Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Inside the Oxford animal lab

By Fergus Walsh
BBC News medical correspondent

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Exclusive look inside the animal research lab at Oxford with BBC Medical Correspondent Fergus Walsh.

Oxford University says the first animals have been moved into a new biomedical sciences centre in the city.

The building will bring together animal research currently conducted at around half a dozen facilities in the city.

Construction began five years ago but building work halted for more than a year when the contractors pulled out, citing intimidation from animal rights groups.

The four storey Oxford animal lab is still surrounded by anonymous wooden hoardings topped with barbed wire.

It is ringed with cameras and is a highly secure building.

Inside, biosecurity is a key feature.

Before getting to see the first animals I had to put on protective overalls, plastic shoe covers and a hairnet.

Ferret holding cage
Ferrets at the lab will be kept in cages like these

This is mostly to protect the animals from any germs I might bring in.

The first animals moved in were mice, which is perhaps appropriate given that rodents will make up 98% of the inhabitants.

Eventually there will also be zebrafish, tadpoles, frogs and small numbers of guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters.

There will be no cats or dogs and no farm animals.

Macaque monkeys

But most controversial of all, there will be macaque monkeys.

Like man, macaques are primates and have a highly developed brain.

Scientists at Oxford say this makes them crucial for research into neuro-degenerative disorders like Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's.

An entire floor of the new building is given over to macaque research.

Animal rights protestor
Animal rights protestors oppose the lab

Around 100 monkeys will be housed there.

There are several monkey holding rooms, each with a large u-shaped cage which is subdivided into five play and five living areas.

The University says the macaques will spend very little time in individual cages.

There are ladders and shelves to climb on and rubber tyres.

The macaques have not been moved to the new building yet, but I did see the current monkey facility.

The University points out that it meets all the requirements laid down by the Home Office for animal research, but it has less individual space than the new lab and there is no access to natural daylight.

Operating theatres

I wasn't allowed to see animal experiments, but I did get to look at the two operating theatres on the new primate research floor.

Mike Robins, who has Parkinson's disease, on the device which controls his tremors

It looks like a hospital - only the operating tables have still to be fitted.

What will go on here will appal those who are opposed to animal experiments.

Under general anaesthetic monkeys will be given brain lesions to mimic the effects of Parkinson's disease.

Oxford scientists say this has already helped lead to new treatments for the condition.

And they point out that all animal experiments - especially those involving monkeys - are strictly controlled.

Animals can be used only if experiments with cells or computer models are deemed inappropriate.

Stroke research

Very few Oxford animal researchers are prepared to give interviews. But Professor Alastair Buchan did speak to me.


Animals are needed within research in order to understand and to prevent disease

Sarah Wolfensohn
University of Oxford

He treats stroke patients and heads a research programme which studies rat brains.

He says animal research is essential: "Without the observations in animals we would not have started in humans and there would be no treatment for stroke.

"I can't think of any way you can do that in a culture.

You can't make a head injury in a dish, you can't create a stroke in a test tube you cant create a heart attack on a chip it just doesn't work."

Animal welfare

The University says animal welfare will be greatly improved in the new building.

For the first time vets will be based on the same site as all the animals.

Sarah Wolfensohn, the head of veterinary services at Oxford University says the new research lab will be better for the animals and produce better science: "Animals are needed within research in order to understand and to prevent disease.

"Prevention of disease is the holy grail, which will benefit both animal and human health."

Opposition

Four years ago, Cambridge University cancelled plans for a primate research centre, because of concerns over spiralling security costs linked to animal rights.

We are here to highlight that Oxford University are mutilating animals on a daily basis
Amanda Richards
SPEAK

It marked a huge victory for animal rights protestors, who then moved their campaign to Oxford.

The vast majority of protests have been entirely lawful.

But the police say a small minority of extremists have carried out acts of arson and vandalism against the university, building contractors and anyone they suspected of being linked to the new laboratory.

In 2004 the contractors pulled out citing intimidation.

Shareholders had been sent hoax letters urging them to sell.

Legislation

The government introduced new legislation making "economic sabotage" linked to animal research a crime.

Ministers promised to help with the security costs.

After a 16 month delay work resumed, with building workers covering their faces to avoid identification.

A court injunction limits protest outside the building to four hours every Thursday afternoon.

Amanda Richards is one of many who turn up each week.

She says the SPEAK campaign believes in lawful protest and that it is crucial that someone represents the animals.

"We are here to highlight that Oxford University are mutilating animals on a daily basis.

"Our intentions are to continue campaigning to persuade them to change this from an animal torture to a lab which is looking at the alternatives which will drive medicine forward."

SPEAK says animal research is not just immoral, but worthless.

Two years ago, to counter the opposition to the lab, a group called Pro-Test was set up by sixteen year old schoolboy Laurie Pycroft, which attracted support in Oxford and beyond.

Hundreds of scientists signed a declaration saying that animal research is vital if new treatments for cancer, heart disease and other conditions are to be found.

So for some the new laboratory will be seen as a crucial centre of medical progress.

For others it will continue to be a place of animal suffering.

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