BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - A wide-ranging review on the ethics of animal research has called for a reduction in its use, while acknowledging that animal testing has made a significant contribution to medical science.

The two-year study by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the preeminent bioethics body in the UK, generated a 348-page report, "The Ethics of Research Involving Animals," that is a comprehensive study of all the ethical and scientific issues. However, the scientists, animal rights and animal welfare groups, lawyers and philosophers that drew up the report were unable to reconcile their widely divergent views, and could not agree on a single ethical stance, saying there was no possibility of achieving a consensus that animal research is justified.

But there is unanimous agreement that the use of violence and intimidation against researchers and their families - the factor that put animal research in the headlines and prompted the report - is "morally wrong and politically insidious."

Instead of an overall consensus, the panel agreed to a two-page statement recommending changes to existing legislation and regulations that it said should lead to a broader cross-section of people to endorse animal research.

Among other recommendations, the changes would increase the onus on researchers to demonstrate it is necessary to use animals when applying to conduct experiments, and force scientific journals to require authors to include data on animal welfare as part of the drive to reduce the number of animals used in research.

The report said more effort should be invested in practical advances that aim to refine, reduce and replace the use of animal in experiments. Coinciding with its publication, the government said it was investing a further £3 million (US$5.5million) in the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, set up last year.

The report also called for greater openness about animal experiments, saying constructive debate would be facilitated by the provision of clear information about the full implications of research involving animals in terms of the kind, numbers and species of animals used, as well as the pain, suffering and distress to which they can be subjected.

But such openness will be hard to achieve in the face of the current climate of intimidation and harassment by animal rights extremists.

The number of experiments started on animals each year in the UK is around 2.8 million, down from more than 5 million in the 1970s. The majority of tests were on mice, followed by rats and fish. More than 750,000 of the tests were on genetically modified mice.

The UK has some of the tightest regulations, with scientists having to demonstrate there are no alternatives to using animals, and that the potential benefits outweigh any suffering the animals might feel.