MPs (still) don't understand animal research

Posted: by Chris Magee on 9/04/24

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MPs (still) don't understand animal research

Charles Darwin was a great supporter of humane animal research. He was deeply involved in protecting it from activists and always worried about the House of Commons. Writing to his friend Thomas Huxley in 1875 he said: “I fully believe that the House of Commons, being thoroughly unscientific, will pass some stringent law, enough to check or quite stop the revival of Physiology in this country. I am sure you will agree with me that this will be a great misfortune.” The threat has scarcely abated in any year since and 2024 saw the House once again wading into the same scientific waters without showing any great improvement in scientific literacy.

The march of medical progress in the UK has always been marked by politicians and celebrities trying to shut down animal research –bounced, seduced, flattered and fooled by activists into propagandising for policies that would be profoundly damaging to human and animal welfare alike.

There are important concerns around animal use, of course, that were shared by Darwin. Suffering matters and must be minimised or, ideally, avoided altogether. The UK life sciences have never disagreed with that: it was the UK research community that suggested most of the strictest controls on animal use, such as the legal requirement to use a non-animal method if one is available and severe sanctions, including imprisonment, for anyone who causes undue suffering to laboratory animals. Today, it is the research community that drives the change away from animal use, while being realistic about the challenges involved. Indeed, most of life-sciences funding is for research that doesn’t involve animals at all. The UK research community is fully supportive of using in vitro, non-animal, methods, but they have to work.

Data analysis by UAR. Sources: UKRI, AMRC, Royal Society.

However, politicians have always found the anti-animal research narrative seductive. This narrative contains the same common elements across 150 years of utterances by parliamentarians and their activist supporters:

  • Exaggeration of animal harms
  • Manipulative language
  • Claims that animal experiments have never and will never work
  • Wilful ignorance of the history of medical breakthroughs that involved animal research
  • Quotes from people with medical training (usually out of context) casting apparent doubt on the efficacy of animal research (often with the unevidenced suggestion that “increasing numbers” of medical experts are discovering the same)
  • The claim that we’re on the verge of a non-animal, “human-relevant” bioscientific revolution

These rhetorical tactics are often accompanied by a moralising denigration of the character of researchers, representing them as hubristic, playing God, resisting “modernisation”, rather than simply being thoughtful experts in full possession of the facts.

In a recent debate, Wera Hobhouse MP (Lib Dem) claimed that animals are “subjected to awful experiments under the guise of the public good”. The guise of the public good? How does that sit alongside the story of Arthur, 11, whose cancer has disappeared after being treated with Blinatumomab or, to give it its full name, B-lineage-specific anti-tumour mouse monoclonal antibody? Of course, society is always changing, but surely curing cancer in children fits anyone’s definition of the public good.

It doesn’t add up. But these same narrative elements were present in parliamentary speeches from 1876, 19251953, 1981 and today.

In 1920, according to parliament, we had learned all we were going to learn from dogs. This was the year before dogs were used to discover insulin to treat diabetes in humans and animals. Even after insulin was discovered and pressed into use, of course, anti-vivisectionists seemed pathologically unable to see its value. They particularly attacked insulin’s inability to prevent diabetes, which is a bit like complaining that airbags don’t prevent car accidents.

Indeed, the arguments and rhetorical tactics are so predictable, you can answer misleading claims made in debates on animal research today with retorts from the past. To statements such as: “In fact, Dr Richard Klausner of the National Cancer Institute said: ‘We have cured mice of cancer for decades—and it simply didn’t work in humans’” (a claim made in 2023) you might as well give the reply offered to a similarly unscientific assertion from 1920: “He brings forward a lot of books with statements in them that have been controverted before ad nauseam.”

Part of the problem is the historical and scientific ignorance of some MPs and an apparent lack of curiosity about modern biological science.

When Henry Smith MP (Conservative) asks “ it not increasingly the case that animal experimentation is just bad science and, worse still, is actually hindering the development of treatments that benefit humankind?”, he is apparently unaware of the many brilliant breakthroughs facilitated by animal research in recent years. As just one example,  a new animal-based technique has been used to untangle a tricky mystery in Parkinson’s research. The neurons that fire when starting or stopping a physical movement are affected by Parkinson’s, but they are so tightly intertwined that observation of the effect in people isn’t currently possible, and since it only occurs in a live body, in vitro methods don’t offer much help.

To address this problem, scientists created mice that have been genetically modified so that their neurons flash green when the animal makes different movements. This revealed a hitherto unknown level of neuronal complexity, where processes thought to be linear, based on previous work in humans and animals, were actually clumped and inter-related.

There is no current non-animal method that could have revealed that information. No human scan could or did help and no “neurons-on-a-chip”. The researchers went on to experiment with different combinations of drugs and were able to alter the neural firing, suggesting new avenues for therapeutic treatment that will address a growing problem – a 30% increase in Parkinson’s disease in the last ten years.  It is difficult to believe that Henry Smith MP would consider this “bad science” or a scientific hindrance of any kind. It seems more likely that he simply hasn’t really tried to understand the thing he is trying to destroy.

Using a specially-bred mouse and a head-mounted microscope allows direct observation of neurons firing during naturalistic behaviour.
(Jones G. Parker, et all, Diametric neural ensemble dynamics in parkinsonian and dyskinetic states).

Perhaps it is as Darwin put it in 1881: “ no one, unless he is grossly ignorant of what science has done for mankind, can entertain any doubt of the incalculable benefits which will hereafter be derived from physiology, not only by man, but by the lower animals.”

The problem is exacerbated by the setup of Parliament itself, which is adversarial in its nature and full of people either in fear of their jobs or so insulated from deselection or the responsibilities of governing that they feel they can say whatever they want with little or no consequences.

The setting lends itself to “debates” and “hearings” – formats that can favour rhetorical flourish over factual rigour, encouraging cherry-picked, emotive arguments that are not only the opposite of science, but are the failing paradigm that modern science was intended to address. As Darwin put it: “thoroughly unscientific”.

Finding the truth demands more nuance

The various methods that are used in scientific experiments are like the map on your phone. Animal research is the standard 2D map that shows you a plan from above, somewhat simplified, lacking in certain revealing details but a powerful navigation tool nonetheless, while newly-developing non-animal methodologies can be thought of as being like a 3D streetview, potentially affording new insights through a different perspective and suggesting alternative ways to engage and interpret. The two modes support and reinforce each other. They are complementary and not mutually exclusive. Yet, in the minds of many activists or politicians, a choice must be made, one tool must be permanently discarded in preference to the other. Why, they cry, would you use the old, outdated 2D map when such detail is available in 3D?

It is instead possible to welcome new perspectives without thinking it is a good idea to plan a drive from London to Aberdeen entirely in streetview.

But what does this matter to an MP entering a debate whose small majority could be wiped out just by incoming constituency boundary changes, not to mention the possibility that their party may be swept aside in a general election?  In those circumstances, should we assume they are sincerely attempting to get to the truth or simply auditioning for their next job outside of Parliament?

Not that all MPs are in fear of their job. At the other end of the spectrum are those MPs who have a solid majority in their constituency but are from a party with no chance of being in overall power. They are subject to other perverse incentives. Knowing that they will never have to make a ministerial decision or take responsibility for their words, they may be encouraged to make lurid, attention grabbing claims with little basis in reality, claims about things such as exploding dogs, perhaps.

But what should we think about a former government minister’s opinion that a government department that itself carries out animal research would be a more independent regulator for animals in science than a government department that carries out no animal experimentation? Surely there must be some parliamentary voice that can contribute to the debate without starting from the position that animal research is fundamentally wrong and distasteful. After all, the life-sciences sector which relies on this research is of huge importance for the UK. The common complaint that the number of animal experiments remains stubbornly high is based on a misunderstanding of the raw numbers. Animals are being used with ever-greater care and parsimony; we are managing to find more and more information from fewer individual animals. But the number of research programmes in the UK is growing because of the huge success of the sector which has made the UK the number two country in the world for the biosciences.

However, complacency kills. Other countries are catching up. The global market for animal models is expected to nearly double to $19bn from $10bn today. The market for complementary non-animal models will nearly triple from $10Billion today to $28 Billion. The UK needs to decide where it wants to be in relation to those markets, and it needs both.

The strength of the domestic life-sciences sector means that the UK is well placed to become a world leader in pioneering new non-animal techniques as well as approaches that reduce reliance on animals for things such as regulatory safety testing, and minimise suffering or discomfort elsewhere.

Yet, despite activist spin, the promise of the life sciences does not lie solely in new, strictly non-animal experimental techniques, but in improvements across the board. The non-animal revolution that has been promised every decade for more than a century is not going to happen anytime soon. 

But the trend towards less reliance on animals and better, more humane models is real and is happening in large part because of the efforts and ingenuity of UK-based researchers and UK government funding. If the abolitionists have their way, this important contribution will come to an end and that will affect laboratory animal welfare across the globe. There will not be a revolution, but we can give the evolution towards new approaches a power boost, if we don’t tie the hands of our scientists.

Evolution not revolution: Darwin would be proud.

Last edited: 15 April 2024 10:38

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