Scientists Explain Why Animal Testing And Research Happens In Australia

Scientist's Hands Grabbing White Mouse
filo via Getty Images
Scientist's Hands Grabbing White Mouse

Professor Doug Hilton is proud of the way his institution conducts animal research and testing.

As director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, he's proud of their track record of caring for animals and he's proud of the advancements he's been directly involved in, like the discovery of immune-boosting hormones used by thousands of cancer patients each year, which were first observed in mice.

If pride and animal animal testing seem incongruous to you, here's a deeper look into why Australian scientists believe animals are still crucial in advancing medicine and science but also why animal rights groups don't think it's the right way forward.

“The researchers and technicians that work with animals, in my experience, feel a remarkably deep sense of responsibility that comes with the privilege of being able to work with them,” Hilton said.

“[It’s a] sense of care for those animals that permeated the whole organisation."

These facilities have been in the spotlight recently as a private members bill was introduced to the Senate by Greens member Lee Rhiannon in September last year seeking to ban the importation of primates for research in Australia.

In introducing the bill, Rhiannon said it was designed to address the "cruel and inhumane trade in intelligent, live primates caught in the wild and sold to a booming research market".

It's a debate that sparks emotional responses and Nonhuman Primate Breeding and Research Facility Board chair James Bourne said those strong opinions often impacted on researchers' family lives.

"Why don’t researchers speak up more? First and foremost is personal and family security, so many researchers internationally have been targeted by groups and forced into a corner where they're unable to work anymore and this is a travesty.

"There are many examples in the UK where researchers have been sent bombs to their home or been targeted in the street.

"I personally have been threatened by emails and letters."

Bourne however, said it was important for institutions to speak up about their research involving animals -- because the outcomes have led to Australian discoveries like the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine, the cochlear implant, a stent announced last week allowing the brain to 'talk' to bionic limbs and more.

“Of the 106 Nobel Prizes in physiology and medicine of course which rewards the greatest medical advances, 94 were dependent on animal research, and that includes every prize in last 30 years," Bourne said.

“If we just look at what’s happening today we’ve got the Ebola and Dengue Fever Viruses, which to get that rapid response, these viruses requires the use of primates and those vaccines are currently being tested in primates."

Bourne said there were incorrect claims these primates imported for research purposes in Australia were caught in the wild.

"They're bred in captivity," he said. "The whole idea that were actually importing animals that have been wild caught are actually totally unfounded. There's no truth in that at all."

Ebola posed a global pandemic risk in 2015 and currently, a vaccine is being tested on primates.

The Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Association president Malcolm France said he'd like to see research institutions and animal rights groups cooperating more.

"Transparency has to be a two-way street," France said.

"I think research institutions often ... become too risk adverse. When an institution receives an inquiry from an animal protection agency, it's seen as a threat.

"I think that's a sad mistake."

France said these animal rights groups were a starting point for correcting misinterpretations of the animal research industry, but that they also needed to gain researchers' trust.

"There's often quite a flagrant misrepresentation of what goes on in animal research institutions," France said.

"There’s really been no cosmetic testing in Australia for many, many years but it still features regularly in campaigns."

He said research institutions needed to commit to greater transparency and animal rights groups needed to show leadership in correctly reflecting animal research.

Humane Research Australia chief executive Helen Marston said it was not a case of researchers vs animal rights groups.

"There’s a bit of a misconception there that it's us against them -- they want to test on animals and we don't want them to," Marston said.

"The bottom line is we both want same thing -- we both want cures for cancer and other disease, it's just that we do not believe animal models are the best way to achieve that. There is actually a lot of common ground there."

Marston said she didn't accept the argument that institutions would not be comfortable talking about research for fear of safety.

"It’s an easy thing for them to say to avoid being held accountable," Marsden said.

"One of the major issues is there is no transparency or accountability in this issue. Let's get the information out there so we can know what's going on.

"I think people opposing animal experiments don't do it with any sense of aggression. It's about addressing the scientific arguments behind it.

"It's not just a cruelty issue, it's a question of the scientists being accountable and they need to show that what they're doing is working because there's a lot of peer reviewed studies that show that animals aren't predictive for humans."

As the debate on animal research continues, Bourne said there was one thing he wanted people to keep in mind.

"Researchers are always looking for the alternative," Bourne said.

"When it comes down to the facts, we’re just trying to make moves ahead in medical research and science.

"I think there’s often this misconception researchers are doing this, it's sort of like it’s just a hobby or a personal interest, but every researcher I speak to, it’s about wanting to make that next discovery to help both human health and our understanding of science."

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