A recent report on animal experiments (Mice and Medicine) by the Medical Research Council (MRC) points out that animal experiments are a small, but vital part of medical research. Wherever possible, scientists seek alternatives, such as human cells grown in the laboratory. But we cannot expect to have new, safe medicines without rigorous animal testing. And realising the potential of the Human Genome Project will depend on the use of genetically altered mouse 'models' to investigate the function of many genes - particularly those involved in embryo development and human disease.
In the UK, animal experiments are strictly regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Scientists must give sound reasons why they should be carried out, explain why there are no realistic alternatives, and the experiments themselves must cause the minimum of distress. Researchers do not set out to 'chop up live animals for a living', as Alexei Sayle wrote in a raging, uninformed tirade for the Independent newspaper last week. Rather, they resort to humane, carefully planned animal experiments when they arrive at a scientific question that cannot be answered in any other way.
How many animals are we talking about? Home Office figures released this month show that 2.57 million animals were used in animal research in the UK last year, of which 86 per cent were rodents. To put this figure into perspective, we consume 800 million chickens every year for food in Britain. Animal research is necessary, humane and strictly regulated. Perhaps what is needed is more widely available, accurate information on the subject of animal experiments, rather than legislation to curb the rights of individuals.