Cambridge's primate research centre axedhttp://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994605
13:35 27 January 04
NewScientist.com news service
Cambridge University has axed plans for a controversial primate centre to conduct animal research into brain diseases.
However, the centre could still be built elsewhere, possibly at a location more protected from action by anti-vivisectionists. The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had backed the plan as being "of national importance".
The university blames "escalating costs" caused by years of delays and security concerns for its decision to axe the centre. But it is being accused by many of having buckled under a sustained campaign from animal-rights activists who opposed the centre from the outset.
"This is a serious blow for British medical research," says Mark Matfield of the Research Defence Society, which argues in favour of animal experiments. "These delays and security concerns were caused by orchestrated threats and intimidation."
"We're deeply despondent at the way the animal rights protestors have dealt a blow to medical research in the UK," adds Simon Festing of the Association of Medical Research Charities. "Patients suffering appalling neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's will be the losers."
Cambridge University denies it has been bullied into abandoning its original plans and vows to carry them out elsewhere.
"It's not a Cambridge issue, it's a national issue," says a university spokeswoman. "The prime minister, the deputy prime minister and the chief science adviser have all made it clear they support us in this effort. We feel confident we will work with them to find a way forward."
Anti-vivisection groups welcomed the climbdown, but feared the centre might be sited instead at the government's highly secure facility for biological research at Porton Down in Wiltshire, a suggestion on which the university would not comment.
"If it were true, it would mark a truly worrying development," said the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. BUAV said the government would be ducking its responsibility to debate the validity of animal experiments "behind razor wire on military protected land where animal testing is shrouded in even more secrecy than it is now".
BUAV and other anti-vivisection groups were angered in November 2003 when the decision of a public inquiry to block the building of the lab was overruled by the deputy prime minister John Prescott.
They also dispute the university's claim that it can no longer afford the project. "This decision is an acknowledgement that Cambridge University failed at the public inquiry to demonstrate that these proposed experiments would be of any benefit," says Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid.
But Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, firmly rejects this. "Studies involving primates have been crucial for our understanding of brain function," he says, adding that it had led to important advances in the quest for cures to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.
"We must make sure that pressure and threats from a tiny minority of protestors do not impede vital research," says Blakemore. "A recent survey found that nine out of 10 people support the need to use animals in medical research."