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John Forman is a dedicated if unconventional New Zealand activist,  but his cause is one which is putting him at odds with the more vocal and occasionally militant end of the Kiwi activist spectrum – anti-GM campaigners and those who protest against animal testing.

Forman: More animal testing, not less.

Forman: More animal testing, not less.

Forman, the executive director of the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders, has been on the road recently – first in Hamilton, where he gave submissions at public hearings held by the Environmental Risk Management Authority which was hearing feedback on applications by Agresearch to, as the Herald put it: “put human genes into goats, sheep and cows to try to get the animals to make medicinal human proteins in their milk”.

We need to trial genetic modification techniques, said Forman, to develop medicines and therapies that could cure rare genetic disorders like Alpha-Mannosidosis which is suffered by his twin children who are now in the their thirties but who have struggled throughout their lives with physical and mental disablement. GE Free NZ also fronted at the hearings to oppose the Agresearch applications.

This week Forman was in Auckland speaking at the NZBio conference where he put up slides of his twin children and many other slides of people he has met around the world who suffer (or suffered, as some of them have since died), rare lysomal storage diseases. On both occasions he spoke of the “moral obligation” of scientists to pursue treatments that would save lives and ease the suffering of those currently afflicted with incurable disorders.

Forman’s argument is compelling, but so too is that of the animal protestors who gathered outside Sky City earlier in the week with their mascot Charlie the beagle to protest the appearance of animal testing scientist Dr Allen Goldenthal of Valley Animal Research Centre.

The protestors from Animal Freedom Aotearoa were upset at the use of beagles like Charlie to test drugs and claim the dogs are often “kept in unsanitary conditions and become frightened when they are dosed or injected with drugs”.

Anyone looking at Charlie’s soft floppy ears and twinkling brown eyes would cringe at the thought of him being killed and dissected in the name of science. But few could look at Forman’s slides displaying heartbreaking pictures of young girls and boys physically disabled with disorders most of us have never heard of – Pompe disease, I-Cell disease, Morquio syndrome, and argue against scientists doing everything in their power to eliminate such diseases.

So it was then, across the road from the roulette wheels and blackjack tables of Sky City Casino, a battle of moral one-upmanship was underway.

Dr Goldenthal was clear where he stood:

He told the conference:

“Dogs are emotive because they are part of our family, but so are our children”

And so was John Forman, who rather provocatively, argued for more animal testing, rather than less.

“I don’t believe there’s a moral argument that we should be reducing the amount of animals we use,” he said.

Beagles share 86 per cent of their genes with people.

Beagles share 86 per cent of their genes with people.

So which argument trumps the other? Science has already answered resoundingly in favour of animal testing, which is carried out widely around the world on everything from rats and mice to pigs and monkeys. Pressure to curtail animal testing has been resisted generally rather successfully by the scientific community which has argued that being unable to use animals would mean much slower development of treatments as humans would have to test them,  creating all sorts of health and safety nightmares. Who really wants to be a human guinea pig?

But the argument is also more nuanced than Forman or Animal Freedom Aotearoa portray it. In a series of rather dry presentations, other scientists talking at NZBio outlined efforts underway to make the sharing of animal tissue among scientific research organisations more efficient. Currently, researchers coordinate sharing of tissue on an ad hoc basis, with little formal organisation  or oversight administered by themselves or a regulator like MAF. John Grew, of Australian-based consultancy Innovation Dynamics, said there was a desire in MAF, based on some recently commissioned research of scientists involved in animal testing, to understand tissue sharing better and perhaps create a pilot trial of a more efficient tissue-sharing model.

The implication is that through better coordination more fresh and frozen animal tissue could be shared, reducing overall the number of animals used in testing laboratories. There are limitations to this – scientists are particularly interested in what the effects of experimental drugs on living animals are – sharing animals in these situations may not be possible.

Animal testing obviously remains hugely important to medicine. The focus needs to be on making animal testing more efficient, as humane as possible and for scientists to better explain the outcomes of animal testing. That doesn’t necessarily mean more animal testing. Grew summed it up as the 3 Rs – reduce, refine, replace.

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