Dispute over ethics in research: studying without animal sacrifice

Hamburg’s SPD and Greens want to ban animal experiments from teaching, while at the same time the University Hospital is building an expensive new animal experiment house. The Left Party wants to block the money.

What if? Symbolic protest in front of the University of Hamburg Photo: dpa

SPD and Greens in Hamburg want to write animal protection into the university law. Following the example of Bremen, a passage is to be inserted that demands, with reference to the Basic Law: Universities must promote methods in teaching and research that reduce the "use" of animals.

As a first step, according to the motion passed, the Senate should "problematize" animal experiments with the University Hospital Eppendorf (UKE) and other institutes and clarify the extent to which animal-free research and teaching already exist in the form of innovative formats and can be further developed.

It is already possible to study medicine without animal testing in Hamburg, said Christiane Blomeke, a Green: "That’s good! But that doesn’t yet apply to biology studies, for example." The point, she said, is that every animal experiment should be scrutinized even more than before. "Animal protection starts in the minds," said SPD politician Gert Kekstadt. Animal experiment avoidance in studies is "a right step".

The Left Party criticized the initiative as insufficient and a sign of "bad conscience" on the part of the Red-Green Party. If the government factions really wanted to tackle animal testing, other steps would be necessary. "As before, the expansion of laboratory animal husbandry at the UKE is still in the budget with 32 million euros," said Stephan Jersch, a member of the Left Party. "We demand a freeze on these funds so that we can build smaller and more cost-effectively, or do without them altogether, according to an agreement with the UKE." The Senate in Berlin is leading the way by putting a similar amount – 34 million euros – into an institute for animal-free research, he said.

The study of human medicine is free of animal experiments in Hamburg. In the elective course, students can learn about research with and without animal experiments, but do not perform any experiments. According to the ethics ranking, there are animal experiments in biology studies.

The animal house at UKE has capacity for 40,000 mice and a much smaller number of rats, rabbits, ferrets and large animals such as pigs and sheep.

Each experiment is is reviewed by an ethics committee. In 2017, the UKE reported the "use" of 67,293 animals; in 2018, 65,595.

Jersch’s application was rejected. The experiments could not be abolished overnight. "This can only be done in the long term," Blomeke said. That’s why Hamburg has just increased a research award for alternatives from 20,000 to 50,000 euros, he said. The new animal house building is necessary to meet animal and occupational health and safety standards, he said. The buildings originated partly from the post-war period, it says in the senate printed paper belonging to it. Earthwork has already begun.

"The capacities will not be expanded in the process," said UKE spokeswoman Anja Brandt. During the experiments, the animals would be treated as gently as possible, for example by relieving pain using anesthesia. Mice are used most frequently, but rats, frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs and sheep are also used.

As far as scientists can, they use alternatives, such as growing cells in a laboratory culture. In basic research, experiments cannot be replaced by other methods because the same experiment is never done twice. "This is already legally impossible," Brandt said.

Expansion of animal experiments is possible

Animal experiments can only be carried out if no alternatives are available, said Julia Offen, spokeswoman for the science authority. The formation of metastases in the body, for example, "can only be studied in animal models."

The printed paper on the new building says it is also needed to "make the site more competitive." The building also offers the option of expansion if third-party funding continues to be successfully acquired and "the number of research projects grows".

A "vanishingly small proportion" will "still have to exist in the future," admits Stephan Jersch. However, he could see "too little will on the part of the Red-Green Party to reduce animal experiments.

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