November 1, 2009
Staff maim lab mice with ballpoints
Thousands of animals being used to test a wrinkle-erasing rival to Botox are facing cruel and agonising experiments at a Home Office-approved laboratory, an undercover investigation has found.
Secret footage of the tests on Dysport, a drug used to erase frown lines in cosmetic surgery clinics, shows laboratory staff accidentally breaking the backs of mice when trying to kill them with ballpoint pens. The pens were then used to fill out their death records.
The film, obtained using a hidden camera inside Wickham Laboratories, a long-established facility in Hampshire that tests drugs for pharmaceutical companies, also shows rabbits being incompetently injected with other drugs.
Staff are filmed botching injections and swearing at struggling rabbits, which are immobilised in "stocks" for up to eight hours in experiments that test whether drugs cause fevers.
Many of the rabbit tests, although licensed by the government, are not required under international pharmaceutical testing standards. The Home Office itself boasts about how these tests can be replaced by "a new technique using human blood cells instead of rabbits".
The footage, shot by an investigator from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, has led the government to launch an inquiry. A Home Office spokesman said: "We take these allegations seriously and are taking urgent steps to look into them further. We authorise animal research only when it can be justified.
"We expect and require the highest standards, and will thoroughly examine any evidence that suggests these standards are not being met."
The filming, compiled over a period of eight months, included a sequence in which a member of staff made a number of attempts to inject a rabbit.
She is recorded calling the animal "a little shit" and "a disgrace". She warned the rabbit that it could end up with "ear-rings" 'a reference to punctures in its ear from failed attempts at injections. Another member of staff is recorded remarking that blood is coming out of the rabbit's ear.
William Cartmell, the official vet charged with overseeing the welfare of the animals used for testing at Wickham, is also a founder and a big shareholder in the company.
Last night he denied that this represented a potential conflict of interest and said he was "a professional".
Lab records seen by the BUAV investigator show that Cartmell's weekly inspections sometimes took 15 minutes, with one visit in March this year lasting only eight minutes. He argued this was adequate to check that the animals were being treated well and not suffering.
"The health status of the animals is at such a high level that the length of time involved is more than adequate," he said. "The animals are under constant care unlike pet animals and farm animals."
Dysport, which is made from botulinum toxin, is licensed in Britain for medical use to treat conditions such as involuntary eye muscle contractions, facial twitches and muscle spasms.
However, it is also used legitimately "off-label" as an alternative to Botox for cosmetic treatments to eliminate frown lines and wrinkles.
Each batch has to be tested by law to ensure that it is safe and of the correct potency. Lab records seen by the investigator show that 41,088 mice were used in Dysport tests at Wickham between January and June this year.
The method used 'lethal dose 50 (LD50) 'is classed as a "very severe" test by the government. Mice are injected with the toxin. They suffer progressive paralysis and the film shows them lurching from side to side as they become unable to walk properly. Some appear to suffer severe breathing difficulties before dying.
Government regulations require suffering animals to be put out of their misery. Wickham Laboratories' records indicate that far more mice died during the tests than were killed humanely.
Official guidelines allow mice to have their necks broken to ensure a quick death, and pens are often used to do this. But film shot at Wickham shows that some were left writhing after their backs were mistakenly broken by staff.
Alternatives to the LD50 test have been developed and are being used at other laboratories in Britain.
The official government laboratory, the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, uses non-lethal methods to test Dysport. Ten years ago it developed a test of the toxin using a test tube. It also uses a far less severe test on mice that does not kill them.
The BUAV, which has eight months of footage from Wickham, said the treatment of many animals was "appalling".
Sarah Kite, BUAV's special projects director, said: "The fact that extremely sick mice end up in the hands of incompetent staff, to have their backs broken and suffer such an agonising death is totally sickening.
"Our shocking findings show that crude, archaic and extremely cruel animal tests are still allowed in the UK even when an alternative test exists and animal testing is not required by official bodies."
The revelations about the testing at Wickham have shocked dermatologists who use Dysport. Nick Lowe, who is known as Dr Botox and has conducted research into the toxin, said he was surprised that the LD50 test was still being used.
Lowe, whose clients at his London clinic include Anne Robinson, the television presenter, said he was "appalled" to hear that animals were being allowed to suffer in tests on the drug.
"I would like to know that all the drugs I prescribe for patients are evaluated in ethical ways. With my own range of skin-care products we do absolutely no animal testing. I am not in favour of that type of testing at all. I want the highest ethical standards," he said.
Ipsen Biopharm, which manufactures Dysport, said it took the "allegations very seriously" and would be following them up with Wickham. "Animal welfare is of primary importance to Ipsen, and the approval of Wickham by the Home Office has been critical in Ipsen's decision to work with this company," said a spokesman.
"In no way would I, or any member of Ipsen staff, condone practices outside the approved procedures laid down for this type of test."
Ipsen said that it used the LD50 test because it was required to but was "striving to replace the LD50 test as soon as suitable alternatives have been approved by worldwide regulatory authorities".
Chris Bishop, the technical director of Wickham Laboratories, said he could not comment on the footage but would seek opportunities to improve lab practice. He said the company's "animal technicians undergo extensive training programmes".
"We have a culture of seeking continuous improvement and if there are observations which indicate such opportunities, we shall gladly embrace them, " he said.
The company added: "The welfare and care of our research animals is paramount."
- The Home Office's policy is to license animal experiments only "when there is no alternative research technique".
- Ministers say they will not license tests which "cause severe pain or distress that cannot be alleviated" or where the animal's death is the "end point".
- The government has banned the testing of cosmetics, such as make-up and face creams, on animals.
- Tests on animals rose to 3.7m procedures in 2008, up 450,000 on the previous year.
- Mice and rats are the most commonly used animals in tests. The government also allows dogs, cats, horses and primates. Last year 3,354 primates and 4,271 dogs were used in tests in UK labs.
- Labs have a legal duty to keep animal suffering to a minimum. There are strict standards for humane killing, animal care, housing and health.