Examination of Witness (Questions 1840-1859)
PROFESSOR THE LORD WINSTON MP
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
1840. You say that the experiments on pigs cannot be done in the UK because the Home Office is holding back the licence on a scientific misunderstanding. What are the qualifications of the people who say pigs are not needed?
(Professor the Lord Winston) I would have to explain in detail the experiment and I do not want to waste the Committee's time but very briefly what we are trying to do is to transduce, change the genetics of, sperm cells. Some years ago, one continental research worker published a paper showing that that could be done, but there is every reason to believe that the paper that was published is erroneous and every other attempt to reproduce that work has been completely unsuccessful, largely because these were mature cells. Our approach is to go to the stem cells, essentially the cells which are at the start of the process of spermatogenesis. The problem we have is persuading the inspector in this case that these cells are not the same as the sperm cells on which there was this erroneous report in any case.
1841. What are his or her qualifications?
(Professor the Lord Winston) I cannot tell you offhand but he certainly would not be a reproductive physiologist.
1842. You are being judged on a very technical matter by people who do not have the expertise.
(Professor the Lord Winston) That is often the case. After all, in biology, that is not unreasonable, given the immense scope of biology. One of the advantages of having a university internal committee which is answerable to funding authorities like the NIH is that you can bring in a whole range of people with different expertise on that committee. Unfortunately, that does not happen with the animal inspection system at the moment. We have had licences turned down by one inspector in the United Kingdom where elsewhere the same licence has been given in the north of England. We have had the irony of seeing that work published by a different group when we might have published it ourselves.
1843. Do you think the variance nationally is quite considerable?
(Professor the Lord Winston) I believe it is. Unfortunately, my experience is limited because I have only worked in London.
1844. In practice, what sort of difference in delays is there between the licence or whatever you need in America and the licence you have to get in the UK?
(Professor the Lord Winston) First of all, you need two licences.
1845. Namely, a project licence and?
(Professor the Lord Winston) And an animal licence. There is also the question of this notion of going through training. In order to acquaint myself as much with the procedure as anything, I underwent one of the animal training courses about two or three years ago, even though I think I regard myself as a reasonably qualified surgeon and I have held an animal licence since the late 1960s. I was pretty horrified by the course. This was a course in one of the good institutions but it did not seem to teach me a great deal about how to handle animals. I noticed that my colleague who controlled one of the largest transgenic facilities in north America, who had more experience with mice than almost anyone else I know, got scored for her mice handling three out of five. I did rather better. I got four out of five, which I was rather self-congratulatory about.
Earl of Onslow
1846. We hear a lot about the Ethical Review Committees which seem to coincide in some ways with the American version, whose name escapes me. Did your experiment, for which you were turned down, get past the Ethical Review Committee?
(Professor the Lord Winston) There is no ethical difficulty, essentially. The ethical issue here is not a question of pain. The key thing is pain and suffering.
1847. I thought the Ethical Review Committee had to find out was it causing pain and suffering and was the experiment going to be worthwhile.
(Professor the Lord Winston) We would think that any experiment
1848. Did your Ethical Review Committee agree with that judgment?
(Professor the Lord Winston) Our committees internally have no problem with the experiments we are proposing to the Home Office.
1849. We have had evidence that Ethical Review Committee decisions are very rarely overturned by the Home Office.
(Professor the Lord Winston) We may have a slight misunderstanding. I do not think it is a question of having the licence turned down. It is having the licence permanently under consideration and modified continuously. By the time you get round to doing the experiment, other research workers have done this and have got the grant money.
1850. When you apply to do something, you get it past the Ethical Review Committee. We have heardat least I seem to remember Lord Taverne askingsomeone who said that there was no case that they knew of the Home Office overturning an Ethical Review Committee decision. In your experiment on pig spermatogenesis, your Ethical Review Committee thought it right and reasonable.
(Professor the Lord Winston) The experiment has not been turned down. The application was first made last August and it is still being considered. In a very hot field in science, that is very difficult to accept. I could do that experiment any time I wanted to in the United States, the difference of course being that I would not have such control over the pigs that I am using. I would not be able to see them every day after the experiment that I might do or I might start and then not be able to. The cost, leaving aside the issue of materials and fares, would be some four-fold. It is a sizeable amount of money, given the cost of pigs in the United States, compared to what they would be in the United Kingdom. It is an issue not of the licence being refused but delayed. I think we will get this licence eventually.
1851. Is it your opinion that the change in the biological sciences in general and the new complexity and the new speed of development has made a difference so that the system of applying for licences ought to be changed, partly because the Inspectorate itself is not up to the science?
(Professor the Lord Winston) Obviously, there are very good reasons why I would not want to criticise the Inspectorate.
1852. Is a change demanded simply because of the new science?
(Professor the Lord Winston) I am not sure that that is necessarily so. The bigger issues with the new science are really the increasing need for transgenic animals and the apparent concern that that has caused so much in the community at large, in the scientific community and the animal protection community in particular. Your Lordships will be well aware of that problem from other evidence that you will have taken during the course of this Committee. In my view, pretty well any scientific endeavour is capable of fairly simple explanation and its obvious value or otherwise and its originality or otherwise is pretty easy to explain. It might have been momentarily difficult for me because of pressure of time not to explain much more clearly to Lord Onslow exactly what I am doing but I have no doubt he will have grasped it as quickly if I had explained it properly. In general, these things are capable of explanation. The difficulty is the bureaucracy of the thing, rather than the lack of skill or understanding.
Baroness Eccles of Moulton
1853. Are there any other constraints that exist at the moment through the sort of regulation that we have in the United Kingdom that would be helpful to us to know about from your experience, that we might be able to include in our report, so that one could see the Home Office and any other government department involved would be able to respond to? There are all sorts of things we would love not to have happen but is there anything that could be helpful that we could consider?
(Professor the Lord Winston) One of the things that you are considering and which would be most helpful in general in this whole area is a recognition by scientists and everybody else that increasing openness would be helpful. That would be of immense importance. I remember, two or three years ago, when starting to get very concerned about this issue, speaking to one or two senior scientists who are highly respected individuals doing regular animal work, who were horrified at the thought that I might be trying to raise these issues publicly at all. They felt the best thing to do was to keep your head below the parapet. I was under some pressure not to speak out once or twice or to even suggest in debates in the House of Lords that this might be a subject that should be aired rather more vigorously in public. It seems to me that there are things we should be doing which come under your question five.
1854. What should the government and the scientific community do to increase public confidence in animal experiments? What information should be made public?
(Professor the Lord Winston) As much information about the experiments as possible. One of the issues here is that animal research has been of immense value to our central morality, which is the protection of human life in all sorts of way. It is our central tenet of morality, in my view. That is not to say that one should not treat animals properly and that animal life is not to be respected. Of course it is. I think that is not fully understood. As my colleague, Dr Morgan, points out in her paper, there is a confusion in the animal rights literature between cruelty and experimentation. They are words which are used almost synonymously and they are not the same at all. There needs to be a recognition that every single drug that is administer in a GP's surgery has been tested, of necessity, on animals. There needs to be something which I was exposed to in school but no longer is possible. That is animals in schools. Science has suffered horrendously by this restrictive attitude. The science and technology select committee took evidence repeatedly on this matter during various discussions on science in society and science in schools to this effect. It seems to me that we should not be frightened of going out to schools, to say what we are doing, because I think there is a clear need for much more education. We have posters in my workplace which show the benefits of animal research but they are in the animal house. They can only be seen by members of the animal community. They are in completely the wrong place but the sentiments that they described are accurate, scientifically just and morally correct, I believe.
Baroness Eccles of Moulton
1855. There is a huge reluctance in the scientific community to be more open. There is a considerable element of fear that appears to be exaggerated if one analyses the amount of physical damage that has been done to people by the animal rightists. It is tiny but it is repeated over and over again so it seems very large.
(Professor the Lord Winston) One or two of my colleagues have had horrendous things happen to themselves and their families and one particular colleague in Oxford that you will be aware of. I have been lucky. I have only had the bomb squad out twice to my house and neither time was there any serious danger. There is a risk in speaking out but if we all spoke out the situation which happened at Huntingdon Life Sciences, where somebody was hit over the head with a baseball bat or whatever it was, would be much more difficult. This half-hearted approach to proper publicity, to the use of and encouragement of science communication in a more appropriate way is something which we lack at the moment. It is terribly important for our community and that seems to me to be something we need to find the solution to.
Earl of Onslow
1856. Would you think it valuable to have on every single prescription form or every single medicine label, "These medicines have been tested on animals. If you object, you may refuse"?
(Professor the Lord Winston) I think it would be an excellent suggestion and it would be nothing short of accurate. If it could be done, it is almost worth considering bringing in a private Members' Bill in this place.
1857. What is the scope for developing alternatives to animal experiments in: (a) toxicology and; (b) fundamental research? Are alternatives to animal experiments developed as part of your research programmes? Would there be value in setting up a centre or centres to promote the development and use of alternatives?
(Professor the Lord Winston) As a preamble, it must be pretty obvious that any researcher in any university setting who wants to do research will, wherever possible, look for alternatives other than animal research because it is so jolly difficult to get a licence and the fact is that it is going to hold up research which is important. We are always looking for alternatives. I would not want to do animal research, leaving aside the ethical issues of doing animal research and the necessity there; simply for convenience, I would far rather do cell based research if I could. That is something that we do in my laboratory quite regularly. We also conduct human research. In the field of embryology, human research is very important but it would be ludicrous to consider that one would want to transfer a human embryo before one has transferred an animal embryo under roughly similar circumstances. The whole of my field, reproductive biology, has depended very heavily on what are not very invasive, not very painful, usually quite painless experiments, which often involve minor surgery followed by mating, embryo transfer and so on, which are incredibly restricted in this country and very difficult to apply for and often subject to unreasonable time restraints on how long you can keep the animals. I would argue that that is not terribly sensible. Much of the work that is done in laboratories which involves cells and does not involve animals uses animal products. For example, foetal calf serum comes from calves. There are many examples of where media require proteinsfor example, other substrates as wellwhich are derived of course from animals. Things which may not appear to be animal research are using animal derivatives all the time. In a sense, if one is strictly honest, this idea of developing a huge number of alternatives to animal research is much less obvious than it might appear to be in many of the fields of which I am personally aware of. It may vary from place to place.
Baroness Eccles of Moulton
1858. Since the incidents at Bristol and Alder Hay, has it been more difficult for your laboratories to acquire human tissue for cell experimentation?
(Professor the Lord Winston) In general, it undoubtedly has been more difficult for all clinical research workers to get access to clinical material. This is partly because of the rising bureaucracy in the National Health Service and partly because of the increase in restrictive practices, sometimes which I think are unnecessary in the National Health Service hospitals, but also patients are sometimes more reluctant to come forward and give tissues. Most of it is much more due to the attitude within the service rather than amongst the patients. For example, I have found with embryo research there are certain experiments we might do which could involve animals which might be done with human stem cells instead. That is an oddity. The question is which is the more moral approach. The answer, in my view, is that it is probably moral to use both, providing you do it intelligently and sensibly. Human subjects are prepared to donate this very valuable tissue, the human embryo, providing they can see that there is a utilitarian purpose, a benefit at the end of it, to somebody if not themselves. That is still the case. I must congratulate and feel greatly proud of the altruism of so many patients that I have met but on the whole you are right; it is more difficult than it was five years ago.
1859. Which is obviously reducing an alternative.
(Professor the Lord Winston) Yes indeed.