EXPOSED: SECRETS OF THE ANIMAL ORGAN LAB
Extract from The
Observer, 20 April 2003, by Mark Townsend
AMID THE ROLLING FIELDS of Cambridgeshire stands a sprawling complex,
protected by barbed wire and an army of security guards. Beyond
the wire is a maze of laboratories where scientists work to find
cures for the suffering of mankind.
This is Europe's largest animal research centre, the mysterious
Government-sanctioned Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) laboratory.
Exact details of the experiments on animals have remained fiercely
guarded secrets. Until now.
Today The Observer can expose the previously hidden world of vivisection.
A huge volume of confidential documents - the largest-ever set of
data concerning animal experiments in the UK - has finally been
released following the defeat earlier this month of an injunction
imposed by drug companies 30 months ago. These documents chart the
race to supply an unlimited supply of animal organs in a bid to
save the lives of thousands of Britons.
The quest for a successful programme of xenotransplantation - in
which genetically modified animal organs are used within humans
- remains the scientific equivalent of the holy grail. The rewards
for success will be huge: analysts predict that a market worth £6
billion a year awaits the first firm which can prevent the rejection
of such organs when used in humans.
Little wonder that scientists, giant drug companies and Government
Ministers have been committed to pouring millions of pounds into
the HLS programme. So has it been worth it?
To the dismay of animal rights activists, the documents reveal
how primates were used in the search for a solution to the chronic
global shortage of human organs for transplant. Baboons were transported
from the African savannahs to die in steel cages the size of toilet
cubicles. The documents show that a quarter of the primates died
from 'technical failures'.
Researchers describe how monkeys and baboons died in fits of vomiting
and diarrhoea. Symptoms included violent spasms, bloody discharges,
grinding teeth and uncontrollable, manic eye movements. Other animals
retreated within themselves, lying still in their cages until put
of their misery.
Baboon W201m died of a stroke after two days of suffering from
limb spasms and paralysis. Baboon W205m was 'sacrificed' after 21
days. A genetically modified pig's heart had been welded to the
vital arteries within its neck. Researchers noted the heart was
swelling way beyond its natural size. Strange yellow fluid was seen
seeping from the organ.
Others never even made it to HLS, suffering painful deaths en route.
Faxes from global wildlife dealers reveal how at least 50 baboons
were taken from the African plains for the experiments. In one shipment
the creatures spent 34 hours in cramped transport crates - 10 hours
longer than approved by the Home Office, which chose not to take
In another shipment, three monkeys were found dead with blood oozing
from their nostrils at a Paris airport. The animals had not been
able to turn and lie down naturally.
The Government's involvement in the xenotransplantation programme
- the most high-profile animal experimentation ever conducted in
Britain - is made clear in the documents, along with its failure
to adequately regulate a project that the Home Office believed would
deliver major benefits to society.
Many of the 1,274 pages of documents reveal a litany of failings
that will serve to ignite further controversy over HLS, which last
week won a ground-breaking injunction preventing animal protesters
getting close to employees' homes. Fundamental questions over the
value of vivisection itself will also be asked.
The papers reveal attempts to bury the true extent of animal suffering
from experiments conducted at the HLS laboratories between 1994
and 2000. Serious incidents of unlicensed animals suffering were
not adequately investigated and regulations were not enforced properly.
Breaches of the law even went unpunished in some cases, with the
Home Office limiting itself to letters of 'admonishment'. One previously
confidential paper reveals how the Home Office worked with Imutran
- the former British subsidiary of multi-million drug giant Novartis,
which was in control of the programme - to underestimate the suffering
caused by the most severe experiments.
An Imutran report states: 'The Home Office will attempt to get
the kidney transplants classified as "moderate", ensuring
that it is easier for Imutran to receive a licence and ignoring
the "severe" nature of these programmes.'
The truth of what has been happening at HLS can now be revealed
because of a historic legal victory. The verdict represents an extraordinary
triumph for a Sheffield-based animal rights group, Uncaged Campaigns,
which defeated the injunction imposed by Imutran and Novartis to
suppress the release of the documents. The group successfully argued
that the issue was one of overwhelming public interest on a highly
sensitive area of policy.
Dan Lyons has spent the past two-and-a-half years battling against
some of Britain's most powerful lawyers, including those who represented
Hollywood couple Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas against
Lyons said: 'This is a tragic scandal of historic proportions.
Ultimately, the appalling failure of government in its most fundamental
duty - to enforce the law - is unmasked. By trying to cover up their
failings, the Government has gambled that their shameful behaviour
would remain hidden. They have lost.'
For the scientists involved, the failure of the project to overcome
the human body's natural rejection of foreign organs such as hearts
and kidneys is the real tragedy. Last year 6,482 people in Britain
alone were waiting for transplants. Of these, 414 died while waiting
for organs to become available.
Novartis yesterday defended its role at HLS by arguing that developing
new cures for humans invariably meant experimenting on live animals.
The documents refer to the transplanting of genetically modified
pigs' hearts and kidneys into monkeys. Throughout the Nineties,
Imutran claimed it was on the cusp of solving the crucial issue
of organ rejection, which has prevented trials on humans. In 1995
it told the world it would be ready to start transplanting pig hearts
into humans within a year. Yet the documents clearly show that the
company's xenotransplantation programme has come nowhere near to
fulfilling its promises.
Imutran finally left the HLS site in 2000 - and then won an injunction
to prevent details of the failed xenotransplantation project coming
An internal inquiry recorded that Imutran and the Home Office admitted
that the crates breached size and ventilation regulations. Elsewhere,
government officials reassured Imutran on several occasions that
a crucial meeting to discuss new licence applications would be a
Other striking findings reveal that the Government approved Imutran's
xenotransplanation experiments with the intention of using sick
babies as the first trial patients for animal heart transplants.
Some of the research was personally authorised by Ministers, who
have rejected calls for an independent judicial inquiry.
In total, the documents reveal at least 520 errors and omissions
in the Imutran research. These include organ weights not being recorded,
a quadruple overdose, conflicting pathology reports and re-use of
animals. One primate was killed when a swab was left inside it.
Rather than admit defeat, however, Imutran - now defunct - made
a number of inaccurate claims regarding the success of experiments,
effectively exaggerating the results of its tests to increase the
likelihood of new licences being granted.
A Novartis spokesman admitted that Imutran had reported 'several
significant' mistakes to the Home Office but said the company was
committed to ensuring similar mistakes would never be repeated.
And the company remains convinced that its quest to solve the world's
organ shortage will one day be realised.