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There are, and always will be, those implacably opposed to medical and scientific research on animals.
No matter the guidelines, safeguards and ethics committees, research on animals is simply wrong. As the international organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals puts it: ‘‘Animals are not ours to experiment on.''
Yet, animals have played a vital role for many years in the understanding and treatment of diseases. They have been irreplaceable in providing complex, living systems for research. And, despite, alternatives being used where possible, they still have an essential role.
Dunedin is a leading New Zealand centre for medical and biological research, and large numbers of animals (around the world about 95% of research animals are rats and mice) are bred for this purpose. The laboratories are scattered around the campus and updating and consolidation are required.
Hence, the University of Otago's plans, announced last week, to build a $50million five-storey animal research and teaching facility. The university must remain at the forefront of research, and the new facility will help achieve this.
The university's deputy vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, Prof Richard Blaikie, said animal-based research was a vital part in many major advances in medicine and science. He cited benefits in research on cancer, diabetes, obesity, fertility and in neuroscience.
Prof Blaikie said new facilities would not increase the numbers of animals in research, and a new facility would improve the welfare and husbandry of the animals.
Attitudes to animals in research have changed and improved. The university has a code of ethical conduct for the manipulation of animals which stipulates humane treatment. There are animal ethics committees at the Dunedin, Wellington and Christchurch campuses, and the university says research projects are closely scrutinised before being given approval.
Progress was made with the passing last year of the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill. It recognised animals are sentient, in other words they experience emotions, including pain and distress. The requirements of the Act mean the ethics committee have to look at non-living or non-sentient options when considering projects. These might, for example, be cell-based tests or tissue modelling. Such considerations already might have been common practice, but these are now specified in law.
The use of animals for the testing of cosmetics was also specifically banned last year, there can be little disagreement with that. Because 90% of cosmetics come from overseas, however, this will have little impact.
For decades the mantra for ethical research has been the 3Rs, refinement of tests so distress or pain is minimised, reduction of the numbers of animals to the minimum needed and the replacement of animals whenever possible with other experiments.
It is encouraging not just for scientists but also the university and the city of Dunedin to see another large university development emerge. The projects are the life-blood of the Dunedin's building industry and help keep the university up to date and attractive for students and staff.
Strong animal facilities are essential for Dunedin's research capability, and they could also be used by companies outside the university. It has been hoped for at least the past 15 years that biotech and related research industries could develop in the city, in part from spin-offs from university research.
While success has been patchy at best, such industries can require animal research.