The relative value of mice and men

Animal rights groups are a threat to vital medical research

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Today the Nobel prizes are handed out in Stockholm City Hall. To coincide with the awards, a poll of all living medical Nobel laureates has been held and its results are now published.

It is surprising to find unanimity amongst scientists, but according to the poll all these distinguished medical researchers are agreed: the use of animals in research has been vital to medical progress and continues to be so.

A British patients' group called Seriously Ill for Medical Research asked all living laureates in medicine and physiology for their views on the use of animals in medical research. 100 per cent of them agreed with these statements: "Animal experiments have been vital to the discovery and development of many advances in physiology and medicine", and "Animal experiments are still crucial to the investigation and development of many medical treatments."

The Seriously Ill for Medical Research group is a tough bunch of campaigners, all 400 of them suffering from incurable diseases. They fear that the animal rights campaigners are increasingly endangering medical research that might find a cure for their illnesses. Founder and director of the campaign is 34-year-old Andrew Blake, who suffers from the wasting disease Friedreich's ataxia. The treasurer has multiple sclerosis and the chair is mother of a child with cystic fibrosis. The group is backed by Stephen Hawking and other distinguished scientists. Andrew Blake sets out to counter the arguments of "animal rights activists peddling pseudo-scientific nonsense attempting to persuade the public, at the expense of seriously ill patients, that animal research is not necessary."

However, this group's direct interest in the success of medical research has not protected them from the extreme animal rights activists. Andrew Blake regularly receives threats, a recent one of which read, "Your support for vivisection makes you a target. You have been warned." But they have not been intimidated and they offer support to those researchers under direct attack: there are some 1,000 animal rights attacks a year.

Recently Dr David White, an immunologist who works on the current best hope for transplants, has been a target. He breeds pigs with a human gene which may produce an unlimited supply of organs for transplantation. His home has been wrecked three times and a hose pipe put through a skylight, so water poured through the house for a whole weekend. The whereabouts of his laboratory is now a deadly secret.

The press has often stirred up hatred of animal researchers - a part of our deeply anti-science culture. The Sun once printed a double-page spread with the names of animal researchers, including that of Professor Terry Partridge. He says: "It printed who we were and 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."

Britain has the most stringent laws in the world on laboratory animals - laws forced on to the statute books by animal lobbyists. As a result, much important animal research is now going abroad, where it is easier to work, although Britain has always excelled in developing new drugs. The 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act has had 20 different codes of practice and guidelines added to it since it was passed, seriously impeding research. Ten of these have come into force in the last two years because of heightened animal rights pressure. Enforcing the regulations have cost research establishments and universities some pounds 800 million - money that should have been spent on the research itself. The bureaucracy is appalling. It takes months to get a permit, and the Home Office requires a monthly report. All projects need three separate licences. Then the lab has to be licensed with trained keepers and a vet on call. Each scientist has to take compulsory training, and an exam, to get another licence.

Professor Colin Blakemore has been a frequent target because he has dared to defend animal experimentation publicly. He says that the most distinguished Nobel laureates are no longer allowed to come over to Britain to collaborate on projects because they are not licensed by these new stringent rules - and they can hardly be asked to take extra exams on British regulations.

The membership and support for the British Union of Anti-Vivisectionists, the National Anti-Vivisection Society and others continues to rise, and these groups exert ever-growing political influence. All the parties have armed themselves with pro-animal statements and policies for the next election. The Conservatives boast that they introduced "the toughest controls on animal experimentation in Europe", and the party promises that it is working hard to add a protocol on animal welfare to the Treaty of Rome.

Labour promises yet more regulation: "We will support a Royal Commission to review the effectiveness and justification of animal experiments and to examine alternatives." They also promise what they call "the three Rs: reduction in the number of animals used, refinement to cut down their suffering, and their replacement whenever possible with non-animal methods." Ominously, Labour promises "significantly increased inspection".

Dr Peter Doherty collects his Nobel prize today for work on the immune system, working towards a cure for cancer, Aids and diabetes. He has to use transgenic mice in his work, and says so publicly: "There is no alternative to the use of animals for analysing the complexity of immunity." The logo for the Seriously Ill for Medical Research group shows a scale with a human on one side and a mouse on the other. The danger is that the scales have tipped too far in favour of the mouse.

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