Italian Biomedical Research in Peril


Those of you who are familiar with my views on animal experimentation (e.g. see here and here) probably know and understand that in order for biomedical science to progress for the benefit of humans and animals, it is important to engage in reasonable animal experimentation. I emphasize the word 'reasonable', because the welfare and humane treatment of research animals remains one amongst the most important tenets guiding animal experimentation. These tenets also behoove us biomedical researchers to actively seek non-animal, alternative study methods wherever possible, and employ rigorous analytical tools to minimize the number of animals to be used.

At the same time, however, I also emphasize that animal experimentation remains a very important and crucial experimental tool. Let's take an example that I came across in today's Nature Medicine alert. SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome), a form of viral pneumonia, affects a variety of small mammals, a fortuitous fact which the scientists have utilized for over a decade to study the ways and means to stop this deadly coronavirus pathogen. However, the etiological agent of the so-called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), another coronavirus (CoV) that is wreaking havoc in Saudi Arabia, doesn't seem to be able to infect the usual subjects, small lab animals (such as rodents) - reports Elizabeth Devitt (DOI: 10.1038/nm0813-952) in Nature Medicine News. This has seriously hampered the search for a treatment or preventive vaccine. Teams of scientists have, of necessity, moved to a non-human primate model, Rhesus Macaques, in which the MERS-CoV does cause a form of disease that is less severe than one seen in humans. In this model, possible vaccine candidates, as well as two antiviral drugs, are to be tested.

All this is why I found a piece of news in a recent Nature News Blog highly alarming and disappointing. Reported Alison Abbott, Italian parliament approves sweeping restrictions to use of research animals.

As Allison explained, Italy, as a member of the European Union, was required to legislate the protection of animals used in scientific research, following a 2010 EU directive that was seen as striking "a delicate balance between animal welfare and the needs of biomedical research" but was also amongst the strictest of such regulations around the world. However, the Italian Senate introduced last month a series of amendments in favour of placing extreme restrictions on animal research:

  • Forbidding the use of non-human primates, dogs and cats - except to test drugs or perform translational research,
  • Mandating anesthesia use even in mildly and transiently painful procedures, such as injections, and
  • Prohibiting animal use in some specific research areas, such as xenotransplantation (transplantation of cells and tissues between species, an important research area associated with transplant medicine), and addiction.

Not surprisingly, the scientific establishment of Italy is crying foul, voicing the concern that these measures would seriously hinder important biomedical research in Italy. It is not difficult at all to see why they should feel this way. Allison's blog post is followed (at the last reading) by an illuminating discussion by five illustrious commenters, some noted biomedical researchers amongst them: neuroscientist Prof. Stefan Treue (Director of the German Primate Center, and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Psychology, University of Göttingen), Constitutional scholar Prof. Francesco Clementi (Professor of Political Science, University of Perugia), neuroscientist Prof. Nikos Logothetis (Director, "Physiology of Cognitive Processes" Department, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen), neuroscientist Prof. François Lachapelle (Research director, National Animal Welfare Office, INSERM) and Science blogger Dr. Paul Browne of the Speaking of Research blog. I encourage everyone to head over to Allison's blog and read these comments.

Paul Browne's comment brought back to my mind an excellent 2010 post he wrote along with Dr. Allyson Bennett on the Basel Declaration, "a declaration that affirms commitment to responsible research and animal welfare and calls for increased effort to facilitate public understanding of the essential role that animal studies play in contributing to scientific and medical progress" (Full Disclosure: I am an individual signatory to the Basel Declaration).

Particularly in relation to the Italian legislation's intent to allow animal research for some, but not all, biomedical research, this line from the Declaration is especially important:

“...Biomedical research in particular cannot be separated into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research; it is a continuum stretching from studies of fundamental physiological processes to an understanding of the principles of disease and the development of therapies.”

Paul's comment after Allison's post includes a note of hope. He wrote, "... it has become apparent that the voices of science are beginning to be heard by Italian politicians." I hope that is true - not only for Italy, but across the world, especially in the US, as well.

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