The fertility doctor and television celebrity Robert Winston is moving a key part of his research on organ transplants to America because of government red-tape that he says has ruined one of his experiments.
Lord Winston said yesterday that his experiments on genetically modified pigs were part of an area of research that could eventually prove more useful for NHS patients than the sequencing of the human genome, yet the work was being thwarted by bureaucracy over animal welfare.
Speaking at the British Association's Science Festival in York, Lord Winston said that it took him 13 months to obtain a simple research licence from the Home Office for the pig experiment, which had eventually to be abandoned because of an obscure European directive covering the movement of farm animals.
The aim of the research was to modify the genes of a male pig's sperm cells so that the animals could then take part in a breeding programme to produce "transgenic" pigs with humanised organs which could be transplanted into patients in need of them.
Lord Winston said: "One of the biggest problems in Britain is the regulatory framework. It's been very difficult to get this sort of animal work going. It took about 13 months to get an animal licence to simply inject the testes of six pigs. That, I think, is not really very acceptable.
"We were then refused permission to mate the animals so we couldn't demonstrate that we had actually got the appropriate gene target in the right place and that it was expressing in the offspring. That was very disappointing."
Lord Winston said the regulatory framework covering animal experiments in Britain was so limiting that it was easier for scientists like him to go abroad, especially to the United States where there was money and interest as well as less restrictive laws. He said: "What I fear is that this work is bound to go on elsewhere. Certainly there is increasing interest in America. We will certainly apply to the US National Institutes of Health to continue this work in Missouri."
He said in his experiment, the six pigs were moved from a farm to a laboratory where they underwent an operation to alter their sperm cells. But when they were moved back to the farm they were not allowed to breed because of a ruling by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
He said: "It does seem rather blinkered not to allow work that causes absolutely no suffering to the animal and simply allows them a bit of pleasure when they mate.
"The ability to generate genetically modified animals is infinitely more important and has greater impact scientifically than, for example, the sequencing of the human genome.
"The Home Office is increasingly nervous about what is perceived about public concern about animal experimentation. In my view it's not been a well handled subject.
"For too long scientists have been rather intimidated by what is perceived as a very aggressive and violent reaction by a relatively small number of people who are firmly convinced that any kind of experimentation on animals is wrong."
Lord Winston believes transgenic organs could end waiting lists for heart and other transplants.
A regular complaint from scientists
It has frequently been said by scientists working in Britain that this country has the toughest set of regulations in the world governing animal experiments. Lord Winston's story highlights some of the difficulties they face.
Even the smallest "procedure" on an animal – such as taking a blood sample – requires researchers to apply for an individual research licence from the Home Office. Each procedure is considered in isolation and an institute cannot carry out experiments wholesale even if it has a site licence for animal research.
In the past it has taken many months for these licences to be granted. As one scientist wrote in The Times Higher Education Supplement: "Nobody appears to be able to stand up to this regulatory excess. I suspect that by making animal experimentation as long-winded and tortuous as possible, the hope is to make it difficult to do any real work."
Nevertheless, the number of animal experiments conducted in Britain has reached its highest level in 15 years with more than 3 million "procedures" performed in 2006 – a 4 per cent increase on 2005.