Animal rights can damage your health

Vital medical research - and the safety of scientists - is threatened by the rise of the anti-vivisectionists
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This is Laboratory Animal Awareness Week. On Saturday, at a rally in Trafalgar Square, people brought flowers to lay at the feet of giant animal silhouettes marking the numbers of animals used in British laboratories.

The great majority of those who will be supporting the week or keeping a minute's silence for dead animals will no doubt be gentle animal-lovers horrified by pictures of monkeys with electrodes implanted in their brains or kittens with their eyes stitched up. But they also include supporters of more violent acts: animal rights attacks have been increasing - 622 in 1993, 934 in 1994, and likely to be up again for last year.

A few examples: Dr David White, immunologist, works on what may be the best hope for future transplants. He breeds pigs with a human gene which may produce unlimited organs for transplantation into humans without rejection. But his home has been wrecked three times, with "murderer" plastered in red paint across his sitting room walls. Then, despite every kind of security device, they put a hose through a skylight and left water pouring through for a whole weekend. Now the whereabouts of his laboratory is exceedingly secret. When he was working with Sir Roy Calne, the transplant surgeon, on the ground-breaking immuno-suppressant Cyclosporin A, a large bomb very nearly blew the hands off this distinguished surgeon.

Dr White says, "A lot of the protesters are very genuine, but dreadfully misinformed. I get these volunteers calling me, reading out a script prepared by their organisers. Recently I had a sweet old lady reading out abusive four-letter words she was plainly very uncomfortable with. So we talked and she told me she was on drugs for her rheumatism that her GP promised her were not tested on animals. I explained to her that this was utter nonsense. All drugs have to be tested on animals, for safety. People are misled by propaganda."

Professor Colin Blakemore, an outspoken defender of the use of animals, has been a frequent target. The last attack was at Christmas, when his children handled a parcel that turned out to be a bomb. Dr Vernon Coleman, the rabid anti-vivisectionist columnist in the People, had to be restrained by the courts from publishing Professor Blakemore's home address. Once Dr Coleman filled a double-page spread in the Sun with provocative lists of animal researchers, including work by Professor Terry Partridge at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. Professor Partridge says: "It printed who we were, where we could be found, and grossly misrepresented our work on muscle disease, saying we used animals unnecessarily. We do use mice with muscular dystrophy for our research, because we have to."

Andrew Blake, 33, is in a wheelchair due to the wasting disease Friedrich's Ataxia. He founded a group called The Seriously Ill for Medical Research, backed by Stephen Hawking and others. He has nearly 400 members with diseases that might be cured through animal research. But he too regularly receives threats, the latest of which read, "Your support for vivisection makes you a target. You have been warned."

What effect has all this had on the progress of science? Some say it has at least tightened the rules, stopped some cavalier animal research and made scientists more gentle and careful. It has raised the cost of animal research, ensuring that scientists try every other method first. However, the Medical Research Council, Professor Blakemore, Dr White and many others say that the campaign has done great harm.

Britain has by far the most stringent laws in the world on laboratory animals. The anti-vivisectionists have forced laws on to the statute books that now make animal research so difficult that more of it is going abroad. Development of new drugs and medical treatments is one of the few fields in which Britain excels. Yet the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act and the 20 different sets of advice, codes of practice and guidelines that the Home Office has produced since then are now seriously impeding progress. Ten of these regulations have come in since 1994, indicating the growing influence of the animal lobbyists. These new regulations have cost universities millions of pounds - "Money that would have been far better spent on more research," says Professor Blakemore. "The regulations on temperature, air flow and living conditions are far more stringent than laws on working conditions for humans." The Research Defence Society (RDS) estimates that implementing just one 1992 Code of Practice cost pounds 800m.

Researchers complain of the huge bureaucracy. The RDS says it now takes months to get a permit, and then requires monthly written reports to the Home Office. "We are seeing researchers turning abroad in frustration." All projects need three separate licences - one for the research itself, certifying its worth and ensuring that as few animals as possible are used. Then the lab has to be licensed, with trained keepers and a vet on call. Then each scientist doing the work needs another licence, requiring an extra compulsory training course and exam.

"It means", says Professor Blakemore, "that even the most distinguished foreign Nobel prize-winner coming to Britain to collaborate on a project is not allowed to do so because they are not licensed. You can hardly ask them to take a course and a written exam, so they don't come. Instead, we have to move the research abroad."

Professor Partridge gives an example of the problems: he was working on grafting normal muscle cells on to mice with muscular dystrophy. He wanted to take the mice to Belgium for the second part of a collaborative research programme. But Home Office rules say no lab animals can be taken abroad, so the whole experiment was done in Belgium instead. The Animal Procedures Committee is conducting a review of the 1986 Act, filling researchers with dread of yet more restriction to come.

Dr Max Headley, who uses animals for his work on painkillers, was blown up in his car in 1990 but luckilyescaped injury. "One of the worst effects of anti-vivisectionism has been most eminent scientists' unwillingness to stand up and explain their work. We have a deeply anti-science culture here compared with Europe, and we need to make the case for it, but people don't dare put their heads above the parapet."

On this occasion, though, the National Anti-Vivisection Society, organisers of Laboratory Animal Awareness Week, were the ones who failed to speak up. Countless calls requesting a conversation with a spokesperson or a fax of their leaflets yielded nothing at all from them.