Wednesday, 3 August 2011

If wishes were horses...

I've talked about animal experimentation before (e.g. here and here) but I was pointed to this discussion on the Guardian website:

Dr Sebastien Farnaud of the Dr Hadwen Trust and Prof Roger Lemon of UCL debate the ethics and uses of tests on monkeys

The opening piece by Dr Farnaud contained so many anti-vivisection tropes I was moved to repeat it here (with my comments):
"I thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to start this discussion about a very controversial matter, the validity of the use of non-human primates in medical research, a subject in which, as a medical research charity, the Dr Hadwen Trust is particularly interested."
No, the Dr Hadwen Trust was set up specifically to oppose animal research.
"The first thing to consider is the aim of the Bateson report, which has just been published, its standpoint and who wrote it.
This report is an independent review commissioned by all the major research funders in the UK, to assess the quality, outputs and impacts of research carried out on non-human primates, and their benefits to human health. This review follows the publication in 2006 of the Weatherall report by a working group chaired by Sir David Weatherall that recommended that the major funding organisations should undertake a systematic review of the outcome of all their research using non-human primates (NHPs) supported over the last decade.
Interestingly, whereas the Weatherall report was unambiguously in favour of the use of NHP in medical research, the Bateson report adopts a more challenging position. Professor Bateson, who is emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, is very well respected within the scientific community.
It is therefore very important that statements in his report, indicating that almost one in 10 research projects that used monkeys in the UK result in no scientific or medical benefit, are not ignored. He also states that the justification for some projects carried out over a 10-year period from 1996 was "inadequate or insufficient" and that future projects involving non-human primates that could not demonstrate plausible medical or social benefits should not be funded."

I think only 1:10 experiments showing no scientific or medical benefit is a surprisingly high proportion  showing benefit. I'd imagine most scientific research is of minimal use, even medical research, and a figure as high as 90% showing benefit is amazing. Justification for most experiments, when considered outside the narrow question of what people in a particular scientific field think is interesting, is generally poor anyway. So again, I see little to criticise primate experiments over any other area of science.
"The reviewers also reported the unnecessary and unjustified repetition of work published a decade earlier."
To be fair, there are plenty of reasons to repeat experiments done a decade earlier, including replicating a study to show that the effect is robust and repeatable, and verifying that you are performing a particular technique correctly by reproducing a know effect so you can then go on to develop that further.
"These points underline that the issue is not simply an ethical issue but also a scientific one. This simply questions the scientific validity of NHP use in medicine."

No it doesn't. 10% does not equal 100%.
"The report recommends the promotion and development of alternatives to the use of NHP in research."
Well, duh! I imagine 'mom and apple pie' also get a mention.
"Since most diseases studied in NHP are human diseases that do not naturally occur in NHPs, it seems logical to try to develop models which are from the start human-relevant. Here we have to make clear that nobody is proposing we use invasive methods on human subjects. On the other hand, advanced techniques, which were barely mentioned in the Weatherall report, are highlighted in the Bateson report.. These techniques include, for example, magnetoencephalography (MEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), non-invasive imaging techniques that are already in use to help us understand diseases and the needs of patients who suffer from neurological disorders. Organisations such as the Dr Hadwen Trust have promoted and funded these techniques for over a decade."

Yeah, because if fMRI doesn't have the anatomical resolution then MEG or TMS are going to do the trick. If wishes were horses...
"One very important point that the report makes concerns regulation. It emphasises the importance of and the need for a robust system of regulation for animal experiments, at a time when the Home Office is preparing the implementation of the new EU directive for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes."
Good job UK regulation is the tightest in he world (which is not to say it doesn't focus excessively on process and paperwork rather than welfare).
"To conclude I would say that although this report will not please everybody, I like to believe that it is a first step towards major changes, a different attitude that will challenge the use of NHPs in medical research."