Humanising animal testing

For some time now scientists have been manipulating laboratory animals - adding human genes and cell tissues to build more sophisticated models of human diseases.

So far the techniques have been limited to the insertion of relatively small numbers of human genes or cells: rats which produce human motor neurons in the brain used in the study of degenerative disease; mice whose liver has been re-populated with human liver cells to study Hepatitis C; even goats that produce a human protein in their milk used to treat blood clotting disorders.

The potential benefits are immense. Research into almost any human disease or condition you can think of would benefit from the study of human, rather than animal disease, in an animal model.

The Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) has been wrestling with the ethical issues thrown up by this burgeoning area of research for 18 months and its report Animals Containing Human Material comes to some surprising conclusions.

Speaking on the programme this morning, Professor Martin Bobrow, who chaired the AMS's expert panel, said there were three key areas of concern - where modifications to animals' brains could potentially lead to more human-like cerebral function; research that might lead to the fertilisation of human eggs or sperm in a laboratory animal; and the modification of animals to create characteristics regarded as uniquely human such as facial features or speech.

"There are good reasons for doing these experiments because they lead you to a better understanding of really important questions, but we need to go slowly and it needs to be regulated in a way that's open, and transparent and looks very carefully at each step," he says.

"Complicated things are often a little bit difficult to categorise neatly."

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