John Vidal writes in the English newspaper The Guardian that British scientists are genetically modifying and cloning hundreds of thousands of animals a year for no reason other than experimentation, according to the genetics monitoring group GeneWatch.
The great majority of the 582,000 animals genetically altered in Britain in 2000 for medical or agricultural research were mice, but increasingly sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, rabbits, birds, poultry and cats are being experimented on, often with cruel results. The group condemned the scientists doing the work as "irresponsible."
The report, which covers the development of GM animal technologies worldwide, says that many experiments are highly inefficient, wasteful of animal lives and frequently involve suffering. "Abortion, premature death and infertility are regular side-effects of these genetic technologies," says Dr. Sue Mayer of GeneWatch. "The extent of animal suffering and the reasons for it are being hidden from public scrutiny and debate."
Out of more than 10,000 attempts at animal cloning worldwide so far, there have been only 124 live births and just 65 animals have reached maturity. Many of these had serious physical defects. In one study of 40 cloned calves, 34 showed prenatal abnormalities, several had limb deformities, and most were described as very slow or weak. In another study of 80 GM lambs transferred to surrogate mothers, all but three died inside 12 weeks with abnormal kidneys, brains or livers.
GM experiments and the cloning of animals have increased by 800% in the past 10 years and now include attempts in the US to clone pets and endangered animals. The majority of experiments, however, are aimed at developing pharmaceutical proteins from transgenic animals to fight multiple sclerosis, infant diseases, hepatitis, and blood and growth disorders. So far, at least 29 human therapeutic proteins have been produced in GM animals. While this research could lead to new drugs for diseases such as diabetes, GeneWatch questions whether it is necessary to perform experiments on so many animals.
"The use of GM animals in medical research must undergo a complete review as the science does not support the vast abuse of animals that is taking place," says their report. "These experiments should only be undertaken when there is no reasonable alternative. Balancing the needs of people for drugs with the welfare and integrity of animal species is a complex ethical dilemma."
Animals, especially pigs, are being genetically modified to try to produce whole organs for humans in transplantation experiments. Because of the huge gap between the numbers of donor organs needed and the number available, this genetic manipulation has attracted millions of dollars in investment, but has had little commercial or scientific success so far. Eight companies are working on GM pigs to develop livers, kidneys, hearts and pancreas.
The Roslin Institute, which developed Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal, is highly critical of sections of the GeneWatch report. "All experiments on animals need to be justified on a case by case basis. GM animals will be increasingly important to advancing medical knowledge, the testing of new drugs and to the production of treatments for cancer and other diseases at a price society can afford," says Dr. Harry Griffin, assistant director of the institute. "For GeneWatch to condemn a whole technology based on a few selected examples is irresponsible and a gross disservice to the patients who will benefit directly or indirectly in the future."
Governments and academic laboratories are also developing GM animals for agriculture with increased productivity or disease resistance. Genes for human growth hormones and vital proteins have been inserted into a variety of animals. The report says, "They have displayed enhanced growth, an increased meat/fat ratio and increased efficiency of feed conversion but there have been high costs to the animals, including gastric ulcers, liver and kidney damage, degenerative joint diseases, lameness, lethargy and damaged vision."
Mayer says, "Scientists are getting carried away with gene hype and animals are suffering. There is simply no justification for the genetic modification and cloning of animals for use in agriculture, as drug factories or for organ production."
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