Motion to Take Note

Part of EU: Directive on the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes (EUC Report) – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 3:42 pm, 10th February 2010

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have held an animal-operating licence in various guises since 1970. I have about 40 years' experience of being an animal researcher in various university circumstances, in the United Kingdom, to some extent in Europe-where I worked in Belgium-and, most recently, in California in the United States, where I still conduct animal research.

Having read the report last night-I offer my congratulations to the committee and its chairman on the common sense in it and on how it has been laid out-I decided to go through my own curriculum vitae and look at the number of my publications which were purely animal-based concerns in peer-review journals. There are more than 100 publications of research which I believe could not have been done without the use of animals. While we support reduction and refinement, one has to say that reduction is only reduction. Perhaps unlike the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who expressed worthy thoughts, I do not believe that we will ever find it very easy to abolish animal research completely. Those are great sentiments, but it is not the case in practice.

It has been interesting to make a list of the research that I have been involved with. For example, the research that we did on foetal lung development in premature infants, using a rat model, was crucial to understanding lung development; it could not have been done in humans. Some of the work done in contraception was benign work in rabbits. Fertility and IVF were largely animal research-based projects which could not have been done with a human egg. Work on ovarian function and the infections caused by chlamydia, which I have done in the United States, and refinements of pelvic surgery could not be done in human subjects; it had to be done in animals first. Ageing and the genes which affect it are much easier to study in the mouse model, but very difficult to study in the human. The same goes for gene expression in human development. Screening for fatal genetic diseases to prevent children dying of them essentially had to be done in animal models first of all. Xenotransplantation may offer great hope for transplantation in the future-it is worth bearing in mind that, every 15 minutes, somebody is put on a waiting list for an organ transplant. The idea of being able to use animals of human size for transplantation must be a humane endeavour.

One reason why I mention this is because the report points out that the breeding and killing of animals for their organs should not be part of a licence. I agree with that completely. It seems to me that it is essentially no different ethically from eating animals for dietary purposes, and if one is to use animals at all for farming one might be better off using them for their organs to save human lives.

Finally, I mention the work that Carol Readhead and I have done on humanised organs, which might make it easier to develop drugs that are not going to fatally attack the human immune system, as happened in Northwick Park hospital two or three years ago.

On reduction, which the report refers to, one should point out that there is likely to be, and perhaps there should be, a continued rise in the number of animals used, particularly of the mouse model. There is no question that if one looked at all the biological developments in the past 30 or 40 years, at least in my view, the human genome sequencing is really quite trivial compared with understanding how genes work. That was made possible only by the use of mouse transgenic models, whereby we can either remove or replace genes or make their expression inactive in various mouse models. That has been perhaps the most colossal development in biology in the whole of my lifetime as a medic, researcher and scientist. It seems inevitable that this work will continue to be important. It is worth bearing in mind that human children's lives have been saved from leukaemia and that cancer victims are saved as a result of using transgenic models. It is likely in future that more and more drugs will be needed to try to prevent different types of cancer and prolong lives in cancer victims. Some 40 per cent of us will eventually develop cancer and it is possible in future that we may live longer and almost normal lives with cancer, like diabetics. But that is likely to be possible only if we can continue to use the mouse model and similar models to develop those drugs. This is something that we have to bear in mind when we talk about reduction, as we do in this report.

The report also focuses on the use of primates. While all of us agree that there are massive ethical problems in dealing with non-human primates in research, there is no doubt that the continuing use of non-human primates in specific experiments is very desirable indeed. There are two examples that I would give. First, in the field of neuroscience, many of these things are quite benign, and the witnesses who sometimes spoke against the use of primates in the report did not quite do justice to the full scope of experimental procedures-particularly single-neuron recording, which cannot be done easily in the human but provides very useful evidence in animal models and is likely to be of extreme in the use of the rhesus macaque, which is a common non-human primate source.

Secondly, recently I made a visit to Singapore, which is rather different in its use of primates from most other developed countries, where there are quite large primate colonies, some of which are bred using F2 animals and some of which are brought in from other Asian countries. One of the most interesting and important aspects of the research in Singapore is the development not of genetics but the new field of epigenetics-how gene expression and gene working is changed by early developmental and environmental changes. That will be a very important area for human medicine in the next 10 or 20 years. If that sort of work were abandoned and we could not observe primates having a regulated diet or other environmental influences during early development, it would be a serious drawback to the pursuit of good human medicine.

The human genome on its own is useless, unless we understand the function of the genes within the genone, which will require huge investment in epigenetics. That is something that cannot just be done in humans because we cannot regulate the environment in a controlled way, as we can in a rhesus monkey. There is no question that the work in Singapore means that the Singaporean people, along with many interested people from Canada, America and New Zealand as well as British workers, because of those colonies, will lead in that field. It does not matter who leads in the field-I am not suggesting being in competition here-but it is important to understand that this work has a fundamental importance in pursuing the best human health under all circumstances, particularly for our children in future.

I want briefly to draw attention to data sharing. Dr Mark Walport told the committee that, in his view, data sharing would not reduce the suffering of animals, nor would it increase transparency-and Mark Walport, who is an absolutely honourable and honest scientist, is right to say that. It is worth bearing in mind that science is not black and white. We often think of science as portraying the truth, yet it is possible to do two experiments with diametrically opposing results but for both experiments in those cases to have valid results, which we can learn from. It would be ludicrous to suggest that we start taking action as a result of one or two experiments. Experiments always need to be replicated if we are to make sure that we get the best and safest information, particularly when it comes to human health.

Another issue that was briefly referred to is that of changing an experiment and its protocols during its course, because new data have come up. That has been a particularly difficult issue for human researchers and I hope that, with the Home Office, we can find ways to make sure that it is possible to modify an experiment more easily during its progress. Otherwise, I fear that the use of animals will become more prolific rather than less.

Finally, I mentioned that some of my work has been done-and is still being done-in the United States. Here, we are of course looking at a European directive, but it is very interesting to look at the animal research at, for example, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. It is interesting that it is actually much easier to get a licence or an authorisation to do work there. Certainly, my impression is that, if anything, animals are treated with absolute humanity in that establishment. It is highly effective, and what is also impressive about American institutions is the quality of the environment in which animals are kept and in which research is done. We could do well not merely to look in the rest of Europe, but to consider particularly what is happening across the Atlantic in the United States.