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Leading science journal highlights 'sham' of UK animal testing laws

Letter in 'Nature' bolsters campaign for public inquiry

26 July 2004

The campaign for a public inquiry into controversial pig-to-primate transplant experiments is gathering further momentum this week. Following lengthy discussions and document inspections between 'Nature' and anti-vivisection group 'Uncaged', the prestigious science journal has decided to publish a letter from the group complaining of serious malpractice on the part of Government animal research Inspectors. (1)

Last year, Uncaged and their Campaigns Director Dan Lyons won a historic legal victory over drug firm Novartis to overturn a gagging injunction that had banned the publication of leaked confidential documents. (2) The campaigners' success followed an arduous two-and-a-half year struggle and was based on the public interest in revealing evidence of Government bias and systematic failure to enforce animal research laws.

The unique papers, contained in leaks from Novartis subsidiary Imutran and the Home Office, contained details of experiments involving the transplantation of genetically-engineered piglet organs into the necks, abdomens and chests of monkeys and baboons. The transplant procedures were followed up with massive doses of immunosuppressant drug cocktails. Every single animal died either from surgical complications, drug toxicity, infection or organ rejection. The documents reveal how primates were allowed to become severely ill and die in direct breach of legal limits on animal suffering. Additionally, researchers made the following observations of primates in experiments assessed as merely of 'moderate' severity:

  • "very distressed and having difficulty breathing... animal collapsed",
  • "uncoordinated limb spasms",
  • "suffered a stroke",
  • "retching and salivating",
  • "abdomen swollen and appears fluid filled. Salivating. Very laboured breathing. Extreme difficulty trying to walk",
  • "large volume of bloody mucoid faeces",
  • "Collapsed on cage floor, appears weak and unable to get up, breathing shallow and rapid, salivating, heavy lidded eyes, body and limb tremors."

The issue is particularly sensitive because the research took place at the controversial Huntingdon Life Sciences testing centre, whose staff were partially responsible for infringements. Monkeys were illegally re-used at the establishment, and another primate was given a quadruple overdose. The incidents represent breaches of Huntingdon's licence to perform animal experiments, yet the Home Office has ignored pleas for an inquiry.

Confidential meeting minutes expose evidence of collusion between Home Office Inspectors and Imutran executives to underestimate the severity of experiments, making them easier to licence and avoiding scrutiny from the Government's advisory committee on animal experiments. Another internal report refers to an Inspector's comments about "rubber-stamping" applications for experiments.

At the heart of the animal testing regulatory system is a cost/benefit assessment of research proposals. Yet, Imutran were allowed to continue sacrificing some five hundred higher primates over a period of six years, despite the fact that they failed to achieve even their first objective in their licence applications. Scientific advisors to the government later branded the research as leading up a "blind alley". Imutran were finally closed down by Novartis in 2000, a week after Uncaged first exposed their organ swap experiments.

Lyons' letter in Nature points out that despite the overwhelmimg evidence of wrongdoing, and the support from over 150 MPs for a motion calling for an independent inquiry (3) , the Home Office has blocked all attempts at independent scrutiny. The Parliamentary Ombudsman is currently considering two investigations following complaints from Uncaged over how the Home Office assessed and reviewed the Imutran research.

Dan Lyons accuses the Home Office of "blatant hypocrisy" for supporting and defending illegal cruelty while attacking a small number of illegal protests from animal rights activists:

"In our opinion, in a democratic society the rule of law must apply to everyone. Uncaged campaigns in a totally peaceful manner, but the Government provokes illegal protest with its callous and cavalier attitude to animal research regulations by undermining people's faith in due process. The publication of this letter in a respected journal such as Nature shows that our case is credible, to say the least. We urge the Government to stop spinning and stonewalling and instead set up an independent judicial inquiry into this obvious misconduct which has led to such horrific consequences."


  1. D. Lyons, 'The animal-care regulatory system is a sham', Nature, Vol 430 No 6998: 399.
  2. Published at
  3. 153 MPs signed EDM 1340 in session 02/03. So far in session 03/04, 131 MPs have signed identical EDM 685.