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expert reaction to the story on the withdrawal of UK airlines and ferry companies from transporting animals for research

Following SMC input in a story broken by the Times and the Today programme on the intimidation of transport companies by animal rights activists, comments from leaders in the bioscience community were sent out.

Robin Lovell-Badge, Head of Division, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said:

“I work with genetically altered mice carrying out research that is helping to improve our understanding of normal processes in biology and to develop options for treatments when these processes go wrong, or as a result of trauma.

“It is quite often that mouse strains that we have developed, e.g. where we have made a mutation in a specific gene to study its function, or developed a “reporter” to allow us to follow the activity of a specific gene (if possible in the live animal), will be requested by scientists, elsewhere in the UK or in other countries. Likewise, we will request mouse strains from other scientists. It is important to share such animals. While it would in theory be possible in many cases to recreate the genetic alteration, this is likely to involve the unnecessary use of many animals to repeat the original work, and it would be a waste of time and money (both of which are in short supply in research). Moreover, to be able to compare work done in different labs, it is often important to be able to study the same “material”, i.e. the exact same strain of animal. (The same principle is followed when work is done for regulatory purposes, e.g. drug testing. It is critical to be able to compare the safety and efficacy of different drugs in the same way, whether this is on cell lines in vitro or animals, and to do this in different centres.)

“The reason why the number of animals imported seems very small in comparison with the total used in procedures is simple. We will import perhaps a breeding pair of a particular strain of mice. These are the only ones that travel (and are recorded as such in Home Office statistics). However, once we have the animals, they will be used to found a colony, and, depending on the experiment, this could comprise many hundreds or thousands of animals. But these will not have travelled and will be treated in the HO statistics just like any mouse strain that has originated within a UK lab.”

Sharmila Nebhrajani, Chief Executive of AMRC, said:

“Research using animals is a small but important part of medical research funded by charities to better understand disease and develop treatments that improve and save lives. Our researchers collaborate with the best scientists around the world, and sometimes this involves transporting animals from country to country. To support the progress of essential and life-saving research, we need airlines and ferry companies to continue to transport animals to the best welfare standards.”

Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University and former Chief Executive of the MRC , said:

“The public needs to know that vital research – on brain disease, cancer and heart disease – is already being impeded because of the targeting of airlines and ferry companies by tiny, unrepresentative pressure groups.

“The clear lesson of the past 20 years is that it’s important not to give in to intimidation. The government and the medical research community must support the transport companies and explain to the public why the importation of small numbers of animals, mainly mice, under the strictest regulations, is crucial for medical progress.”

Stephen Whitehead, Chief Executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (APBI), said:

“Global research collaborations have helped us to develop countless medicines and treatments in the past, and I hope they will continue to do so in future.

“We need to do all we can to support those targeted by these extremists, and we must ensure that our positive intention to find treatments and cures for diseases that affect millions of patients all over the world is not affected by the misguided actions of a few people.”

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, Chair of Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), said:

“Despite the wonderful advances and breakthroughs we have seen in medical science, many diseases continue to affect peoples’ lives. Not only have we not discovered cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntingdon’s, Motor Neurone Disease and Muscular Dystrophy, but we have not even yet found effective treatments that can relieve the worst symptoms of these diseases.

“The decision by airlines and ferry companies to withdraw from transporting animals for research because of threats from animal rights activists is entirely understandable on commercial grounds. But not on moral grounds. Poll after poll shows that the British public understand why animals are used in medical research. The customers of the airline and ferry companies will have either benefitted from treatments tested on animals or will want to benefit from the medicines that are currently being developed. I believe they would want to see this vital research continue.

“This campaign against airlines and shipping companies has gone under the radar for a long time. Now that the media have exposed the impact on science in the UK, patients, politicians and the public need to discuss whether we are going to accept a situation where the search for effective treatments is hampered because of the objections of a minority.”

Professor Frances Balkwill, Chair of Understanding Animal Research (UAR), said:

“We already owe a lot to animal research. It has provided treatments to keep us and our families healthy. But scientists are still striving to help those with life-threatening conditions.

“Exciting new fields of medicine, such as genetics and stem cell technology, rely on animal research at several stages. These worldwide efforts are finding new treatments for life-threatening diseases like cancer, heart disease and genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis. Because of the global nature of biomedical research, scientists in the UK need to work with the same species and genetic lines as their foreign collaborators.

“It is crucial to be able to transport these animals across the world without fear of extremism.

“Moving animals on long journeys is not ideal from an animal welfare and a scientific point of view. This action is only taken when strictly necessary, and every effort is made to minimise the impact on the animals.

“Ironically, when so-called ‘animal rights’ groups close routes by intimidating transport companies, the result is that animals take more convoluted journeys. These campaigns actually do more harm than good to the animals being transported.””

Steve Owen, Chair of the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT), said:

“The Institute of Animal Technology has approximately 2,600 members and the most important aspect of our work is improving and developing the welfare of the animals in our care. Over the years animal rights groups like BUAV have campaigned against the couriers transporting animals for research. Far from improving the welfare of these animals, these campaigns have resulted in longer transport routes and more difficult journeys – both of which are unacceptable to those who care for laboratory animals.

“We should be allowed to choose the quickest and best transport routes for our animals – routes which maintain the highest standards of welfare and reduce stress for the animals. All these animals are shipped in appropriate vehicles and IAT members are involved in journey plans.”

A fact sheet from Understanding Animal Research, and a joint statement by representatives of the UK biosciences sector were sent out with the above comments, and can be downloaded below.

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