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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Dying for a good cause?
Tests
What place does animal testing have in modern science? By BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

For decades, small furry animals have been poked, prodded and injected in the name of science.

Animal rights campaigners argue that such experiments are unnecessarily cruel, and could be replaced with more humane and up-to-date methods of testing new drugs and genetic theories.

UK animal testing
2.66m tests on live animals in 1998
60% mice, 22% rats
52% for medical or veterinary research and drug testing, 34% for biomedical or biological studies
About 280 licensed testing institutions
Home Office figures

Yet animals are still widely used in research, particularly as the race to unlock the secrets of our genetic code gathers pace.

On Tuesday, 110 of the UK's most eminent scientists wrote to the Home Office, asking the government to speed up the process of gaining approval to conduct animal experiments.

It can take more than six months to get the green light, compared to a matter of days in other countries.

One of the signatories to the letter, Clive Page, a professor of pharmacology at King's College London, says animal experiments play an important role in modern medicine.

"There isn't a single drug that is used in this country today that was not tested on animals," Professor Page says.

Asthma drug

In his own field, asthma research, a new drug to prevent children developing asthma is in the pipeline. The prototypes were first tested on animals before trials on humans begin.

"What we want to do is give someone a pill in early life to prevent them developing asthma. To do that, we have several options: to work on children, which is difficult, unethical and people wouldn't want you to test on their children; or you approximate with animals.

Licence granted if:
Potential results justify using animals
No non-animal alternatives
As few animals as possible used
Cats, dogs and primates only used when other species not suitable
Researchers try to minimise pain and discomfort
Institution must have facilities to look after animals

"This is a legal requirement to prevent me from giving something that might be toxic. We have to know the dose to give and the route of administration. All of that needs to be worked out in advance, you can't do that in people."

Leukotriene blockers, which became available to asthma suffers 18 months ago, were developed after decades of research that included animal experiments, Professor Page says.

"The chemicals (in the lungs causing asthma symptoms) that these drugs block were first identified in tests on guinea pigs in the 1930s.

"And inhalers - to work out that the drug should be given by an inhaler, how much to put in it, at what dosage - this was all worked out in animal experiments.

Human testing?

"People need to sit and think about how they want new drugs to be developed. Would people come along and volunteer, would the government allow us to test on humans anyway?"

Animal testing overseas
EU: 11.6m in 1996
US: 1.2m tests on primates, cats, dogs, rabbits, sheep - no data on mice, rats and birds, used in about 80% of tests
BUAV figures

Home Office figures show that although the total number of animals used in lab experiments has declined steadily since the mid-1970s, the number of genetic experiments is increasing rapidly.

In 1990, fewer than 50,000 experimental procedures in the UK used genetically altered mice. In 1998, the figure was well over 440,000.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection campaigns director, Wendy Higgins, says biotechnology companies keen to beat their US and European rivals to lucrative patents are behind moves to speed up the approval process.

"There's a hell of a lot of money at stake.

"They are not applying for a parking permit or a passport, they're asking for a licence to kill animals. If that takes nine months, that takes nine months because it involves pain and suffering to an animal."

Professor Page says the Home Office figures are misleading and artificially inflated.

"Each time a genetically altered mouse reproduces, that counts as an experiment. But the only ones we should be concerned with are the ones that have a harmful defect.

"Most are able to live normally - eating, sleeping, having sex. The real numbers (of animal experiments) have gone down if you take these transgenic mice out."

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05 May 99 | Sci/Tech
'Mouse massacre' in labs
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