Animal experimentation needs dissection

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Ehsan Masood draws attention to the concern, focused by the intention of the UK government to tighten the law on animal experimentation, that research using animals may be curtailed (Nature 389 896; 1997).

This follows an earlier account of the forthcoming Swiss referendum about the use of transgenic animals (Nature 389, 103; 1997) which expresses the fear that public opinion will lead to a ban, with consequent constraint on biological research. This is pertinent because genetically manipulated animals form an increasing proportion of the total used in experimental procedures.

One problem is that lay perceptions of transgenic animals may be coloured by the organisms that are featured in the popular media — obese, hairless and even luminescent mice — so that the public may get the impression that all genetically engineered organisms are grotesque or bizarre.

We have recently completed a survey of the views of 778 school and college students about the use of transgenic animals in medical research. Overall, 42% of our sample thought that genetic engineering of laboratory animals for this purpose was wrong, the same proportion that thought using 'ordinary' animals was wrong, suggesting that students find the process of genetically engineering animals for medical research no more or less objectionable than the use of animals in general for such research.

Few students (13%) thought that animal research was acceptable if the animals were caused pain.

It is significant, then, that 19% of the students thought that genetically engineered laboratory animals would be in constant pain, although fewer (12%) of the oldest group, the college students aged 16-19, believed this. On the other hand, 49% overall imagined that use of genetically engineered animals would lead to novel discoveries, and this view increased in the college students to 57%, suggesting that there might be an increasing appreciation of the value of transgenic organisms to research.

If our figures, showing that about half the students objected to animal research, extend to the general population, the outcome of a referendum about animal experimentation might be finely balanced.

There is a need, then, to inform the public in more detail about animal experimentation, including that which involves the production and use of transgenic animals.

Our results suggest that it would be helpful to dissect the issues, and distinguish between pain, distress and discomfort caused to animals.

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