Joanna Lumley calls for inquiry into ‘unjustifiable’ medical research using animals

Exclusive: Award-winning actor tells MPs investing in more humane testing would help UK become science superpower

Jane Dalton
Sunday 22 May 2022 10:08 BST
<p>Dame Joanna, a long-standing animal-welfare campaigner, will ask the government to appoint a minister to oversee a transition to medical experiments without animals</p>

Dame Joanna, a long-standing animal-welfare campaigner, will ask the government to appoint a minister to oversee a transition to medical experiments without animals

Dame Joanna Lumley is calling on ministers to launch a parliamentary inquiry into medical research methods in the UK, warning that animal tests are “failing patients”.

The actor, often dubbed a national treasure, is set to tell MPs that investment in “human-relevant” techniques would support economic growth and help the UK become a “science superpower”.

In an address to MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, Dame Joanna will also urge the government to appoint a minister to lead a transition to medical experiments without animals.

By law, all new drugs must be tested on a mouse or rat as well as a larger non-rodent mammal, usually a dog, pig or monkey, before they are given to people – but animals may not be used if there is an alternative.

Around 2.88 million experiments were carried out in 2020 in Britain on living animals, including breeding genetically modified creatures, latest Home Office statistics show. Cats, dogs, horses and primates were used in one per cent of those.

The most common tests were for the immune system, the nervous system and cancer. Some 4 per cent of experiments were classed as severe.

Demonstrations outside a Cambridgeshire centre that breeds beagle puppies for experiments have been continuing daily since last summer.

Advocates of animal testing for medical and veterinary research say it has led to life-changing discoveries, from new medicines and vaccines, including the Covid jab, to transplants, anaesthetics and blood transfusions.

But Dame Joanna is set to tell a cross-party gathering of MPs that government policy on animal-based medical research is “failing patients”, with 92 per cent of new medicines tested on animals never reaching the market to benefit humans.

She will tell policymakers: “Using animals in medical research is not only unethical, costly and unjustifiable, but it is being increasingly accepted among the scientific community that this practice fails patients.

“New medicines which appear safe and effective in tests on animals often fail to be approved for market because they pose significant safety and efficacy concerns during human trials.”

The award-winning actor and former Bond girl will present to parliament a report by Animal Free Research UK called Eight Steps to Accelerate Human Relevant Innovation which asks ministers, among other things, to promise laws to ultimately replace animal experiments with “human-relevant” methods and produce an action plan for encouraging widespread adoption of non-animal research.

Animal protection is an issue of vital importance which is rightfully climbing up the political agenda

Luke Pollard

New techniques promoted by the organisation include using organs on chips, cell cultures and stem cells.

The Absolutely Fabulous star will add: “This government wants Britain to be a global leader. It certainly has the creative and innovative capacity to be so.

“Now it truly has the opportunity to become a science powerhouse to lead the world to a more effective, kinder science which will benefit humans and animals.”

Former shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said: “Animal protection is an issue of vital importance which is rightfully climbing up the political agenda.

“Of course, we cannot leave behind animal testing overnight, but we would like to see the UK position itself as a world leader when it comes to advancing medical science and animal welfare.”

Government sources say banning animal research or phasing it out could lead to an increase in animal experiments abroad, where standards are lower.

However, a report last year by the Centre for Economics and Business Research for Animal Free Research UK forecast that ramping up cutting-edge non-animal research would contribute £2.5bn to the UK’s GDP in 2026.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) is funding work to replace dogs with computers in experiments, among other projects.

The Understanding Animal Research organisation said the 92 per cent failure rate of drugs included experiments without animals.

Spokesman Chris Magee said: “Replacing animals in the biosciences is already a national priority, which is why the UK is home to the world’s leading centre for looking for animal alternatives, the NC3Rs.

“Using animals in research is banned unless researchers have gained an exemption to the ban on ethical grounds, ie that it would be more ethical to do the experiment than not.

“Most human and animal medicines are discovered using animals, including vaccines for Covid, cancer drugs and insulin, but key areas of work like conservation and product testing prevent more widespread suffering before it can occur.

“Animals predict human safety on average 86 per cent of the time, although there are many reasons that most drugs will fail to make it to market. These include commercial reasons and trying drugs for diseases like cancer that didn’t show much promise in preclinical tests but might be worth a shot.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The use of animals in science supports the development of new medicines and the safety of our environment, for the benefit of humans and animals.

“The government is committed to the protection and welfare of animals and ensuring that animals are only ever used in science where there are no alternatives.”

This article was amended on 24 May 2022. It originally quoted Chris Magee as saying: “Animals predict human safety on average 8 per cent of the time,” but should have said 86 per cent.

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