FEW AREAS of scientific research generate more controversy than the use of animals in experiments. The intense and frequently bitter debate has become polarised between those who believe that experiments on animals are vital for saving human lives and those who think that any sort of experiment involving animal suffering is repugnant and morally indefensible.
The House of Lords has stepped into this ethical mine-field with a report published yesterday by the Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures. It is an attempt to review the regulations governing such research 15 years after the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 came into force - a law that is said to make Britain the most regulated country in the world for research on animals.
The committee, chaired by Lord Smith of Clifton, prides itself on its cross-party support and objectivity. Only one of its members is a scientist who has been directly involved in animal research, the rest being drawn from a range of academic disciplines and professions. "We consider the report has great authority because it was made by an independent committee," Lord Smith said.
The committee's first conclusion articulates the dilemma at the heart of the debate - the trade-off between the benefits to medicine and industry provided by animal experiments with the costs, or more properly the harm and suffering caused, to the animals involved. As the committee concluded: "It is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering."
Many opponents of animal research argue that much suffering could be avoided if the Government encouraged a move away from animal testing towards the use of human or animal tissue grown in a test tube. However, Lord Smith said that the committee found that there was no alternative to animal experiments.
"We do not see any possibility of doing away with animal experiments if we want safe medicines," he said.
In Britain, the number of "scientific procedures" involving animals fell by 3.4 per cent last year compared with 2000. In 2001, some 2.62 million procedures involving animals were registered with the Home Office, which is responsible for issuing the necessary licences to scientists.
Of these experiments, 63 per cent were for research to further basic knowledge of biology, and human or veterinary medicine. A further 17 per cent involved testing the safety or toxicity of substances, mostly drugs.
Most of the animals used - 85 per cent - were rats or mice, and 11 per cent were fish and birds. Dogs, cats, horses and monkeys, which have special protection under the 1986 Act, collectively composed less than 1 per cent of the total.
"Animal experiments are still needed, but more could be done to find new methods of research which don't involve animals," Lord Smith said.
Scientists involved in animal research are supposed to follow a procedure known as the "three R's", which call for a reduction in the numbers used, a refinement of procedures to minimise suffering, and the replacement of animals by other techniques wherever possible.
The select committee said that scientists who try to find alternatives to using live animals are often considered to be on the fringes of research. They are more likely to carry the title "Dr" rather than "Professor", Lord Smith said.
Yet the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has responsibility for co-ordinating international law on the use of animals for the testing of potentially toxic substances, has recently adopted four new tests that use skin or tissue to replace rabbits. Other developments, such as computers to model for toxicity testing or biological "chips" carrying genes, also promise to become viable alternatives to the use of live animals in some experiments. …