Discontent amongst medics as university mandates “unnecessary” animal experimentation VERSA

Versa has spoken to several second year medical students from different colleges on the condition of anonymity, and the allegations that have emerged are deeply disturbing. They have told us that a superfluous level of animal testing is routinely carried out as part of this year of their course. Most agree it is in fact not even very helpful for their education, and that the same results could be achieved through carrying out a single experiment and projecting it by video. Indeed this is how they are shown surgery within humans, and what they have told us is done at most other medical schools.

It must be said that the students we spoke to are not hard-core animal rights activists, they did not vehemently oppose all animal testing. One in fact spoke at significant length about how they believe animal testing for the discovery of new scientific knowledge is totally justified. What they allege that a large amount of the students on their course are concerned about is that the amount that is carried out is unnecessary and indeed not even helpful.

During their second year, students who take medicine are required to carry out multiple practical experiments upon animals, or parts of animals which have been freshly killed. These include experiments with hormones upon mouse uteruses, testing the effects of different drugs upon guinea pig respiratory tissue, and measuring the effect of acsetylecoline upon a ferret. A couple felt specifically uncomfortable with the final of these experiments which involved the exposure and obliteration of a ferret’s brain, feeling that the large group size meant that it was not particularly enlightening. In these the students are placed in large groups, at minimum 3-5 and even up to 15 per animal, which the experiment is then performed upon. One demonstrator is alleged to have told their students in the first class of the year that there was no aspect of animal cruelty to the experimentation, yet they would only be assigned one animal per ten students instead of one per two students as had been done in previous years. The source pointed out that this “seemed contradictory”. The animal is either dead or heavily anaesthetised during this process. They then proceed to watch and record the effect of the experiment, and afterwards the animal is killed (if it has not already been for the experiment).

All of the students we spoke to agreed that such testing was to some extent necessary for their course rather than simply reading about it or looking at computer models. This is because in the real world tissues do not behave exactly like they do in computer models. Therefore it is useful for medicine students to know how in reality tissues might behave slightly differently to what they might expect based simply upon such models. It also reassured some that what they knew that they had read in the textbook did actually occur before they had to potentially use it upon a patient in the future. These are indeed what one concerned student who spoke to their demonstrator was given as justifications for the level of testing they are made to carry out. At least one student was sceptical of this, saying “people make all kind of arguments about how it helps us understand the drug testing process, or makes us less squeamish, but … I’d learn that more readily in the dissection classes we have and in demonstrations”. However, the majority of them spoken to believe that this could be achieved through simply doing a single demonstration and projecting it up on a board. This is apparently what occurs in lectures and is what is done in other classes. One student reported that “In one class we saw a video of a frog dissection that was just as effective at teaching me as if I had done it myself”, and another pointed out that there was “no correlation” between being a doctor and having to do things like this to animals.

While some say that such testing was emphasised as being part of the course beforehand, one student told us that they were in fact unaware of quite the extent of the experimentation they would be made to carry out until they had already accepted their offer. For context, medicine students have to sign a form before they study that gives their consent for them to carry out experimentation upon animals. If they do not, then they are not able to study at the university. However at least one source who spoke to Versa alleged that many students they knew consequently felt under pressure to sign this form. They said that “a lot of people are uncomfortable with having to agree to it, but they sign it because they want to go to Oxford”. There is no opt out mechanism, a move which several sources thought would be both possible and better than the current system.

Independently of each other, students also alleged that this sentiment was widespread amongst second years. Though all agreed that some testing was necessary, one said that it was felt that “they could definitely do less”. Another echoed this, and also said that the majority of other medical schools do not carry out this level of experimentation upon animals and are able to produce very good medical students as well. This is coming off of the back of reports in previous years that Oxford carries out the highest level of animal testing of any university in the country.