Every Thursday lunchtime, a small contingent of protestors from the animal rights advocacy group, SPEAK, assembles outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to protest against the use of animals in scientific research at Oxford University. They stand holding signs with pictures of bloody, mauled monkeys, rats and mice, urging passers-by to sign petitions to end the use of animals in medical research in Oxford.
This week, following a video report in which the BBC showed footage from within the Biomedical Sciences Building for the first time, Cherwell decided to dig deeper into the issues surrounding animal testing.
Protests against animal testing in Oxford are frequent. In November 2006, Mel Broughton targeted the University with petrol bombs to protest against animal testing in Oxford, and was subsequently convicted to 10 years of jail. Demonstrations in Oxford are frequent, and often gather hundreds of people to protest against the University’s stance on an issue which has wide-reaching national connotations.
Following numerous threats, the contractor in charge of the construction of the Biomedical Sciences building was forced to paralyse the works in 2004, but the construction was resumed eighteen months later, and in 2009, the building became fully operational.
50,000 mice and 23 macaque monkeys are currently held in the Biomedical Sciences Building. Primates account for 0.5% of the animals kept in Oxford University labs. As part of medical research, surgery – or what campaigners refer to as ‘vivisection’ – is performed on many of these animals in order to test for a number of diseases and potential cures. Oxford does not carry out pharmaceutical or cosmetic testing, which was banned by the European Union in 2009. The issue of whether these tests carried out on animals are essential for the advancement of science and medicine lies at the heart of what is a very delicate national debate.
At the centre of the debate is a question of morals and ethics – and whether it is justifiable to inflict a degree of pain on animals if the medical benefits are considerable. The law, outlined by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and enforced through strict guidelines by the Home Office, allows for the assumption that a limited amount of animal testing can benefit scientific research, although the degree of pain and the number of animals which institutions are allowed to test is strictly supervised. Animal rights campaigners, however, call for a change in this law.
Oxford is one of 40 institutions in the UK which has a license to perform animal tests according to these guidelines. Much of the research carried out in Oxford is supported by the Wellcome Trust, which provides grants and support for academics engaged in animal research.
A freedom of information request carried out by C+ revealed that, in 2012, Oxford University used 192,000 rodents, 6,120 animals classified as Fish/Amphibians/Reptiles, 155 birds, 3,074 rats, and 29 non-human primates.
The Home Office previously required all animal testing license holders to break down the number of scientific procedures according to the level of pain inflicted on the animal being tested. The same Freedom of Information request revealed that the majority (60%) of procedures carried out by Oxford University are classified as inflicting “moderate” pain on the animal, whilst 33% of these were “mild”, 4% “substantial” and 3% unclassified.
A spokesperson for SPEAK told C+ that, “SPEAK has lost count of the number of people who have said ‘thank goodness you are still here’, and SPEAK will continue to be there on South Parks Road every Thursday afternoon until Oxford University moves into the 21st century and adopts the numerous, scientific, forward-thinking humane methods for medical advancement which do not involve the use of animals.”
Tom Holder, a spokesperson for pressure group Speaking of Research, outlined his organisation’s advocacy of animal testing. “Speaking of Research aims to provide information on the vital role of animals in the development of modern medical and veterinary treatments.”
He continued, “Born out of the Oxford-based Pro-Test student movement we aim to dispel the misinformation surrounding this issue. It is hard to deny the important role of animals in research when we consider modern treatments like Herceptin, a humanised mouse protein – impossible to develop without animal research – which has contributed to a 20% rise in 5-year survival rates for breast cancer in the past two decades.”
An Oxford University spokesperson also described the university’s commitment to medical research. “The University’s medical research is devoted to identifying the causes of disease, improving diagnosis and prevention, and developing effective treatments and cures. Diseases where millions of lives can be saved – such as cancer, stroke, malaria and HIV – are of particular interest. Oxford also has world-leading research programmes in heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis and osteoporosis, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Nevertheless, Michelle Thew, CEO of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), condemned the extent of Oxford’s animal research. “The BUAV fully supports the need for scientific research, not least into finding cures for human illness and diseases. However, this should not be achieved by deliberately inflicting suffering on animals in experiments. Our objection to animal testing is primarily ethical, but there is also a large and growing body of evidence about the scientific unreliability of animal experiments.
“As long as animals are used in experiments, we will continue to argue for greater openness about what goes on in laboratories. FOI gives us the right to ask any public sector organisation for all the recorded information they have on any subject. Let’s make sure we keep it that way and work for greater transparency.”
A spokesperson for Understanding Animal Research also pointed out that since 1986 it has been illegal to use an animal for research if there is an alternative, noting the fact that animals are tested “is testament to the absence of practicable alternatives.”
Oxford is one of a total of forty institutions across the country to rely on animal testing for scientific research. Imperial College London last month attracted controversy when a report by a panel of independent scientists identified a lack of “adequate operational, leadership, management, training, supervisory and ethical review systems” at the university. The report followed an undercover investigation last April by the animal rights group British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV). Professor Steve Brown, from the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit, who chaired the report, said the report includes lessons to be learned by all researchers who utilise animal testing: “While our focus has been on Imperial College, the committee’s recommendations should serve as a useful framework for other institutions to review their policies and practices.”
One of the main recent developments in animal testing regards the increased use of genetically modified animals – a trend which, according to Marcel Leist, Doerenkamp-Zbinden Chair of Alternatives to Animal Experimentation at the University of Konstanz, extends across Europe. He told Cherwell that although “there is a general trend for reduced numbers of traditional animals, the situation is different for transgenic animals. Their use is skyrocketing.
“They make up about a third of all animals used in Germany, and they compensate or overcompensate the reduced use of animals in all other areas. There is good success in reducing the number of test animals in many areas, but other areas (especially basic research) are increasing instead.”
This rise in the use of genetically modified animals is reflected in recent stats from the Home Office relating to scientific procedures on animals in Great Britain. Their data shows that there were 4.11 million scientific procedures on animals started in 2012, an increase 8% on 2011.
The rise was mainly attributable to an increase of 363,100 (+22%) in the breeding of genetically modified animals and harmful mutants.