Remember the Patients

27 April 2009

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Category: Policy Issues

eu–flags.jpgWithin the next two weeks MEPs will vote on new European regulations governing medical research using animals across Europe. Patient groups, medical research charities and scientists will travel to Brussels this week to discuss their concerns. They have gained celebrity support for the campaign urging MEPs to Remember the Patients when casting their votes.

The UK is a world leader in research using animals, a crucial part of the process of understanding disease and developing treatments, even cures. It is also lauded for its exceptionally high standards of animal care and welfare. And this matters: the ethical concerns about using animals in research are important, but so are the medical benefits that can and do follow. Public opinion polls over the last decade have shown overwhelming support for the ways animals are used in UK research to make medical progress.

articles.jpgEuropean legislation has been under review for several years having first been drafted in the 1980s. The revision of Directive 86/609 is an important opportunity to harmonise standards across Europe while allowing well-regulated medical research to continue. 

The Remember the Patients campaign is working to ensure MEPs know why their vote matters to patients. The campaign comes three years after then prime minister Tony Blair expressed his support for animal research by taking the highly unusual step of signing a petition, writing: 

'The People's Petition describes itself as giving a voice to the silent majority of British people in favour of properly regulated medical research. Now is the time to add my voice.'

UK MPs including members of the Conservative party health team also signed the People's Petition.

On Wednesday, patients from across Europe, groups that represent their interests and scientists doing medical research will travel to the European Parliament in Brussels. They will present their case to MEPs to ensure that revised legislation raises welfare standards without hindering medical advance.

Celebrities who have expressed their support for this work include Jane Asher, President of the Parkinson's Disease Society, of Arthritis Care and of the National Autistic Society and Sir Terry Pratchett, Patron of the Alzheimer's Research Trust who himself has the disease. 

Jane Asher said: 

'It's extremely important that this legislation is framed in a way that does nothing to hold up or diminish the vital medical research of which we in the UK should be so proud. As an animal lover I fully support the three Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement) and am proud that our guidelines on animal welfare are as strict as they are. But as a people lover I know that humane research using animals is still essential if we are to continue to develop treatments for the devastating diseases that blight so many lives. I bitterly resent the lost years of stem cell research in the US under George Bush: it would be tragic if, at this time, when the world is about to move forward again in this important area, we in Europe at the same time step backward in our ability to conduct research using animals.' 

Sir Terry Pratchett commented:

'There's only two ways it can go: researchers, with as much help you can give them, may come up with something that reduces the effects of this dreadful, inhuman disease, or we will have to face the consequences of our failure to prevent the final years of many of us being a long bad dream.'

Mike Robins, who lives with an active electrode placed deep in his brain to alleviate his Parkinson’s Disease and who recently lobbied MEPs in Brussels on this issue said: 

'Deep brain stimulation was developed using primates – about 30 monkeys over 20 years, with about 40,000 people worldwide benefitting from this and related techniques – I was only the third person in UK to undergo the procedure, which has revolutionised my life. To ban the use of animals in work of this sort would be catastrophic.’

The heads of the three organisations behind Remember the Patients also commented. Simon Denegri, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities said:

'Getting this legislation right is going to be essential to ensuring that life-saving medical research can continue across Europe in a well-regulated fashion for the benefit of its patients and citizens. It would be unforgiveable for such work to be halted in its tracks because of well-intentioned but ultimately unnecessary and ineffectual red tape. This is why it is important that MEPs hear from patients and their families now about this research and why it must go ahead.'

Alistair Kent, Director of the Genetic Interest Group, said:

'There are many thousands of patients in the UK currently living with a health condition for which there is neither cure nor treatment. Research is the only route by which we can provide for this need, and the use of animals is a vital part of that. Patients, as the beneficiaries of research, have a powerful voice which is impossible to ignore.'

Dr Simon Festing, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research, said: 

'We are all patients or potential patients. My own grandmother lived many years with a pig's heart valve. Patients have the most to lose from unnecessary restrictions on animal research; their voices must be heard. Let's not forget the reality – scientists use animals in research to improve and prolong our lives.'

Members of the European Parliament will be voting on Directive 86/609 on or around 7 May 2009. They will vote for or against the Agriculture Committee’s report created under Neil Parish MEP which sets out amendments to the original EU Commission proposal published in November 2008. MEPs will also vote on a number of additional amendments to be tabled.

While the UK bioscience sector still has strong reservations about some of the proposals, it has published a Declaration of Support urging MEPs to vote for the Parish report. The sector will then work to address remaining concerns.