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Why do charities fund animal research?

21 June 2011

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Category: Antivivisection & extremism

how–gm-mouse.jpgThe animal rights group Animal Aid has launched a campaign against medical research charities who fund animal research. The campaign has been condemned as irresponsible, illogical and ill-conceived, and scientists warn that the threat to boycott medical research charities could set back research ‘by decades’.

The Independent and its sister newspaper the i have featured the story today. The front page headline in the i is ‘Charities at War’. The leader column is an excellent explanation of why animal research is still vital to medicine.

'There are alternatives. Drugs can be tested on human tissue and living cells grown in the laboratory. But it will be years before they replace animals. What alarms many is the sharp rise in animal testing over a decade – which reflects the big increase in funding for medical research, public and private. The development of genetically modified animals has also improved understanding of how humans will respond to a treatment.'

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, Chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said:

‘On behalf of all our members, the use of animals in science is taken with extreme caution and is funded only where absolutely necessary in order to find breakthroughs which will relieve suffering and bring hope to literally millions of patients, not only in the UK but around the world. We can give an assurance that all research involving animals conducted by our members is rigorously regulated by UK legislation demanding high standards of animal welfare. Complying with measures to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in research is a priority for all 126 of AMRC’s members.’

Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford said:

'This is an utterly irresponsible attack by Animal Aid on the some of the most important charitable contributors to medical research in this country.These charities have a duty to use money given to them in the most effective way to support patients and to understand and treat disease. They support research on animals only when it's absolutely essential and where there's no alternative. If Animal Aid were successful in discouraging donation to medical charities, they would be guilty of delaying progress towards treatments and cures for devastating conditions.'

Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council said:

'The use of animals in medical research remains absolutely essential. Animal research is an integral part of understanding how basic systems of the body work and what goes wrong with them to cause disease. Most modern medicine and surgery exists because of animal research. When we fund animal research, we do so knowing that all the alternatives have been exhausted and our scientists are subject to the world’s strictest regulations. We support those charities, universities and institutions that abide by the strict ethical and legal framework for use of animals in research – we know their work has helped make advances in some of the biggest health challenges of today and will ultimately save lives.'

UAR wrote a 500 word opinion piece for the Independent, which was cut to under 200 words. We make no apology for including the full text here:

'All mainstream medical and scientific organisations around the world agree that animals are essential in scientific research, medicines development and safety testing. Animal research is necessary to understand the body in health and disease, and to develop new and improved treatments. The use of animals in research is never undertaken lightly. Every single animal research project must be approved before it starts by inspectors who are all doctors and vets, and by local ethical committees. Competition for research funding is strong and all funding organisations – including medical research charities – will only fund top quality, relevant research. The potential scientific and medical benefits of the research, and the possible suffering of the animals used, are weighed up carefully before any animal research project can proceed.

No-one wants to use animals in research, and no-one would use them unnecessarily. Animal research is considered a last resort, to be used only when there is no alternative. In the UK, strict regulations and a licensing system mean that animals must be looked after properly and may not be used if there is any other way of doing a piece of research. Most of the animals used are rodents and fish – cats, dogs and primates are used in less than 1% of UK animal research.

Animal studies are used alongside other types of research. Such ‘alternative' methods – which in fact make up most of medical research – include the study of cells and tissues grown in the laboratory, computer-modelled systems, and human patients, volunteers or populations. But it is the nature of research that scientists do not rest on their laurels – they are constantly searching for new and better ways of doing their work. This includes finding alternatives to animals, and we even have a dedicated body in the UK , the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, to focus on this.

In just the last month we have seen reports ... of exciting research in vital areas that are attacked by this antivivisection report. These include: research using mice, stem cells and a new drug which shows how the heart may be able to repair itself; research using rats which suggests that a ‘memory switch’ could help Alzheimer’s patients; a new approach to cancer vaccines which has been used to treat prostate tumours in mice and was successful four out of five times.It is difficult to see how these advances could have been achieved without animal research.

Millions of people are alive today thanks to medical advances, most of which have depended on animal research. The gold standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease ? a ‘brain pacemaker’ ? could not have been developed without research on monkeys. Even so, there are still diseases without adequate treatments – for example Alzheimer’s, many cancers and heart failure. We strive to improve the ways we do research, making use of new technology such as imaging wherever possible, but for now animals remain vital to advancing medical research.'

Also highly commended is a blog today by Cancer Research UK explaining the importance of animal research to cancer treatments.

You are welcome to leave comments here or on the Independent website. We particularly liked the comment:

'As a direct result of reading this article I have just logged on to my bank account and increased my direct debit to Cancer Research UK. I urge everyone else who reads this to do the same. Let's poke these evil Animal Rights people in the eye.'