Reviewer: Margaret Evans, CSIRO biologist and Chair of the Animal Care and Ethics Committee, CSIRO North Ryde Research Laboratories, Sydney (interviewed by Julia Maurus)
In my view Kitty McSporran is a provocative book in that it raises the issue of animal research and is a good starting point for discussion. It isn’t a balanced view but it’s thought-provoking and well illustrated, which is good for children.
I agree with Kitty that animals do not necessarily provide a good experimental model for humans, but regulatory systems in Australia, Europe and the United States require animal data to bring new medicines (such as anti-cancer drugs) and medical devices (like heart valves) onto the market.
The use of animals for the purpose of scientific research is highly regulated in most countries, including Australia. In Australia that involves the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Code of practice for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes and animal research legislation in the various states. The NHMRC Code is based on three principles: reducing the number of animals used; refining and improving research techniques and care of animals; and replacing animal research with different methods and technologies.
Animal research must be carefully planned and the plan submitted to the Animal Ethics Committee of the host institution for approval before any animal work can be conducted. Data from laboratory studies must be submitted as part of this plan to justify the progression to animal studies. Applications to the ethics committee also include specific details about how the animals will be cared for during the study to ensure that they are well looked after and not in pain or distress.
The membership of the ethics committee must include two veterinarians, two researchers, two animal welfare officers and two community members so the committee is well placed to ask researchers detailed questions about the proposed use of animals in the research plan submitted. Not all applications are approved and many others require changes before they are approved.
Our job is to make sure the science is valid and the research is as good as it can be and not to use animals unless it is really necessary. In this sense, the ethics committee is the only voice that animals have.
Really, the research scientists are caught in a bind. In this context, how can a life-saving treatment get to market without research using animals? We need to support the development of new laboratory techniques that enable scientists to gather valid data without the need for animals, with the ultimate aim of eliminating research involving animals altogether.
I try to make a contribution to this goal by chairing the animal ethics committee. While it is a very time-consuming role, it is a very important one and a challenge to do well.
I think informed public discussion is a good thing. I’d like Kathleen McLaren to write a book about the other half of the animal research story—that of the ethics approval that is required to conduct animal research.
Kitty McSporran does not present a balanced view on the issue of animal testing. I like the book’s style but you could read the book and be forgiven for thinking there is no control of scientific research involving animals. So I give the book two stars out of five.
The original version of this article was published in The Australian Writer issue 373 (September–November 2011).