Defending animal science: what’s the next step?

Animal rights activists will march to Karolinska Institutet to demonstrate against non-human primate research during the International Primate Day, this Sunday. The walk is organized by Djurrättsalliansen (Animal Rights Alliance) that launched the initiative through their webpage, and likely will bring numerous people on the street. Leaving from Stadsbiblioteket (next to Rådhuset), animal rights supporters will reach the Astrid Fagreus Laboratorium, an animal lab center in Solna Campus.

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one of the poster spread by activists in town

The animal right association says:

The Astrid Fagreus is the only experimental laboratory in Scandinavia that still use monkeys in experiments. […] the majority of the population is against animal testing. Let’s gather together and put a stop to animal experiments on monkeys at the Karolinska Institute. All are welcome regardless of age or experience.

The monkeys need you!

Djurrättsalliansen has previously demonstrated against other research centers, most recently this winter in front of AstraZenica doghouse, where drugs form the R&D unit of the pharmaceutical company are tested. More recently, animal rights advocates have launched the campaign Stop Primate Research, an initiative to “spread information, raise public opinion and get a ban passed on the use of primates in animal testing, both in Sweden and in the EU”.

On their webpage, Djurrättsalliansen unfolds obscure story regarding Astrid Fagreus Laboratorium: apparently, a controversy between the Center of Disease Infection Control (SMI – at the time responsible for monkey research at KI) and the Swedish regulatory body for animal welfare toke place since the beginning of the experiments in the center. [I’m unable to double check for these old informations. If anyone wanna rebut on these stories, please contact me].

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An immage of the demonstration agains primate research from last year – YouTube

But Karolinska isn’t new to animal right protests. Last spring, the green light for a rheumatoid arthritis animal experiment involving more then 15.000 mice made the news. People mailed KI to manifest their disapproval, particularly for the removal of tissue from mice by toe-clipping, as it was seen as inhumane and unnecessary. Some animal supporters even posted on KI Facebook Page dozens of images of their feet, as a sign of dissent.

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animal research on the media – Metro.se

Trying to handle the controversy, KI made clear that the procedure is done following strict international regulations, and animal experiments are conducted exclusively in lack of in vitro alternatives.

 

It’s a fact that the use of non-human primate for medical research have lost ground in favor to animal rights advocates. One front of the battle was played by blocking the transportation of animals from the breeding sites to the laboratories. On December 2012, Air Canada perceives the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) decision to ban the transport of macaques and other primates to research centers. Such step was taken after activist managed to shape the public opinion: the bad publicity that the airlines were receiving for transporting apes have forced companies like Lufthansa, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to refused to carry animal for research. The number of cargoes left to serve the world medical centers can now be counted on the hand.

But animal transportation is not the only ground on which activists gain space. In April this year, Harvard Medical School announced that it will close its primate research laboratories. Indeed in January, an advisory committee recommended to trim down primate research to favor efforts to study alternatives methods in US. Six month later, the NIH receives the message, and announces to send more then 300 chimps into retirement. Additionally, NIH haven’t funded new research on chimpanzee since 2011.

Paul Root Wolpe

The matter is delicate. I cannot agree more to what Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University [and already guest of Nov2k symposium in 2012 at KI], told to Nature for a interview on the matter:

“The public tide is turning against the use of non-human primates in general, and researchers must either find alternatives or convince the public there is a compelling reason to continue such research”.

I suspect that medical scientists have these “compelling reasons” that Wolpe talks about, and I also know that these reasons have already been put on the table: Karolinska has repeatedly tried to instruct citizens on the importance of animal research for medicine advancement. Other pro-animal test association have tried to keep public opinion on their side too, in front of the undiscussed benefits that animal science brought to both human beings and animals. But maybe this isn’t enough.

Is not only our universities responsibility to defend animal research, if we think it has to be defended. It’s on every single scientist to open a dialogue with citizen and educate them on the benefits AND the inefficiency of animal research. Indeed, defend the use of animal for technological progress a priori is as stupid as to demolishing it.

Science already did a lot to reduce, refine and replace animal in research: the fall of about 50% of non-human primates, 11% of rats, 16% of guinea pigs and 21% of dogs only in the UK, it’s a point for researchers. More evolutionary remote animals, particularly mice and Zebra fish, can now replace several lab experiments and help to settle ethical debates.

 

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numbers plotted by me from the UK Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2011

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numbers plotted by me from the UK Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2011

 

How could we address public concern in the use of animal models?

An interesting upcoming measurement, at least in Sweden, will force scientists to write a popular science note on what their project involving animals is all about, so that people can understand why mice were scarified for that.

I really welcome these initiatives, but to the best of my experience, I would perfectly understand if the simple increase of bureaucracy and transparency in laboratory animal science will fail to meet activist demands, who so sharply press politicians and public opinion.

As a number of episodes convinced me of, political makers are influenced by public opinion much more then expert advice, and researchers may need to do more: we may need to act. Perhaps, we may have to walk the street ourself to defend the right of doing animal research.

While a number of senior professors may prefer to keep a low profile when it comes to discuss and defend the use of animals in research, an increasing number of young scientists and students seem unable to stand “that thing that shouldn’t-be-named” any longer. “Yes, we do animal experiments, and yes, we are proud of it” is one of the most difficult sentence that a researcher could be force to say. Still, some does.

logo of the italian league in defense of animal research

One example was the difficult demonstration on June 1st organized by Pro-Test Italia, to fight back the wave of anti-animal research that circulate in the country from a while. In that occasion, hundreds of biomedical students gathered in Milan to demonstrate against animal right extremists. The debate in Italy lighted up when a group of activists broke into a big animal research center in Milan, released hundreds of rodents and compromised years of research. Pro-Test Italia was inspired by its UK counterpart, founded back in 2006, to faced a very similar problem in 2000s.

To defend animal experiments is not only a matter of dialogue with all the parts involved, but it’s also a political matter. As policy is done on squares as much as in the house of powers, leaving public demonstrations only to animal activists may not gonna pay back, in the long ran.

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