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Nobel laureates defend E.U. animal research rules against citizens' proposal

Sixteen Nobel laureates have added their voices to a chorus of 149 science organizations defending existing E.U.-wide rules for animal research. In an open letter published on Friday, the group warns that repealing the current rules, as a citizens' initiative has proposed, would harm biomedical research in Europe.

More than 1 million citizens from 26 countries have formally urged the European Commission to scrap a 2010 directive that regulates the use of animals in scientific research. The Stop Vivisection European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), submitted to the commission in March, calls for a “paradigm shift in the way biomedical and toxicological research are being conducted.” The proponents want the commission to put forward a fresh proposal phasing out animal testing in favor of “more accurate, reliable, human-relevant methods.”

The commission must now consider turning the proposal into legislation; it has until early June to respond.

In an open letter published yesterday in The Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Nobel Prize winners call on the commission to ignore the plea. They say the directive was “carefully considered” and that repealing it would “represent a significant step backwards” both for animal welfare and for European research. “We do not wish for animals to be involved in research forever, and the research community is committed to finding alternative models. However, we are not there yet,” write the signatories.

The letter was issued just days before the Initiative's proponents speak at the European Parliament. One of the signatories, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, will also speak at the public hearing in Brussels on Monday.

Stop Vivisection is the third ECI to reach this stage since this tool for direct democracy was introduced 3 years ago. The commission has rejected the previous two (including last year's plea to stop using E.U. funding for stem cell research), much to the frustration of citizens' groups, which also complain that the procedures are restrictive and cumbersome. “The pressure [on the commission to take action] is bigger compared to previous initiatives,” says Carsten Berg, coordinator of the ECI Campaign, a group that lobbies to reform the tool.

However, experts say the commission is unlikely to scrap legislation adopted after lengthy negotiations, which would mean reverting back to rules from 1986. "Europe has been in the lead of replacing animal experiments for decades," and although its implementation could go further, the directive has been an important part of raising standards, says Thomas Hartung, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing in Baltimore, Maryland. “A lot of this [discussion] is about enforcing the directive credibly, not just about getting rid of it,” he adds.

Even if it doesn't get the directive scrapped, Hartung says, the ECI has succeeded in prompting a conversation. “A large part of society wants us [scientists] to be extremely careful when using such precious resources,” he says. “Researchers cannot just handle this among themselves.” 

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