Animal experiment
White Rats undergo an hemorrhagic shock experiment in a laboratory of Daping Hospital on February 20, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China.Getty Images

Britain is officially one of the worst offenders in Europe for scientific animal testing. According to the annual government statistics released today, cats, dogs, monkeys and other animals were used in a staggering 4.14 million experiments in 2015, a figure comparable only to France and Germany throughout the continent.

In this time of political uncertainty, however, there is a chance for positive change and innovation, limited only by our willingness and ingenuity.

Currently, despite evidence that experiments on animals systematically fail to benefit humans, scientists in Britain continue to withhold food and water from animals in order to make them cooperate with experimenters; poison them with ever-increasing doses of toxic chemicals until they die; and attach bolts to their skulls so that they can be "fixed" to a chair.

Worse even than the fact that these tests are ineffective is that for decades, some doctors believe experiments on animals have actually derailed medical progress. For example, according to Steven R. Kaufman and Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, we delayed our understanding of polio transmission, heart disease, and diabetes because we studied them in other species.

And Richard Klausner, the former head of the US National Cancer Institute, has also admitted, "The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn't work in humans."

Today, because experiments on animals are cruel, unethical, expensive, and generally inapplicable to humans, the world's most forward-thinking scientists have moved on. Organs-on-a-chip, which mimic the structure and function of human organs, have progressed into humans-on-a-chip. A wide range of sophisticated computer models that simulate human biology and the progression of diseases have also been developed.

Animal experiment
A young Chimp awaits its turn in medical experiments at Europe's largest centre for medical research in Rijswijk, August 1995REUTERS

We can test skin irritancy and corrosion using 3-dimensional human skin cultures and produce vaccines from human tissue cultures instead of killing rabbits and other animals. Studies show that these methods can accurately predict what happens in human beings and can replace the use of animals in exploratory research and many standard drug and chemical tests.

Seventy-nine per cent of the British public wish to see more exploration of these kinds of non-animal methods. The problem is that at the moment, the scientific community and the government lack the political will to end animal tests. It is unconscionable that of the £300 million in UK government funding for biosciences, only about 1 per cent is directed towards replacing animals in experiments.

It does, however, explain why Britain remains so woefully behind more progressive nations, such as the Netherlands, which earlier this year passed a parliamentary motion to phase out the use of non-human primates and which aims to be a world leader in animal-free research by 2025, recognising that exciting non-animal approaches are not just humane but also more reliable, more human-relevant, and often less expensive.

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we will have to take stock of our EU-driven policies and regulations, and if we're wise, we will seize the opportunity to become world leaders and innovators in scientific research by ending the archaic use of animals.

But if this nation continues down the same road it always has regarding animal testing, then uncoupling from EU legislation could lead to lowering animal welfare standards and permitting tests on animals that are currently deemed illegal under EU law - betraying both humans and animals.

To be on the frontier of science and ethics, innovation is our only option.


Dr Julia Baines is Science Policy Advisor to PETA UK