Beagle Freedom Project $250k prize
Beagle Freedom Project $250k prize: the right prescription for all the wrong reasons
My Google Alert for ‘animal testing’ dredged up an interesting development the other day. The Beagle Freedom Project, founded in the US but also active in the UK, is offering several grants worth a total of $250,000 to develop assays that could replace animals in the lab.
As far as policies go, this is a really good approach. If alternatives can be developed, they could be cheaper and free from the strict regulation that attends animal experiments. I recommend it to the animal organisations currently advocating for a ban on types of experiment, since banning things sends them abroad. Change your policy Asks to something, in fact the only thing, that will actually reduce animal use.
The BFP writes:
“We are calling on the scientific community to “Upgrade Your Research” with innovative, effective, and humane alternatives to animal models and methods.”
Nothing wrong with that, if they exist.
“In this way, the Beagle Freedom Project seeks to proactively support ground-breaking research that can yield more relevant, reliable, and predictive data to improve human health (and save animal lives).”
This is not so strong. Relevant data is to be welcomed, although indications of the performance of alternatives since 2010 seems to be that they have a high rate of false positives so maybe reliable is a bit of a stretch. ‘Predictive’ is also a little troublesome since many animal experiments aren’t intended to predict anything per se, and of course animal lives aren’t saved by alternatives, they’re prevented, because the animals will not be bred in the first place. Then there’s this:
“The animal-testing industry often cries their crocodile tears about how they sadly “have to test” on dogs and other animals, but does little to change the present situation. BFP is putting our money where their mouth is, and we challenge any profitable laboratory in the country to match our efforts.”
At which point we’ve parted from reality.
Firstly, I don’t know what the ‘animal testing industry’ is. It’s a weird way of classifying work across numerous areas of scientific research which doesn’t really have anything in common except an animal is involved at some point. I suspect it’s there to pander to the idea that animal research is all about profits, itself based on a mistaken understanding of why it occurs. In that worldview, all animal research is pharma testing drugs on animals to make profit, but then of course we find that most animal research is done by universities, half of it is breeding genetically modified mice rather than testing anything and the motive almost all of the time isn’t profit.
Then we have this idea that this ‘industry’ does little to prevent testing on animals, when the opposite is true. You see, another part of the anti-research narrative is that animals are used because they’re cheap, which plays nicely into the characterisation of an industry driven solely by craven greed, but let’s take a look at the facts.
The Wyss Institute’s ‘lung on a chip’ seems like a good place to start, since it’s oft-quoted by activists as a go-to alternative. A basic test using this technology would cost around £15,000, which might seem expensive, but even a straightforward study in rats can cost over £34,000 and a more complex analysis can exceed £700,000. It’s therefore massively in the interests of pharma companies to invest in animal alternatives which, of course, they do! So do Contract Research Organisations (CROs), to which animal work might be subcontracted, simply because the returns on developing a successful model are so great.
Then we have the National Centre for the 3Rs (NC3Rs) which funds research into alternatives to animals. They have a funding page which says:
“The NC3Rs has an annual budget of around £7 million. We receive core funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) via the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Home Office.”
£7 million is about $9 million, i.e. 36 times more than the money offered by the BFP. It goes on:
“We also receive funding for specific programmes from the charitable and commercial sectors, and co-funding from other research funders. In 2014/15 this includes the following organisations:
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, Alzheimer's Research UK, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, SCJohnson, Shell, Syngenta, Technology Strategy Board, The Dow Chemical Company, Unilever, Wellcome Trust.”
I guess that’s what BFP means by industry? The 15% or so of experiments attributed to businesses? Businesses which invest disproportionately in finding alternatives? BFP may be ‘putting our money where their mouth is’ but they join far wider attempts at investment undertaken by the very people they demonise.
This is perhaps true to form, since the BFP has been found in the past to employ quirky interpretations of the truth. We had the cases in which they pretended to ‘liberate’ lab animals, only for it to transpire that they were responding to a rehoming advertisement put out by the lab itself. I ‘liberated’ my pet cat Lulu from Battersea Cats Home in the same way if that’s the case.
The BFP also had a creative take on the political machinations behind a beagle breeding facility near Hull. Like any good conspiracy theory, it took elements that were true, like meetings or characters, and made false associations between them, a bit like saying ‘Tony Blair exists, Noel Edmonds exists = Tony Blair is in cahoots with Noel Edmonds!’
Yet despite all this, the BFP has stumbled across a very productive course of action - far more productive then spitting bile at scientists in medical research organisations. These people are, after all, cancer researchers and the like who, if that weren’t enough, are going much further than so-called animal advocates to remove animals from research!
That said, whether you don’t like the idea of animal experiments, or don’t mind them but remain open to cheaper and easier ways of doing research, the policy response is exactly the same: fund alternatives. Pretending that we already have enough alternatives doesn’t get us anywhere, any more than claiming nuclear fusion is ready to take over as out primary power source. It’s not – it’s years off. Pretending that animal experiments are completely useless for human disease is also fanciful, but reality will continue to be real whether activists believe it or not: although not perfect, animal models are actually useful in medical research and do actually lead to human and animal treatments for disease.
At the end of the day it’s better to admit what we know. Animal models are extremely useful but not a panacea, they’re expensive, they’re inescapably bureaucracy-laden and the only sensible policy for moving beyond that system in the future is to fund alternatives research today.