UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott gave the final approval for the laboratory that will study problems of the brain, such as autism and Alzheimer's disease. The future of the center is still not assured, since the projected construction costs rose substantially as the approval process dragged on for five years.
Cambridge University has defended the project, arguing it is vital for research into neurological diseases. But local government authorities ruled against the university application. An appeal by the university led to a public inquiry last year, leading to the final go-ahead after Britain's national government declared its support.
Welcoming the decision, Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said: "We know that many people find the use of primates in medical research distressing, but the Cambridge research facility is needed to enable scientists to find treatments for life-threatening diseases. Sometimes primates are the only option."
Passions run high over the proposed research center. A demonstration held last month at the proposed site drew around 500 people, BBC reported Oct. 11. The director of the animal rights organization Animal Aid, Andrew Tyler, said the suffering of the beasts was considerable. "It's about opening up monkeys' brains, destroying parts of the brain with chemicals and surgery," he said of the research.
During the public inquiry held late last year, the British daily Independent on Nov. 27, 2002, explained the rationale for monkey experiments. Research using primates is governed by UK law, which requires a license to experiment on primates. Moreover, only monkeys can be used; higher primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, cannot.
The article observed that animals more commonly used in experiments, such as rats, do not have a well-developed cortex, the outer structure of the brain associated with the more advanced human mental processes. According to the Research Defense Society, a group representing the charities that sponsor medical research involving animals, the similarity between the cortex and frontal lobes of primates and those of human beings makes monkeys the best subjects to model brain disorders in humans.
Before the final government approval the British Home Office conducted an investigation of monkey research already being carried out at Cambridge, the Telegraph reported Feb. 12. The investigation was provoked after a claim by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection that the university was guilty of cruelty to marmosets used for brain research. Activists from the group infiltrated one of the laboratories and published a report. However, the Home Office concluded that the research is well managed and there was no deception about the amount of suffering the animals undergo.
Other animal research facilities are also drawing protests, the daily Guardian noted Oct. 27. Take Chris Hall, a farmer who breeds guinea pigs for experiments in the village of Newchurch. He has lived with protests outside his farm for the last four years. What once were peaceful demonstrations have more recently escalated into episodes of violence against his family and many of their associates. Police said that there has been a string of criminal activity, ranging from vandalism to arson. Worse, explosive devices have been placed near the homes of employees and the electricity to the entire village has been cut.
Last year there were 2.75 million scientific procedures using animals, according to the Guardian. This represents a halving of the number in the last 30 years. Overall animal research and testing makes up about 10% of all biomedical research. The vast majority of experiments, 84%, involve rats, mice and other rodents; another 12% are carried out on fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Sheep, cows and pigs account for another 2.1%, and dogs and cats a mere 0.3%. The animals under debate in the Cambridge lab case -- marmosets and macaque monkeys -- make up only 0.1% of the research.
An inquiry on animal research carried out in 2002 by a committee of peers from the House of Lords led to a commitment earlier this year by the government to further reduce the numbers of animals involved, BBC reported Jan. 20.
The British government defended how animal research was currently being carried out, affirming that the system of regulation was stringent and appropriate. Animal welfare groups remained unsatisfied. The groups argued that the licensing system operates like an old boys' club, with decisions being made in secret by scientists who are generally in favor of animal experiments.
Animal research still has its defenders. In the Guardian of April 24, Nick Wright, head of pathology at Cancer Research UK, wrote that hundreds of thousands of diabetes patients around the world are kept alive today with injections of insulin. Researchers identified insulin as the answer to diabetes through experiments on dogs.
Wright explained that some types of research are only possible by using a living organism such as an animal. He added that scientists using animals commit themselves to the so-called three R's -- reduction, refinement and replacement. He also noted that scientists try to reduce the number of animals used, in order to cut costs.
More recently British medical scientist Lord Winston defended animal experiments, also pointing out that their purpose is to save human lives. During a debate in the House of Lords, Winston complained about the red tape involved in obtaining permission to experiment on animals, the Independent reported Oct. 18.
Such obstacles, he said, could leave Britain behind in the international race to understand and exploit the benefits of the human genome. Winston added that the public needed to be better informed about just how valuable animal testing is for their health.
And from the patient's point of view, an appeal for animal testing was made by Mike Robins in the Telegraph on Nov. 22. Robins suffered from Parkinson's disease to the point that he shook so violently that he could no longer feed or dress himself.
His condition is now controlled by an electronic implant in his brain. The device was developed directly from work with monkeys. "It has given me back my life. Every morning I wake up and marvel that I no longer shake," Robins said. The "deep brain stimulator" sends a mild electrical current into the brain to block the signals that cause the symptoms of Parkinson's. "Thousands of Parkinson's sufferers will, like me, recognize and be thankful for the central role that animal research plays in discovering how the human brain works," he affirmed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2416, explains: "Animals are God's creatures." Consequently we owe them kindness, the text states. The following number adds: "Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice, if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives." Perhaps one of the reasons behind objections to animal research is that people are losing sight of human dignity, and placing animals on the same level as humans.