Helen Wallace: Can we really justify this disturbing kind of research?

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The Independent Online

In a world where 1 billion people are overweight, research on energy metabolism in mice will not address the social and economic issues behind the current epidemic of obesity. If the aim of this – or future – research is to create a new breed of "super humans", this is disturbing in itself. Although it is questionable whether the production of genetically modified humans will ever be technically achievable, any attempt would involve completely unjustifiable and dangerous experiments on mothers and their babies.

The concept of "enhancing" humans by genetic engineering is very far from reality, but increasingly medication, including new biomedicines, is focused on human enhancement rather than medical need. The issue of research priorities is a deeply ethical one, in a world where many diseases are neglected and people cannot get the medicines they need.

The creation of these so-called "mighty mice" is also hard to justify ethically, since there is no obvious need for the suffering inflicted on these animals. GM and cloning techniques are very inefficient, and many animals suffer unintended side effects including abortion, premature death and infertility, or are discarded as "failures".

More broadly, excitement about genetics is leading to a vast increase in the number of animals modified to have painful and distressing diseases. In Britain, more than a million genetically modified animals – the vast majority of them mice – were used in experiments in 2006. This is more than four times as many as were used in 1995, and such experiments are expected to increase rapidly in future years. Worldwide, dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, monkeys, quail, chickens, fish and insects have all been genetically modified or cloned.

For many applications, such as agriculture and drug production, there are safer and more humane alternatives. Although most research on GM and cloned animals is argued to be justified on medical grounds, there is no public information on who is allowed to do what, where and why. The "mighty mice" experiment adds to this list the additional questionable aim of tinkering with energy metabolism and enhancing athletic performance.

GeneWatch believes that there is simply no justification for the genetic modification and cloning of animals for use as pets, in agriculture, as drug factories, for organ production or to undertake experiments with no obvious benefit beyond the curiosity of researchers. An independent inquiry into the use of GM and cloned animals in research is needed.

The writer is director of GeneWatch UK