkillers to the most advanced anti-cancer treatment.
Not surprisingly, the anti-vivisectionists disagree. They argue that animals are so different to humans that they tell us next to nothing about what goes wrong with our own bodies or how to improve medical treatments.
Are there any alternatives to animals?
Yes, and increasingly they are being developed to replace living animals whenever possible. For instance, growing human cells or tissues in culture is proving to be valuable in testing the effects of new drugs and treatments for incurable disorders.
Embryonic stem cells, which could be genetically modified to contain human genes for a particular disorder, are also going to prove useful for modelling these conditions in the laboratory. Powerful computer techniques might also one day prove just as useful as living animal models of disease - but this is likely to be many years away.
Is it wrong to experiment on animals?
Animals have been exploited by man for thousands of years for food, clothing and as draft animals. Many people would argue that using them for important animal experiments - providing it is done as humanely as possible - is merely an extension of this philosophy.
Others however would argue that animals have rights and that it is morally wrong to inflict pain and suffering on defenceless creatures even if there are proven medical benefits for human beings.
Do we need to experiment on animals?
* Animal research has been critical for just about every medical breakthrough of the past 100 years, and will continue to be so
* Britain has the tightest regulations in the world, requiring animal suffering to be minimised and the work to be important
* There are currently no alternatives that can be used to replace all animal experiments and, until these alternatives are shown to work, the research on live animals has to continue
* Animals tell us next to nothing about what can go wrong with the human body and research on animals is irrelevant and unnecessary
* Alternatives can be developed and some already exist, but they are poorly funded because there a bias towards using live animals
* Inflicting deliberate suffering and cruelty on defenceless animals can never be morally justified, and experiments on live creatures are on a philosophical par with slavery and apartheid