Opinion: The Liberal Democrats must support biomedical research

Lab_animal_testingNorman Baker has stated he wants to ban animal research in the UK.

Recently, the first successful Ebola treatment to be used on humans was developed thanks to research in monkeys by combining three monoclonal antibodies which had been harvested from mice. With 1,000 people dead, 2,000 sick, four countries affected, and tens of thousands at risk, this treatment could become a game changer.

But Norman Baker wants to ban animal research in the UK.

Thanks to animal research conducted in the UK, we have discovered the benefits of penicillin (mice), IVF to help infertile women (mice), and Deep Brain Stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s (monkeys), to name but a few. This is just a drop in the ocean; tens of thousands of animal studies in the UK have been building blocks in major medical breakthroughs that we take for granted, from insulin to current developments in stem cell treatments. Practically all the medicines available to us today – human and veterinary – have relied in part on animal research.

But Norman Baker wants to ban animal research.

The Coalition pledged in 2010 to reduce the use of animals in research. In 2014, the Government’s delivery plan was forced to clarify this:

[I]n 2010, the Government made a commitment to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. This commitment is not focused on baseline numbers which are influenced by a range of extraneous factors. Instead, it encompasses replacement, reduction and refinement (the 3Rs).

The Government was right to commit to improving our replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research without arbitrary limits on the baseline numbers. I fear the day when a researcher is unable to start a promising piece of research into a new cancer drug because the UK had met its animal experiment ‘cap’ the month before. This would not be the right thing to do, scientifically, economically or morally. This is the conclusion of four independent enquiries into animal research which have been conducted in the last 12 years*.

Many Lib Dems agree; Alasdair Hill wrote for Lib Dem Voice, concluding:

Science needs animal testing if we are to truly understand the science of our own biology; we should not scupper our attempts to further our knowledge by banning this challenging but vital tool in research.

But Norman Baker wants to ban animal research.

We should reject this call, instead we should support British laboratory animal welfare standards, which are among the highest in the world; we should support the British life sciences sector from which we derive £50 billion a year; we should support the health of our nation and our NHS, which relies on the products of research involving animals.

* House of Lords Select Committee (2002), Animal Procedures Committee (2003), Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2005) and the Weatherall Report (2006).

* Tom Holder is an Executive Committee Member of Bermondsey and Old Southwark Liberal Democrats, he works in science communication.

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24 Comments

  • Ian MacFadyen 15th Aug '14 - 4:54pm

    Well said. I agree.

  • Would you give the green light to medical experiments on, say, prisoners? Hopefully your answer to that was “no”. But why not? If we tested potential new treatments on human beings rather than animals then the testing process would probably be better, faster, more accurate. New drugs would make it into general use more quickly; more lives would be saved.

    Hopefully you didn’t just say “no” because you might one day be a prisoner and you therefore fear for your own welfare; you hopefully said “no” because you think testing on people is wrong, simple as that, regardless of the potential benefits to medical science.

    Norman Baker believes that testing on animals is wrong too. Like humans they are sentient creatures, and Norman presumably doesn’t believe we should deliberately inflict pain and suffering on such creatures, regardless of the benefits to medical science. His moral objection to experimenting on animals is just the same as your objection to experimenting on people.

  • Sorry Stewart but a rat is not a boy.

    I support responsible animal research.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Aug '14 - 5:57pm

    Totally agree. The Lib Dems need to awaken from complacency and unfortunately people like Norman Baker should not be allowed to progress through the ranks of the party. I see plenty of people promoted who shouldn’t have been. It’s one of my reasons for being a present non-voter. My standards are too high to accept such mediocrity.

    Regards

    PS, it’s nothing personal, just professional.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Aug '14 - 6:54pm

    I have to add that I don’t recommend that no one votes Lib Dem because of views such as “no animal testing”. People lower down the hierarchy, like me, have fewer ways to protest.

    We all protest in our own private ways. I broadly agree with the article. The article is actually better than the headline, which I thought was just a call for more money. 🙂

    Regards

  • If you agree with animal testing then offer your pets and your family’s pets. Why not?

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Aug '14 - 7:22pm

    Anne, should we send people to prison for killing spiders? We need to stay away from the idea that animals have the same rights as humans.

    Regards

  • Richard Wingfield 15th Aug '14 - 8:12pm

    I agree entirely with Stuart. The vast majority of people (I would hope) would agree that medical research upon human beings without their consent should never be permitted, even if it would bring huge benefits to mankind. Even if cancer could be cured tomorrow, we wouldn’t cure it if it necessitated forced testing upon unwilling men and women. We accept that there is a sacrifice: we delay the expanse of our scientific knowledge and the ability to save lives simply due to the principle that it is wrong to conduct medical research on human beings against their will.

    All that Stuart and I (and Norman, I suspect) do is extend the principle beyond a single species (humans) to all species which are capable of feeling pain, distress,fear, suffering, etc i.e. all animals. Now, one can argue that the lives of non-human animals are worth less than the lives of humans. But to say that they are of equal value is a perfectly principled and coherent position to take, and it’s one that many of us take.

  • I agree with Tom. There is no replacement.

  • The author ought to have undertaken a little more research before making the claim ” the first successful Ebola treatment ” thanks to research in monkeys.

    ZMapp, the “experimental drug”referred to in the linked story has been developed by the biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
    “It is too early to know whether ZMapp is effective, since it is still in an experimental stage and has not yet been tested in humans for safety or effectiveness. Some patients infected with Ebola virus do get better spontaneously or with supportive care. However, the best way to know if treatment with the product is efficacious is to conduct a randomized controlled clinical trial in people to compare outcomes of patients who receive the treatment to untreated patients. No such studies have been conducted.”

    There are around 25 labs in seven countries researching possible cures for Ebola, not just Mapp in San Diego. None have been proven to have been successful and not will be proven to be successful until tested on humans.

  • Richard Wingfield 15th Aug '14 - 10:46pm

    @Joe Otten – Those are the most persuasive arguments I’ve seen so far challenging my belief and I will need to reflect on them before I can respond fully.

    My instinctive response, I think, is that there is a distinction between act and omission. In the two examples you cite – a failure of mankind to rescue antelopes from lions and a failure to intervene to ensure that all baby animals survive – the harm occurs and mankind fails to intervene to stop it. With regards to animal research, however, mankind is actively causing the harm and that harm would not otherwise have taken place. The distinction is key: it is why we punish someone who pushes another into water such that they drown, but not if they simply see a person drowning and do not offer any help, even if a mere outstretched arm would save their life. Because of this distinction, I think there is a difference between allowing harm which occurs in nature (animals killing each other, baby animals dying) and causing the harm itself (by researching on animals).

    I think one of the other problems I have with those who place less value on the lives of animals, is that it is difficult not to go one step further and start to place different values on different human lives. If it is man’s intelligence and self-consciousness that makes his life more valuable than, say, a dog or a monkey’s, then what do we say of the person with a severe mental disability who is less intelligent and self-conscious than a dog or a monkey? Creating a hierarchy of the values of different species’ lives makes me feel deeply uneasy because it is so easy then to use whatever criteria you choose to create a hierarchy within humankind.

  • On pragmatic grounds animal testing makes sense, while rearing and killing animals to eat them doesn’t. Anyone who opposes the first while doing the second needs to examine their priorities.

  • Stuart – all new drugs are tested on humans, but only after we have assessed safety in animals. Furthermore, testing is only a small part of overall research, over half of the animals used in 2013 were involved in genetically modified breeding experiments, many aiming to learn about which genes play a part in which diseases – this could not be done in humans.
    While animals can suffer (and we must minimise this), their suffering does not compare with humans, who have very complex psychological trauma over and above other animals (e.g. the mother anxious about the wellbeing of her child if she dies etc.).

    Joe made a great point about how animals live in the wild. Cats kill approximately 220 million wild animals in the UK per year, research uses 4 million. Research is not the place to prevent animal suffering.

    Mark – two people treated with the new experimental drug HAVE become a lot better. Certainly we cannot be sure on the overall effectiveness, but it has worked successfully in the first two people treated.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Aug '14 - 3:33pm

    ” Norman Baker wants to ban animal research.” Good. Another reason to regard Norman Baker as one of the most sensible ministers in the government.

    How anyone can support experimentation on monkeys in the light of our knowledge of their closeness to humans, is beyond me. Perhaps they should watch some films of monkeys emerging from years of torture at the hands of scientists into the daylight (in a sanctuary) – the first time they have seen the sky. It will move you to tears.

    No to experimentation on primates and eventually, all animals.

  • “No to experimentation on primates and eventually, all animals.”

    “Eventually”? Whatever the merits of the different positions in this debate, the one I find hardest to understand is that of someone who wants to end animal experimentation, but not yet.

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Aug '14 - 11:37am

    @ Chris. My position is perfectly sensible and realistic. It’s working towards ending all experimentation not postponing it! Big difference. My immediate concern is the ending of research on primates – indefensible.

  • Helen

    So really you’d end all animal experimentation tomorrow if you could? (Presumably, as you’re a liberal, that would at least involve persuading the majority of people to go along with it.)

    But could I put a hypothetical “hard choice” to you? Suppose someone discovered that extract of earwig could cure cancer in humans. A person could be cured at the cost of sacrificing an earwig. Would that be OK, or would you want it banned?

  • Kevin Elliott 18th Aug '14 - 12:47pm

    I support animal research.

    I had a set of operations which were only made possible because of animal research on sheep and goats. Before the operations I was in excruciating pain, afterwards the pain had been massively reduced. I was able to work and live.

    Banning animal research would have made these operations impossible. Disabled humans should surely be protected from having pain and suffering deliberately inflicted on them. Yet banning animal research is a deliberate act of hurting people who aren’t in perfect health.

    There is no biological or biochemical difference between the pain that would be inflicted say, through torture, and the pain inflicted by banning animal research. Disabled humans should have the same rights as able bodied humans.

    Remember, disabled people vote.

  • When people state that new medications or treatments should be tested on humans instead of animals what it tells me is that they’re ignorant of the process. It’s not an either/or proposition. For example, a company wanting to market an new chemotherapy drug first looks at how that drug might interact with with the cancer cells using cell cultures. But this only tells them if it works on the cancerous cells, not how it might affect other organs and systems. So then it’s tested on an animal model, usually mice in cancer research, and if it shows a reasonable chance of success it is then sent to clinical studies where human volunteers test the medicine. After all that it can be reviewed, by the FDA in the US, and marketed. No drug will ever be 100% effective or completely safe. If you read the warning to Tylenol you’d never use it again either. The point is it’s a process. And animal play an important part in that process. I’d hate to see a new drug go straight to human patients only to find that in addition to curing the cancer it dissolves your liver.

    If you’re totally against animal research that’s your prerogative, but I think you should then voluntarily refuse any and all advances gained through the use of animal research. The list is pretty extensive though so you might want to think about it first.

  • As a biomedical researcher I do not work with animals but I know that there are many aspects of research for which these in vivo models are completely irreplaceable, either now or in the future, Without the understanding of diseases that animal models provide we will be dooming millions to suffer and die at the hands of an numerous diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, and that is not hyperbole. Ask anyone who talks about ‘alternatives to animals’ or ‘computer models’ how they would use these alternatives to test whether a new drug is toxic or not ,and it will soon become apparent how ill informed they are.

    Norman baker clearly does not understand the complexities of animal research if he is calling for such an absurdly single minded policy and should not be in the position he has now.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Aug '14 - 6:47pm

    @Helen Tedcastle Personally I find the idea that we would ban research involving primates that it moving forward our understanding of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc. indefensible.

  • I completely agree, how can we possible support a position that is so black and white and informed by such poor thinking.

    I no longer work in science but have in the past and have conducted limited animal research during my University career, Like most engaged in research there is a lot of ethical consideration given to animal experimentation, my institution committed to the principles known as the 3 Rs: refining procedures; reducing the numbers of animal used; and replacing animals with other experimental methods wherever possible.

    There is no problem with close scrutiny, inspections, shared best practice, mandatory standards of animal welfare, but when it comes to developing drugs, testing new procedures, there just is no replacement and a total ban would be total madness.

  • Galen Milne 23rd Aug '14 - 9:05am

    I too have worked in the life sciences sector for over 40 years including the first 17 at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen when many animal related experiments were conducted under close and careful regulation. However in 2009-11 my company participated in a EU wide investigation into the use of the Comet Assay (otherwise known as single cell gel electrophoresis) with the prime aim of exploring how this particular methodology might further reduce the need for live animal experiments. The result were positive but like much research it takes time for much wider acceptance over the current conventions. I’m in no doubt that the vast majority of scientists only use animals when the next phase in a trial is for human consumption and after all other avenues have been explored.

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