Oxford University has joined a national campaign supporting experiments on live animals for medical research. The campaign was first launched two years ago, initially backed by 41 organisations. Supporters include the coalition government, Cancer Research UK, Arthritis Research UK, Parkinson’s UK, pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline as well as other universities such as Cambridge and Durham.
The campaign justifies use of animals in medical research with claims that life sciences sector develops vital treatments and cures which benefit both animals and humans, stating, “We need to increase understanding of normal biological functions and disease. Where possible, we use cells grown in a lab, computer models and human volunteers. When this isn’t possible, research may involve animals.”
David Willetts, the Science Minister, said, “The Government is committed to working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research, but we do recognise that there remains a strong scientific case for the careful regulated use of animals in scientific research and that this does play a role in ensuring new medicines are safe and effective.”
More than 3.79 million licensed animal procedures were conducted in British laboratories in 2011, with the vast majority being conducted on mice. Public support for animal testing is currently declining, with a poll by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finding that 66 per cent support it for medical research, a drop from the 2010 figure of 76 per cent.
Many scientific and academic organisations have been reluctant to acknowledge their use of animal experiments due to the threat of being targeted by animal rights activists. Oxford researchers have previously been targeted by arsonists.
The director of the Wellcome Trust, an organisation supporting the campaign, said, “There are understandable reasons why some members of the research community have been reluctant to speak out in the past, in the face of intimidation. The Government has acted firmly and helped build an environment in which it is safer to carry out and speak out about animal research. It is now up to us — funders, academia and industry — to build on this and create a culture of greater openness and transparency.”
An Oxford University spokesperson commented, “The University of Oxford was happy to sign up to this declaration and we look forward to seeing how all parties can take this forward.”
There have been recent disruptions in British animal research after transport firms refused to import animals used for scientific experimentation. Life sciences companies argue that by giving into animal rights activists, they are hindering potentially life-saving research and undermining a £4 billion industry.
However, concerns regarding these experiments remain. Penny Hawkins, senior scientist
at the RSPCA, is worried about a lack of transparency in the scientific community, arguing that they should “not just talk about the potential benefits of research.”
Public attitudes in the latest polls appear to be against the pharmaceutical industry and seem concerned over how effective the regulations on animal testing are, with 33 per cent mistrusting the regulators.
Ms Hawkins commented, “These results reflect a deep public concern about animals who suffer in the name of science.”
The chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, Michelle Thew, commented, “We have been requesting transparency on animal experiments for many years, rigorously opposed by the research industry. If, however, they are now serious about favouring greater openness, then it is time they back up their claim by disclosing exactly what they are doing to animals and why.”