Home Office under renewed fire over GM animal experiments (12/7/2003)

British Members of Parliament are demanding to know how the Government allowed shocking experiments involving the transplant of genetically modified piglets' hearts into the necks of wild baboons to be classed as "moderate".

The GM-organ experiments were undertaken by a company owned by gene giant Novartis which is a world leader in this area of research. Imutrans' experiments involved thousands of pigs and hundreds of higher primates, including wild-caught baboons which were transported from the African savannahs to die in steel cages the size of toilet cubicles

What has also emerged is the misleading nature of claims of scientific progress made by the Novartis subsidiary. Since 1995 Imutran has said that it is now ready to start human clinical trials [Source: The Sunday Times, August 6 2000]. But scientific papers declaring new breakthroughs, which claimed to make the successful transplant of GM animal organs into humans possible, have been shown to be dangerously misleading.

The publication of leaked documents shows that a quarter of the dozens of the baboons involved in the experiments died from "technical failures", often in extreme agony.

The leaked papers also show that while one scientific paper claimed no baboons died from "hyperacute" reaction - two baboons excluded from the published study did. A second study described a baboon which survived for 39 days with a GM pig heart as healthy throughout. But records show its heart had grown in weight by three times, a fact not mentioned in the published data.

Novartis took out a High Court Injunction to try and prevent the dissemination of the leaked papers exposing the scandal, and it subsequently moved its animal testing operations to the United States. But the recipient of the documents, the UK animal charity Uncaged Campaigns, argued successfully that it was in the public interest to reveal the truth behind one of Britain's most extreme programmes of animal experimentation.

The Government originally promised an investigation but in a subsequent announcement the then Home Secretary Jack Straw quashed the inquiry. But the Home Office's own role in the affair has increasingly come under question.

See: Exposed: secrets of the animal organ lab
The Observer, April 20, 2003

For Uncaged Campaign's detailed report, see the Diaries of Despair:
Home Office under renewed fire in animal rights row
Polly Curtis
The Guardian, Friday July 11, 2003

MPs are demanding to know how the Home Office allowed experiments involving the transplant of genetically modified piglets' hearts into the necks of wild baboons to be classed as "moderate".

The transplants by the company Imutran at the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratories in Cambridge all occurred before 2000. But the facts of the experiments only became public after a legal battle between the company and campaigning group Uncaged Animals, to whom the documents had been leaked.  

The documents were published in April and first reported in the Observer. They  revealed how a quarter of the dozens of baboons involved died from "technical failures", others were left with transplant wounds weeping fluid for hours on end and several died on the journey to Britain.

The Imutran documents, quoted in the Observer, said: "The Home Office will attempt to get the kidney transplants classified as "moderate", ensuring that it is easier for Imutran to receive a licence and ignoring the "severe" nature of these programmes."

Last week the Common's home affairs select committee wrote to the Home Office demanding to know how it implemented the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 in relation to the Imutran case.

A spokeswoman for the committee confirmed this and said that, depending on the response from the committee which will be published in October, it may chose to conduct a full inquiry.

Although the committee is not publishing its letter to the Home Office, the spokeswoman confirmed that  it was raising a lot of the issues raised in a memo from Uncaged Animals.

Dan Lyons of Uncaged Animals told EducationGuardian.co.uk: "There's the issue of the severity bandings, we want to find out how the Home Office can justify classifying severe procedures which can lead to death as 'moderate'.

"The central aspect of the complaint goes to the heart of the legislation. The Home Office is meant to implement a cost-benefit system. Imutran constantly claimed that pig-to-human heart transplants were around the corner - that every experiment was the last before they go into clinical trials.

"But over the five years Imutran failed to overcome the next step, which is overcoming acute vascular rejection. The experiment didn't bring the clinical benefits they claimed. Why didn't the Home Office step in and say the results of these experiments aren't bringing the benefits to justify the severity?"

Animal experiments under the 1986 Act must be rated as unclassified, mild, moderate or substantial. Experiments classified as moderate must not risk death and post-operation pain must be controlled through drugs. Substantial experiments pose risks of severe pain and death.   

A spokewoman for the Home Office said: "The Home Office will be preparing  a response to the HASC and will respond to the committee in due course."

She added: "The government accepts that the progress of scientific research and the development of new drugs and medical technologies depend on the use of the animals.  However, there is a balance to be struck and we are working to ensure that animals are used only where fully justified."

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