A response to Cancer Research UK

David Scott, CRUK’s Director of Science and Funding, has written to several Animal Aid supporters defending the charity’s funding of animal experiments. What follows is some information that may help supporters who wish to reply to Mr Scott.

1. Mr Scott claims that ‘the huge progress we have made so far towards beating cancer and other diseases would not have been possible without the use of animals in research, to develop and test life-saving treatments…’

Animal Aid is interested in how this assertion can be quantified. We have already asked CRUK to provide a summary of its methodology, and a summary of how it believes treatments developed using animal research have influenced age-standardised mortality rates for the major cancers.

It would appear that any progress in understanding cancer claimed to have been gained through animal research is failing to translate into a reduction in disease levels. The incidence of cancer in the UK has reached a historically unprecedented high. Prevention of cancer, for which human-based research is far more relevant, is the only way to reverse this trend. CRUK consistently spends a very small part of its budget on this area.

The assertion that animal research is fundamental to progress in cancer medicine is, of course, highly contested. The success rate of cancer drugs in clinical trials – around 10 per cent – is woeful. These drugs have been developed using animal models, which are acknowledged by many cancer researchers to be poorly predictive (for example,http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/98/17/1176.full, orhttp://www.nature.com/nrd/journal/v9/n4/full/nrd3144.html#a1, or http://www.davidrasnick.com/Chemotherapy_files/We%20Fought%20Cancer%E2%80%A6And%20Cancer%20Won%202008.pdf).

It is not reassuring that Cancer Research UK staff are aware of these issues, yet, seemingly, choose to ignore them. For example, the severe limitations of mouse xenografts are clearly obvious to CRUK’s Cambridge Research Institute. An Institute promotional poster states: ‘Although initially useful, xenograft models of human cancer do little to replicate the real disease and are essentially an in vivo Petri dish… It is therefore not surprising that xenografts have an altered response to chemotherapeutic drugs. The time for reliance on such models to determine the response to a new therapy has passed.’ But staff at the same Institute are committed to the continued use of xenografts for ‘the tumours of major interest’. We are surely entitled to be sceptical when faced with such contradictions.

2. Mr Scott states: ‘We only use animals when there is no alternative’, and claims that experiments on mice are necessary ‘because the complex interactions between cells and tissues that occur during the development and spread of cancer within the human body cannot as yet be properly reproduced using other methods’.

There is a wealth of alternative approaches in cancer research (Animal Aid has produced a briefing on this issue).

Progress away from animal experimentation has been far too slow, partly because of the endlessly repeated mantra of ‘no alternative’. One of the case studies in our briefing cites the successful development of human tissue models of breast cancer. One of the researchers describes how their models are ‘advantageous over animal models as they more closely represent human disease and unlike animal experiments allow us to mimic the complex cellular interactions occurring in breast cancer, an essential step in understanding breast cancer behaviour’. (http://www.drhadwentrust.org/downloads/NC3Rs%20poster%202009%20D%20Holliday.pdf).

Animal Aid is disappointed that Mr Scott feels the need to deny the existence of such progressive research work that could bring great clinical benefit.

3. Mr Scott states that ‘animal research is governed by stringent regulations set down by UK law’.

There is evidence that the legislative process for animal experimentation is flawed, secretive and biased at all stages (please see page 39 of Victims of Charity).

Furthermore, as noted by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the regulatory framework for animal experiments is ‘permissive, cloaked in secrecy and offers little meaningful protection to animals’. (Seehttp://www.politics.co.uk/opinion-formers/buav-british-union-for-the-abolition-of-vivisection/political-challenges).

It is absurd to claim that a regulatory framework that licenses an increasing number of animal experiments is ‘stringent’. 3.7 million experiments were started last year, equating to more than 10,000 every day. Cancer research accounted for 429,000 procedures, an increase of 8,700 from 2009.

4. Mr Scott states that ‘It is a legal requirement that potential new treatments are tested in animals before they can be taken into trials with people’.

There is no legal requirement to use animals in basic or applied research. Animal Aid has challenged CRUK to provide information with regard to the proportion of its work that requires compulsory animal testing.

Furthermore, it is not Animal Aid’s position that drugs should go straight to human trials without any scientific validation. There is a multitude of high-quality non-animal testing and validation methods that can and should be employed.

Of course, CRUK’s Drug Development Office will be involved in animal testing mandated by law. It has formed collaborations with several commercial interests, and offers pharmaceutical companies ‘the unique opportunity to enhance potential return on previous investment’. It would appear, therefore, that public donations might be being used to generate profits for major drug companies. Is it CRUK’s position that all such collaborations and the profits that flow from them can correctly be classed as charitable?

5. Mr Scott states that ‘All animals used in our research are under the supervision of trained animal technicians who are responsible for the animals’ welfare’.

Animal Aid’s Victims of Charity report describes the considerable animal suffering involved in cancer research. Animals may be exposed to further distress caused by neglect and carelessness. Such ‘infringements’ are common in laboratories licensed to conduct animal experiments. A Home Office report, covering 2009-10, detailed mice being starved to death, killed by overheating, and used by experimenters to practise abdominal stitching techniques. The public should be given the chance to decide for themselves what constitutes animal cruelty. This leads on to the last point below.

6. Mr Scott states that ‘many of the animals used in our research are fruit flies, or other small organisms such as microscopic worms or zebrafish. Researchers use these animals because they are good models for human cells. Some researchers work with mice, in cases where it is essential to use a mammal as a model’.

In correspondence with Animal Aid, Cancer Research UK has thus far refused to provide details of how many animals it uses, or a list of the animal procedures it funds. Without such information, it is not possible for external observers to assess the validity of these ‘animal models’ and the extent of the suffering to which they are subjected. If CRUK placed transparency and accountability high on its list of priorities, it would surely offer the information requested.