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Medical education (Part 1)


Looking into issues surrounding animal research
David Weatherall Scientist
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The other thing that I’ve been involved in more recently was even worse, and that was this question really of animal research, particularly primates, I mean, things have got so bad that the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society and the Welcome and the MRC jointly sponsored this working group, and I don’t know why I took it on. They asked me to do it, I think, because I’ve never worked with an animal. I mean, I think I had a brief flirtation with a couple of pregnant sheep just after I got to Oxford, but it didn’t come to much, and it’s nice in our field, because you can take a couple of ml of blood and do all you want from humans, and they can’t complain. So we had this rather very heterogeneous group of people, Nick Ross again, and the, John Harris, the bioethecist from Manchester, and then one or two people who knew something, particularly neuroscientists who had worked with animals, and the pharmaceutical industry and so on. And we just met for 15 months, it took, and we tried to adjudicate ourselves, we went to establishments where there was monkey research going on, and I, I don’t know, you get all this kind of advice when you go in an see these beasts, I mean, we were told on no account must you make eye contact with a monkey. But I mean, people have told me that about my cat, and we seem to make eye contact okay, so I went into this building, it was one of the Oxford buildings, and the first thing I saw was this little rhesus monkey peering at me, so, it seems rude not to look back, you know, and we peered at each other for a second, and then he immediately peed all over me, and I thought maybe they were right. But it was fascinating to, we went to Porton as well, they wouldn’t show us too much, obviously, but we had, and we went to Edinburgh, and at the Oxford place, interviewed lots of people from both sides really, extensive interviews with people like the RSPCA, have got some very serious interest in this. And also we had neuroscientists in- very long procedure, very difficult actually. And we got into an enormous kind of, ethical issues about the fundamental rights of animals and consciousness and all these awful problems which are totally insoluble, as far as I’m concerned. It’s such a long history of this, I mean, I hadn’t realised until I started reading about it, you know, that, I mean, there was a huge battle in Oxford when, well, Lewis Carroll, as we know him, has tried to, got a petition at Oxford, so that there would never be a physiology department. Even going back to Doctor Johnson, you know, the 18th, 17th century, a lot of this was going on, and Oxford’s always been in the centre of these battles, still is, but it honestly seemed to me, at the end of the day after all this, that, what the only useful thing we could really do that was semi-new, was to investigate the science. Has it been worth it? Is it really justified? Because the public debate has always suggested, from the rather limited, I know opinion polls are not very good, that they’re comfortable if it’s for medical research, but if it’s for kind of what they would call, curiosity-driven science, particularly in the neurosciences, they just do not like monkeys with their heads full of electrodes if it’s just for a bit of curiosity. And so we did two or three areas, we couldn’t do everything, but we did particularly communicable disease, the big three killers and vaccine development and so on, and the neurosciences. And then we also tried to look in great detail at alternatives, because there’s a big feeling now in animal rights that we don’t need these whole animals anymore, and the, because the pharmaceutical industry, they use the vast majority of primates, it’s a huge number compared with the ordinary scientists. Are there methods which will start to replace the requirement for primates? Well, you go through the whole gamut of molecular and cell biology and genes, you know, promoter modifiers that are promoter signals so that you can do kind of metabolic studies in cells or small animals at least– some of it very preliminary. And at the end of the day it seemed to us that there were certain areas in vaccine development particularly, and in the neurosciences, relating to some of the major killers, where for the foreseeable future, it might be quite difficult to proceed without a relatively small number of primates. From the pharmaceutical industry’s point of view, we felt that maybe some of it was more, kind of habit, on the part of the regulators, as much as, was there a good basis, and so what we’ve asked for is the pharmaceutical industry to produce publicly available results of the outcomes of all their primate work, and we’ve asked the big funding bodies to do the same thing actually, over the next five years. What exactly have we gained? Because it’s such an impossible to- you can obviously make cases and find cases, and then we’ve asked the government to review the possibility of confining this work to a few centres of excellence, where the animal facilities will be very much better, training would be much better. And this will make some people mad because it may mean kind of taking a car and taking their monkeys around the country and so on, but, and I think the government are probably going to have a look at this. So, that was my brief sortie in and out, and with an accent on the out of the animal research field.

British Scientist Sir David Weatherall (1933-2018) was a world renowned expert on blood diseases, in particular thalassaemias, and used his expertise to help control and prevent these diseases in developing countries. He founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford in 1989 and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Marcus Pembrey

Marcus Pembrey, now Emeritus, was Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and consultant clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Bristol UK, where he was the Director of Genetics within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children until 2006. A past president of the European Society of Human Genetics, he is also the founding Chairman of the Progress Educational Trust.

Duration: 7 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2007

Date story went live: 02 June 2008