Most scientific research in learned journals nowadays is so technical and obscure one just has to trust that its methodology and findings are reliable. The exception here would be experiments on animals that, being sentient creatures like ourselves, can experience pain and suffering. We thus have a moral interest in their purpose and utility.
The arguments are well rehearsed. Yes, from penicillin onwards such experiments have contributed to medical progress, particularly assessing the safety and efficacy of drugs. But unfortunately there are numerous recorded instances of animals being subjected to terrible indignities in the name of science.
Those arguments have resurfaced recently and are now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, prompted by several developments lucidly described by Dr Pandora Pound of the Safer Medicines Trust in her recently published Rat Trap.
First, despite the official commitment to reduce the number of animal tests, they are on the rise, up from 2.5 to over 3 million a year. Next, the often noted discrepancy between the benefit of new drugs and interventions when tested in animals and the disappointing outcomes when subsequently evaluated in clinical trials, necessarily raises questions about their validity. The general verdict seems to be, according to several systematic reviews, that they are often “of low quality” – small, poorly designed and biased in the reporting of their results.
It was hoped, not unreasonably, that the techniques of genetic manipulation – where human genes are inserted into mice and monkeys – would, by “humanising” them, improve the reliability of animal experiments. There has indeed been “an explosion in studies involving transgenic animals” notes Dr Pound, “but they have singularly failed to result in effective new treatments”.
While it is unrealistic to suppose it might be possible to dispense altogether with the use of animals in medical research, such insights suggest this is a more contentious issue than most people realise – and in urgent need of regulatory reform.