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Intergroup meeting: the use of animals for research in neurosciences

On 13/09/2018, in All posts, by Animal Welfare Intergroup
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The Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals met this morning  to discuss the use of animals in neuroscience (the study of the nervous system and the brain). Keith Taylor MEP was chairing the Intergroup session. The meeting opened with the screening of the recent footage from Animal Defenders International showing primates suffering in a Dutch research centre. While the footage is shocking, it did not expose clear violations of the EU rules. To avoid this kind of situation, the protection of animals used for scientific purposes would need to be strengthened. More than 12 million animals are used each year in Europe for research. Animal testing has long been a contested practice among civil society and among scientists for the suffering inflicted to the animals and in reason of their limited and doubtful scientific plus-value. Today’s Intergroup session aimed to question animal testing both ethically and scientifically.

Francesca Pistollato, a scientist and researcher from the  Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, called for an end to the use of animals in neurosciences. Animal testing is inherently uncertain and is a misleading indicator for human trials. This low predictivity has an impact on the protection of human, animal and environmental health. Very often, the toxic effects of a substance are only discovered when used by humans because it did not appear in the animal trials. In biomedical research, animals do not develop the studied disease in a similar way to humans. Their biology, metabolism, physiology or immune system are not identical to the human ones. Moreover, the use of animals completely eludes the impact of environmental and behavioural factors such as sleeping and eating habits in the development of human diseases. The overreliance on animal methods despite their low predictive value could be one of the reasons explaining the slow progresses in biomedical research.

Scientific research has made significant progress in regard of non-animal methods. But the road to the broad acceptance of these alternative methods is still long. Francesca Pistollato stressed the need for new regulatory approaches, and for more investments in methods that are both more reliable and more ethical. She concluded: “We need to embrace multidisciplinarity in the way we do neuroscience research, transitioning from a reductionist research paradigm, generally based on the use of animals, towards a more holistic paradigm, integrating different in vitro, in silico, in chemico approaches, data derived from epidemiological and clinical studies, and other scientific disciplines. This requires the courage to exit our comfort zone, and the will to seriously start questioning the relevance of obsolete non-human animal-based methods.

Katy Taylor, from the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE), addressed the specific situation of monkeys and the concerns raised by their use in neurosciences. They are, among others, used in the recording of single cells to identify the neurons responsible for vision, hearing or movement. This kind of experiment is conducted in universities all around Europe with EU funding. She presented the living conditions of these monkeys and illustrated their horrifying daily life made of water deprivation, confined space, head restraint, pole and collar. As the experiments in themselves are not painful, their suffering is often underestimated. However, neuroscientist Nicole Maninger demonstrated that ‘the physiology of our macaques exposed to repeated chair restraint is similar to people with PTSD.

The lack of benefits of these experiments for human medical applications and for scientific endeavours further question the legitimacy of the primates’ suffering. Katy Taylor advocated for a change in scientific approach and a replacement of animal method by human-based research. Instead of focusing on a single cell, human-based research could study all brain functions and connections. As monkeys do not naturally suffer from conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, human-based research would allow to study medical conditions without raising questions on how similar can an induced disease in animals be to the naturally occurring disease in humans. Moreover, people would be able to communicate on their thinking and feeling, helping the scientists in their understanding of the human  brain. Katy Taylor explained, “Civil society urgently needs to have a proper, informed debate about the place of neuroscience experiments on monkeys in modern research and whether it is time for it to be confined to the history books. This is not just a discussion for the scientific community.

European citizens are widely opposed to the use of primates in research. In 2007, the European Parliament called for a phasing out of the use of all non-human primates with alternatives. However, the Parliament Declaration remains without effect. Under the EU Directive for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, it would be possible to request an independent Thematic Review on how to move towards non-animal science. As the next framework programme for research is currently under  discussion in the EU institutions, the allocations of funding to alternative methods instead of animal testing could be discussed. EU funding of animal-based research under the current framework programme could also be challenged. The presentations were followed by a lively debate among the MEPs on the reasons behind animal testing and the potential strategies to promote alternative methods.

Check out the full recording of the session here.

 

 

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