Curiosity Killed the Dog
The scope of basic research in the UK
According to official Home Office figures, there has been a steady increase in the number of animals used in basic research over the last 10 years, from 24% of the total number of procedures in 1993, to 30% in 2003 (the total number of procedures in 1993 and 2003 was the same i.e. 2.8 million).
Categories of basic research
Of the various fields of basic research, the largest single category in 2003 was the immune system (nearly half a million procedures), involving several different species of animal. The next largest category was the nervous system, followed by the cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems.
Examples of basic research - Experiment 1
Ten five-week-old kittens had the eyelids of one eye sewn together and kept closed for ten days. In five of the kittens, the sewn eye was then opened, while the healthy eye was surgically manipulated to make it squint. Fourteen days later, the kittens were anaesthetised and had part of their skulls removed in order to expose the brain area that is responsible for vision. Behavioural and optical imaging experiments were subsequently performed.
There is no mention in the article of whether the kittens were allowed to recover from the experiment or whether they were euthanased. The authors do not provide any clear conclusion. Instead, they explain why their study appears to contradict that of other researchers, and also why the results could differ when the experiment is performed in monkeys.
This is yet another minor variation on a category of research called 'monocular deprivation', often used to study the human condition known as amblyopia ('lazy eye'). Cats were used in this experiment even though their eyes lack a macula and fovea two areas of critical importance in the human eye. A Harvard trained pediatric opthalmologist commented on this type of research in 1990 in an affadavit (next column) presented in an Israeli court of law. This document, together with several other sworn statements made by eye specialists, all concurred on the lack of applicability of these experiments to the human condition.
'I do not believe that straining to find out new ways of depriving cats of visual input has added, or will add, to our knowledge about the connections of the eye to the visual cortex in cats... even if it adds a little to our knowledge of visual connections in cats, the applicability of this knowledge to human amblyopia is essentially nil.Clinical research, done with children who are actually suffering from amblyopia, would seem to be the only way to find out more about how to treat this important condition which affects about two per cent of the population.'
Affidavit by Robert Petersen MD, The Children's Hospital, Boston USA
Source: Correlated binocular activity guides recovery from monocular deprivation.
Nature 2002; Vol. 416: 430-433. Kind P Mitchell D, Ahmed B, Blakemore C, Bonhoeffer T, Sengplel F. University laboratory of physiology, Parks Road, Oxford.
Funding: Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council (UK), Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Oxford McDonnell Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience.
Examples of basic research - Experiment 2
Sixty-two ferrets, of whom 39 were albino, were used in this study. Their age ranged from ten weeks to 24 months. Eight of the ferrets were anaesthetised and had a radioactive compound injected directly into their left eye. In conjunction with general anaesthesia, a neuromuscular blocking agent was used the use of such drugs giving cause for special concern, because the paralysis they produce may mask signs of pain.
Other animals were anaesthetised and surgical slits made in the skull through which to insert several electrodes into the brain. In another six albino and six non-albino ferrets, a fluorescent compound was injected directly into the brain. Again, these procedures were made under a combination of anaesthesia and paralysis. The skull wounds were covered and the ferrets allowed to recover from the anaesthetic. Seven more albino animals were anaesthetised and received deep brain injections. These animals were allowed to recover and then euthanased 2-7 days later.
The authors conclude that 'the results presented here on anaesthetised, paralysed pigmented ferrets are similar to previous studies'.
The experiment was directed at the discovery of scientific data for its own sake a crumb amongst the millions of other crumbs of basic research that are discoverable, but totally inapplicable to human or animal health.
Source: Relay of visual information to the lateral geniculate nucleus and the visual cortex in albino ferrets
The Journal of Comparative Neurology 2003, vol 461: 217-235. Akerman J, Tolhurst D, Morgan J, Baker G, Thompson I. University Laboratory of Physiology Oxford.
Funding: Medical Research Council (UK), Wellcome Trust, McDonnell-Pew Foundation.