Straw faces animal test row

Mark Gould
Sunday 06 February 2000 01:00

Nearly half a million mice, sheep, cows and pigs were used in genetic experiments in the UK last year according to new government figures, despite Labour's promise to cut back on animal-based research.

Nearly half a million mice, sheep, cows and pigs were used in genetic experiments in the UK last year according to new government figures, despite Labour's promise to cut back on animal-based research.

The rapid growth in genetic experiments has left Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, with a huge problem as he must now decide on the future of animal experiments, without damaging Britain's research capability.

This week he will receive an advisory report from the Home Office Animal Procedures Committee which will say that animal-based work is crucial if Britain wants to remain in the forefront of research.

But Mr Straw has already promised to tighten legislation, which was last updated in 1986, before gene technology was invented, and any sign of a retreat on the issue will enrage animal rights campaigners.

Despite its medical purposes, genetic research is opposed by anti-vivisectionists who say it leads to needless death and suffering. Labour, which has received more than £2m in donations from animal lovers, gave a pre-election commitment to cut animal experimentation.

While animals are no longer used to test cosmetics, this reduction has been offset by the record number of genetic experiments, which have shown a tenfold increase over the past decade. Scientists and doctors say the technology is key to cures and treatments for conditions including cancer, Parkinson's disease and cystic fibrosis.

Animal campaigners reply that gene technology is just a new way to manipulate and exploit animals and offers few tangible benefits while causing deformity, pain and death. Mice with five and six legs, or a single Cyclops-like eye have been created as a result of gene experiments.

Vast numbers of "surplus" animals are killed because they don't have the required gene. When researchers inject new genes into embryos only between one and 10 per cent will incorporate the gene. This leads to a "huge amount of wastage of animal life" according to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

Last week it was revealed that researchers in the US tried to cover up adverse reactions to gene therapy experiments involving hundreds of seriously ill patients .

But scientists and doctors from institutions such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Foundation insist the research is a necessary evil. They are concerned that alarmist publicity about "Frankenstein" animals and animal diseases crossing the species barrier into humans will produce a backlash as serious as the reaction to genetically modified foods.

Dr Gill Langley, a scientific adviser to the Dr Hadwen Trust, a charity which is devoted to non-animal research, and a member of the APC, is concerned that much of the animal testing is haphazard and speculative.

"The explosion in genetic research is because it is a new box of tricks for science to play with. In many cases scientists just knock a gene out of an animal to see what happens."

Dr Simon Festing, the director of the Association of Medical Research Charities, which supports the ethical use of animals, said that 10 years of development in bio-technology was now yielding results.

UK bio-technology companies have produced genetically engineered sheep whose milk contains a protein which it is hoped will help treat the fatal lung disease emphysema. It is now undergoing trials on humans.

"In the US, science raced ahead of ethics in this field," said Dr Festing. "We want to do things the other way around in the UK. We do not want this research to suffer the same fate as genetically modified food where a lack of openness led to a backlash. We do need to let people know the facts so they accept if they want cures and treatments then these experiments will have to happen."

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