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In sickness and in health: vivisection's undoing
(Filed: 23/11/2003)

Dr James Le Fanu on why animal experiments cannot help humans

The great 19th-century French biologist Claude Bernard - of whom it was said that, in 20 years, "he discovered more dominating facts than all the physiologists in the world" - once famously regretted that the "science of life" was accessible only through "a long and ghastly kitchen" of experiments on living animals. And, to be sure, it is only possible to study life in the living. So Bernard would starve dogs to death, hoping an analysis of their tissues would shed light on the mysteries of nutrition; and pop live bunnies into his oven, the better to understand the mechanisms of temperature regulation; and much else.

There was widespread opposition - especially in Britian - to Bernard and his fellow vivisectors for the cruelty and suffering inflicted on defenceless animals. But now the general view would seem to be that such experiments are - with regulation and anaesthesia (unavailable in Bernard's time) - a regrettable necessity of modern life if science is to continue to progress and we are to have more and safer medicines.

There have, however, been a couple of events recently that might seem to challenge this issue. First, this week marks the 100th anniversary of an anti-vivisection cause celebre - the Brown Dog Affair - precipitated by the publication of The Shambles of Science, diaries kept at the time by two female students at University College Hospital. They described, in a chapter entitled "Fun", watching Dr William Bayliss cutting the nerves in the neck of a struggling dog, already much distressed by an open abdominal wound from a previous experiment.

Bayliss sued for libel, and won - but sufficient funds were raised from public subscription to commission a memorial statue for the unhappy creature, a replica of which still stands in Battersea Park, south London. Its inscription reads: "In memory of the brown terrier dog done to death in the laboratories of University College in February 1903, after having endured vivisection extending over more than two months 'til death came to his release. Also in memory of the 232 dogs vivisected at the same place during the year 1902. Men and women of England, how long shall these things be?"

Commenting on this anniversary last week, the well-known geneticist and former Reith lecturer Prof Steve Jones, of University College, claimed that Bayliss's experiment had contributed to a "great breakthrough in biology": the discovery of the first hormone, secretin. He went on to criticise contemporary anti-vivisectionists for "continuing to tell lies about science - just as they did in 1903 - in claiming that animal experiments are not needed."

Prof Jones's interpretation is not entirely correct. That first hormone had been discovered a year earlier in another dog (luckily for it, anaesthetised), as part of a systematic research programme. This scarcely bears comparison with the "Fun" experiment described by William Bayliss's two female students.

Further, while it is certainly true that those discoveries of 100 years ago would not have been possible without animal experiments, this scarcely legitimises their continued use today. Science has moved on and is now preoccupied with very different questions - which brings us to the second challenge to animal experimentation. There is currently much controversy over the proposal by Cambridge University to build a new "state-of-the-art" primate laboratory for the investigation of human brain disorders. Primates, it is claimed, offer the best experimental model, being our closest cousins, with whom we have 99 per cent of our genes in common.

However, and here's the catch, while the genes of the two species are virtually indistinguishable, the intellectual gap between primates and humans is vast and unbreachable. This can only mean that their brains, in many important ways, must be differently organised from our own - which presumably explains why 30-odd years of research mimicking in primates the damage caused by strokes and spinal injuries - and then seeking treatments - have ended in failure.

Why, argue the critics of the proposed new Cambridge laboratory, should things be any different in the future? The best and only place to study human brain disorders is in humans.

There is, as always, an exception to this rule: a decade ago, research in primates did lead to a highly effective form of brain surgery for those with Parkinson's disease and other serious movement disorders. But this remains an exception, and could be said to no more justify the general use of primates as experimental models for human brain disorders than the discovery of a hormone from a dog experiment 100 years ago justifies similar experiments today.

Some might think they have heard all these arguments before and, anyhow, there is nothing that can be done about it; but the clear futility of much animal experimentation today - and particularly its inapplicability to humans - could finally prove to be its undoing.

Those who wish to learn more might be interested in Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals, by C. Ray Greek (Continuum, £14.70).

12 November 2003[Connected]: View from the lab: Why a brown dog and its descendants did not die in vain [Prof Steve Jones writes]
9 October 2003[News]: Asher makes the case for animal experiments
19 March 2003[News]: Support grows for animal experiments
25 July 2002[News]: Lords blame red tape for lab animal suffering