Safer Medicines - putting patient safety first

Putting patient safety first

The Independent 16/01/06

Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess - While the debate rages on, lab rats are still suffering

The last time I visited the Houses of Parliament was seven years ago to have tea with my then romantic interest, who was a member of the House of Lords. It was a comforting occasion, with homely waitresses, toasted teacakes and lashings of "your lordships". This antiquated vision has fortunately been swept away and replaced by Blair's hand-picked cronies. Far more democratic!

I only share this blast from my past because my most recent visit wasn't so comforting. For a start, the queues! It's easier to get through customs at Tel Aviv airport these days than through security at the House of Commons.

This time I was attending a debate: "Is animal experimentation helpful to medicine?" Pro-vivisectionists Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, and Dr Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society were ranged against Dr Jarrod Bailey, science director of Europeans for Medical Progress, and Dr John Pippin, consultant to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Drs Bailey and Pippin explained how human tissue, imaging, computer models and microdosing offer more reliable data than can ever be obtained from animals.

Exciting developments like pharmacogenomics that use human DNA chips allow the right medicines to be prescribed for the right patients. This reduces adverse drug reactions, which kill thousands of people and cost the NHS £500m every year.

Owing to habit and cost, most companies still rely on animal tests - even though they often fail to predict hazards for humans. The arthritis drug Vioxx was linked with fatal heart attacks and strokes, though tests in mice and monkeys had shown it was "safe".

Testing on animals tells us about animals, not people. Aspirin can be fatal to cats; penicillin kills guinea pigs; arsenic poisons humans but not sheep; lemon juice poisons cats and rabbits; thalidomide can be hazardous to humans but is safe for most animals; 30 HIV vaccines worked well in monkeys but all have failed in human trials; 700 stroke treatments have succeeded in animals but not one has succeeded in patients.

I was shocked that instead of refuting any of these arguments, Dr Festing (who has never been a research scientist) suddenly began accusing Dr Pippin of being a radical animal rights campaigner and connected to Peta. Dr Pippin reiterated he had no links with any animal rights groups or charities, that he was a fully paid-up scientist and committed to proving the ineffectiveness of animal testing through scientific means only.

It makes me livid that anyone who argues against vivisection is branded a radical (some of us are quite reasonable). This tarnishes the fair-minded guardians of animal welfare and makes it harder for them to get a fair hearing.

Interestingly, Dr Festing's father is a consultant for Harlan UK, which is one of the world's largest suppliers of animals to research laboratories. He also holds financial interests in a number of pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Celltech.

The tragic thing is that while we humans bicker and pharmaceutical companies line their pockets, in laboratories all over the world animals are suffering unimaginably agonising deaths when there are already far more effective testing methods available.

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