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Pregnant mice force-fed alcohol as US quietly funds $17m of animal experiments in UK

Exclusive: Zebrafish also made addicted to nicotine in tests behind closed doors

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 25 December 2019 14:47 GMT
Mice were used to develop new methods for screening for the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure
Mice were used to develop new methods for screening for the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure (iStock)

The US government is quietly using millions of dollars to fund experiments on animals in UK institutions, including making zebrafish addicted to nicotine.

Pregnant mice were forced to consume alcohol to cause birth defects in other experiments behind closed doors at another UK university, also funded by American tax payers.

Other UK projects paid for by the US government have been at Queen Mary University of London; Public Health England; a Japanese company with a base in Cambridge; and the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down.

In all, nine projects in Britain have received more than $17m (£13.1m) from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) since they were launched, according to the US-based White Coat Waste project, which campaigns against taxpayer money being spent on animal experiments.

Oxford University has received more than $4.9m since 2003 for tests in which expectant mice were given alcohol to cause birth defects, as well as for human medical studies.

Researchers told the NIH their goal was to develop new methods for screening for the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, using smartphones and tablet devices “to detect the facial effects in children and adults and new ways of analysing ultrasound images to detect facial and brain effects in the foetus”.

Zebrafish were made to develop an addiction to nicotine at London’s Queen Mary University, work for which the US has paid a total of $708,466 so far over 18 months.

The fish were mutated for “sensitivity to nicotine reward and impulsivity” to test the theory that genes that change after chronic nicotine exposure are susceptible to addiction.

US Republican senator Rand Paul, an eye surgeon who is also chair of the Senate’s federal spending oversight subcommittee, condemned the project.

“Everybody agrees that nicotine addiction is a problem. But you have to be smoking something other than nicotine if you think the solution is to ship American tax dollars abroad to addict Zebrafish to nicotine,” he wrote in a report last month.

The NIH offers grants to scientists in the US and worldwide for biomedical research aiming to prevent disease and disability and extend healthy life.

Another project, looking at cocaine addiction, by Heptares Therapeutics, a Japanese company with a Cambridge research centre, has received more than $5.5m since 2014, the NIH database says. It does not reveal which animals were involved or other details.

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Public Health England (PHE), both based in Wiltshire, received sums for five projects: three of $3,500, one of $4,140 and one of $1,680 for projects from 2017 to 2024, looking into infectious diseases using animals.

University College London dropped plans to carry out procedures involving sheep and rabbits, electrically stimulating their nerves to find treatments for human conditions such as epilepsy and arthritis, which originally involved an NIH grant application of $776,000.

Researchers from the University of Bath worked on medicinal chemistry with counterparts in the US who received funding to make rhesus monkeys addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

Some of the studies, aimed at finding ways to prevent people who have come off opioids and cocaine from relapsing, involved testing the efficacy of preventive drugs on the animals.

The grants did not go to Bath scientists but to those at the University of Texas Health Science Centre at San Antonio, who fitted the animals with catheters, allowing them to self-administer drugs.

The White Coat Waste project says it tried to launch an advertising campaign about the monkey testing, but the adverts were banned by authorities.

The watchdog group gathers its information from government databases, freedom of information requests, members of congress, whistleblowers, official websites and scientific publications.

Anthony Bellotti, founder and president, said: “It’s high time to stop shipping hardworking Americans’ money to the UK for nonsense like hooking fish on nicotine and addicting primates to heroin.

“Most Americans oppose animal testing, and with a nearly-trillion-dollar deficit and so many US scientists who can’t find jobs in their fields, there’s no excuse for sending American tax dollars overseas to abuse animals and enrich foreign individuals and institutions.”

A spokeswoman for Queen Mary University of London said: “Medical research at world-class universities like Queen Mary saves and enhances the lives of millions of people worldwide, with breakthroughs often coming as a result of research involving animals.

“Indeed, UK law requires that all medicines should be tested in at least two different species of live animals before their use in humans.

“However, it is important that animals are used for research only when it is absolutely necessary and no alternative is available. In this case, the genetic characteristics that zebrafish share with mammals provide insights that could help scientists to develop treatments for addiction in humans.”

Work is overseen by an animal welfare and ethical review body, she said.

Oxford University said most of its biomedical research used animal alternatives, adding: “Sadly, we are not yet at the point where these techniques or computer modelling could entirely replace the need for animal research.

“The university has consistently been at the forefront of innovative and life-saving science. Our research provides vital insight into cancer, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, HIV, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many more diseases that cause suffering and death.”

A spokesman said researchers commit to replacing animals, reducing numbers used and refining experiments to ensure animals suffer as little as possible, he said.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “DSTL is responsible for developing new vaccines, therapies and treatments that can save military lives and benefit civilians and which could not, currently, be achieved without the use of animals in research.

“DSTL is committed to reducing the number of animal experiments and only applies for licences if the research aims cannot be achieved without animal experiments.”

A PHE spokesman said: “Most of our research is carried out without involving animals; however, some remains essential to understand how infections are transmitted and to prevent the spread of disease, as well as studying how environmental factors affect human health.” PHE has signed up to the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research, he said.

The three UK universities receiving funding have also signed the concordat.

A University of Bath spokesman said it did not conduct animal experiments with non-human primates, adding: “We conduct biomedical research aimed at understanding disease and developing new drugs, including new treatments for opioid abuse. We work with small rodents and some fish species.”

Heptares Therapeutics has also been approached for comment.

A statement by NIH said all animals used in research it funds are protected by laws, regulations, and policies “to ensure the smallest possible number of subjects and the greatest commitment to their welfare”. Institutions receiving funds must follow the Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the statement said.

It added that foreign grant recipients must provide NIH with an assurance and certification of compliance with laws, regulations and policies of the jurisdiction in which the research is conducted, and a pledge to follow the International Guiding Principles for Biomedical Research Involving Animals. NIH “encourages foreign recipients to use the standards in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals”. In the UK the Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body evaluates proposed research.

“Alternatives” – the three Rs (reduce, refine, replace) – are embodied in an NIH ethical framework document which states that mathematical models, computer simulation, and in-vitro systems should be considered wherever possible.

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