Back in March, the university town of Oxford, not for the first time in its history, became the focus of an emotional national debate. The construction of the University's new biomedical research laboratory, suspended in 2004 following sustained protests from animal rights organisations, resumed amid tight security last November only to face continued resistance. At the end of February, counter-protesters, many of them scientists, embarked on a march through Oxford in support of the laboratory.
In the large amount of writing that followed the protests, I came across a letter to the Guardian newspaper by Vicky Robinson of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs). Reporting, among others, to the Minister of Science in the UK, the NC3Rs is an independent organisation committed to the eventual replacement of animals in experimental science.
She writes that the NC3Rs welcomes balanced and sensible discussion about the use of animals in research and that work to find replacement methods and to develop techniques that minimise the use and suffering of animals must continue. In another letter published a week later, Clive Coen of King's College in London remarks that, at present, "[i]t isn't good enough to repeat the wishful-thinking mantra that cell culture and computer models can provide sufficient tools to generate new treatments. Humans (whether healthy or diseased) are the most complex integrated systems known." I wonder!
The 3Rs (Replacement, Refinement and Reduction) were originally set out by Russell and Burch in their 1959 book, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. You can read a revised 1992 edition of the book online at Altweb, the Alternatives to Animal Testing Web Site run by Johns Hopkins University.
A lot has changed since 1959; the idea that computer simulation will one day replace almost all animal experimentation is fast moving from being a wishful thought to a practical aim. About which more next time.