A new report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK has called for regular review of the use of animals in medical research and greater efforts to develop alternatives.

The report, compiled by a working group including academic and Industry scientists, philosophers, members of animal protection groups, and a lawyer, represents a remarkable achievement in that it proffers the first consensus view between groups that hitherto have been diametrically opposed in their viewpoints.

It accepted that animal experiments would continue to be the mainstay of medical research, crediting the enormous contribution the field has made to medical science, but crucially called for comprehensive, bipartisan surveys to quantify the benefit and make sure that needless experiments are not carried out, as well as examine barriers holding back research into substitute technologies. These surveys should involve Government, medical research bodies, the pharmaceutical industry and animal rights groups, according to the report. It also condemned violence against people engaged in animal research, and recommended that more investment be directed towards the “Three Rs” — refining, reducing and replacing animal experiments. Conservatism amongst scientists was another problem that needed to be addressed.

An article in The Times yesterday reported that the Government has announced £3 million in new funding for the National Centre for the Three Rs, first launched last year with £500,000 in start-up grants.

“A world in which the important benefits of such research could be achieved without causing pain, suffering, distress, lasting harm or death to animals involved in research must be the ultimate goal,” said the report.

Both the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and animal welfare groups, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, put out statements supporting the findings. Dr Maggy Jennings, head of the RSPCA’s research animals department, said: “A strength of the report is that it clearly defines the many sources of suffering that can occur throughout the animals’ lives. It sets these alongside the reasons why the research is done, so that it is clear what a terrible price animals pay for human wants and needs.”

Meanwhile, the ABPI’s director of science and technology, Dr Philip Wright, said: “Pointless animal research would distract from the main objective of getting new medicines through to patients quickly… For the foreseeable future animals will continue to be required for the development of new medicines for both human and veterinary use – but we should continue to challenge the need, especially as new technologies become available.”

The Nuffield report is the third independent study, after the House of Lords select committee in 2002 and the Animal Procedures Committee in 2003, to support the view that animal experiments has benefited the scientific and medical arena.

The findings by the Nuffield Council echo those of The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, which only last month were seeking to reduce animal testing as part of the upcoming EU directive that aims to abolish animal testing in scientific experiments if an alternative test exists.

Last year, there were almost 2.8 million experiments on animals in the UK. The number was up on previous years but was around half the number of experiments carried out in the 1970s.