Stop warfare experiments

Warfare experiments – conducted using nerve agents, chemical or biological weapons or even simulated blasts – can involve the use of living animals. As you would expect, this can lead to terrible, prolonged suffering followed by death.

Animal Aid is determined to see a ban on all such warfare experiments – please help us stop this needless suffering.

What does Porton Down do?

Porton Down is in Wiltshire, close to Salisbury. According to the Independent, ‘Porton Down is often talked about in the singular, but is actually a site located near Porton village that is host to a whole group of different organisations. The two key ones are the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), which is run by the Ministry of Defence, as well as Public Health England.’

According to its website, Porton Down has ‘been active in developing effective countermeasures to the constantly evolving threat posed by chemical and biological weapons. To help develop effective medical countermeasures and to test systems, we produce very small quantities of chemical and biological agents.

These ‘chemical and biological agents’ take many different forms, but one which most people are familiar with is that of ‘nerve gases’ or ‘nerve agents’. Unfortunately, the ‘countermeasures’ and ‘systems’ described can involve the infliction of terrible suffering upon, and deaths of, thousands of animals. Typically, nerve agents are manufactured and animals are exposed to these poisonous substances, then attempts are made to ’protect’ the animals from the effects of the poison. Obviously, this can, and does, involve terrible, prolonged suffering and death.

What are nerve agents?

Nerve agents are highly toxic substances that work by binding to an enzyme in the body which stops it working. This enzyme, called AChE, is vital to how nerves work, so when AChE cannot work, the nerves become overstimulated. This can cause mental impairment, breathing problems, seizures (fits), coma and death. To treat the effects of nerve agents, typically three drugs will be given:

  1. One, such as atropine, to reduce overstimulation.
  2. A class of drugs, called oximes, to ‘reactivate’ the AChE, enabling it to work again.
  3. A class of drugs to stop, or reduce the chance of, seizures (fits) happening.

If the victim is severely poisoned, it may be necessary to use machines to help them breathe. They should also be decontaminated to reduce the amount of agent to which they are exposed. This is also beneficial as it helps to protect those helping them.

The way in which the nerve agent comes into contact with the victim will affect what happens to them.

Thicker liquids, such as one nerve agent called VX, will normally be absorbed through the skin, where they will gradually enter the blood, meaning the victim could be exposed to the agent for hours or even days. This leads to a delay in the signs of poisoning and the signs worsen more slowly. This may mean that first aid which is given is insufficient for the casualty.

What is blast injury research?

As its name suggests, this is research into the injuries caused to a body because of a blast. Blast injury occurs because of the huge change in pressure. Blasts can cause life-threatening injuries which are very complicated and therefore difficult to treat.

Experiments conducted at Porton Down

Nerve agent experiment on guinea pigs

Guinea pigs had a nerve agent called VX, which was made at Porton Down, applied to their backs in order to see how a chemical – known as a bioscavenger – would alter the effects of VX. The animals were observed after being poisoned and were given a score for their symptoms – the higher the score the worse the animal’s condition. Symptoms included ‘gasping’ and ‘writhing’. Animals not dead at the end of the experiment were killed and dissected.

Antidote to nerve agent experiment on guinea pigs

More guinea pigs, this time all male, were exposed to VX. The fate of one group is outlined: ‘The conditions of animals treated with atropine alone continued to deteriorate throughout the study until death’ and these poisoned animals ‘died between 2 and 6h post-poisoning’.

Read more about these experiments

Read our press releases

The science

A 2007 paper published over a decade ago casts doubt specifically on the reliability of the data gathered from harming guinea pigs with nerve agents in order to test a class of drugs called oximes to help humans. The authors state that the ‘guinea pig may not be a suitable animal model for the evaluation of nerve agent antidotes’.They go on to state ‘some potential oximes that are suitable for humans may be dismissed based upon their poor efficacy in guinea pigs’. This is an issue that Animal Aid has long pointed out is true; animal experiments can lead to promising treatments for people being discarded due to misleading effects in animals. Luo, C et al (2007) ‘An in vitro comparative study on the reactivation of nerve agent-inhibited guinea pig and human acetylcholinesterases by oximes’, Biochemistry, vol.46, pp.11771 – 11779.

Another paper compares specific differences in the molecule which is inactivated by nerve agents (AChE). The differences between AChE in people and guinea pigs are well-known, leading one set of authors to state ‘The differences we report between human and guinea pig AChE raise additional concerns about the suitability of the guinea pig as an appropriate small animal model to approximate human responses to OP poisoning and therapies’. Linn Cadieux, C. et al (2010) ‘Comparison of human and guinea pig acetylcholinesterase sequences and rates of oxime-assisted reactivation’, Chemico-Biological Interactions, doi.10/1016/j.cbi.2010.04.020

The history of opposition to Porton Down

Porton Down was founded just over a century ago, in 1916. Since then it has generated controversy for the experiments conducted there both on animals and humans*. Porton Down is the oldest chemical warfare research establishment in the world, and has, unsurprisingly, been of interest to animal protection groups, journalists and concerned citizens for decades.

Read more about the protests at Porton Down by Animal Aid and others.

Take action

Say ‘NO’ to animal experiments at Porton Down

What you can do

Animal Aid

Animal Aid, The Old Chapel, Bradford Street, Tonbridge, Kent, TN9 1AW +44 (0)1732 364546