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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 17:49 GMT
Cambridge argues for monkey research
Cambridge University, PA
The university has failed twice already
The future of Britain as a leading centre for brain research will be tested this week when Cambridge University asks once again to be allowed to build an animal-testing facility in the city.


The prime minister has already made his position absolutely clear

Wendy Higgins, Buav
The laboratory, which would conduct experiments on macaque and marmoset monkeys, has already been rejected twice - the last time, in February, because local politicians feared the centre would become the focus of animal rights demonstrations.

That decision, which delighted anti-vivisectionists, was criticised by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said failure to build the facility would have a deeply damaging effect on the UK's science base, and slow the search for vital new treatments for neural diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The university will begin its appeal on Tuesday, presenting arguments to a planning inspector. A number of anti-vivisectionist groups will also make their case to the hearing.

'Political decision'

Any final decision, however, is likely to be made by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

Macaque, RDS
Invasive experiments would be done on macaque and marmoset monkeys
The planning process allows the First Secretary of State to call in controversial applications for his sanction.

Campaigners, who will argue at the hearing that the university's record makes it unfit to hold Home Office animal-experiment licences, doubt he will be impartial. They have dubbed the hearing a "show trial" and a "sham".

"It's a political decision that will be made, not one about planning," Wendy Higgins, from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav), told BBC News Online.

"The prime minister has already made his position absolutely clear and now that John Prescott has decided to recover the final decision for himself, it is highly unlikely that he will go against Mr Blair."

Planning arguments

The new laboratory would be built at 307 Huntingdon Road, on the northern outskirts of the city, close to the intersection of the M11 and A14, two of the region's major roadways.


Some of this work must continue if we are to make essential life-saving advances in medicine

Cambridge University spokesperson
The police believe the centre would attract the type of protest that has been staged outside Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), another animal-testing facility sited a short distance along the A14.

One man was jailed last year for an attack with a wooden stave on the director of HLS.

The police told local councillors early this year that similar protests at the new facility could result in major disruption on the M11 and A14, resulting in "serious danger to public safety". It was on these grounds - not the ethics of animal testing - that the councillors then voted 17 to 4 to refuse the university's application.

If anti-vivisectionists are to make an impression at the hearing, they have to produce "planning arguments" as to why the application should be thrown out.

'Life-saving advances'

These arguments will centre on whether the new laboratory really is in the "national interest", as the university and Mr Blair have claimed.

Dog, PA
Local politicians had safety concerns about the impact of protests
It is only with this special status that building work can be permitted in the so-called Green Belt, which preserves the local countryside on the outskirts of Cambridge from creeping urbanisation.

Buav will argue that "brain damaging hundreds of non-human primates in out-dated and scientifically dubious experiments" does not justify the Green Belt restrictions being lifted.

Buav will also present evidence of what it says is bad laboratory practice and animal suffering at the university - again, with the aim of undermining the institution's claim to special circumstances.

For its part, the university will stress the "vital importance" of its work.

Minimal impact

A Cambridge University spokesperson told BBC News Online: "Advances in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, asthma and strokes have all been made as a result of research with primates.

"Ongoing research with primates offers the hope of effective treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and sight disorders, as well as the development of vaccines for malaria and Aids.

"We understand that many people find the use of monkeys in medical research distressing. Research methods are continually evolving and while scientists and medical researchers aim to reduce work involving animals to a minimum, some of this work must continue if we are to make essential life-saving advances in medicine."

The university says it has altered its plans to minimise the impact on the Green Belt and will challenge the public safety concerns.

The hearing, in the council chamber of South Cambridgeshire District Council, is expected to last three to four days.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tom Heap
"The government hopes the inquiry will back its belief that the lab will be of international importance"
See also:

24 May 02 | Science/Nature
23 May 02 | England
23 May 02 | Politics
06 Feb 02 | England
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