Animal experiments subject to board approval
The articles 'Outcry at monkey experiments' and 'Animal tests 'not checked' ' (South China Morning Post, August 12 and 13 respectively) raised a number of concerns about monitoring animal experiments in the local universities.
The University of Hong Kong recognises its responsibility to safeguard the welfare of animals used for experimental purposes. The Committee on the Use of Live Animals in Teaching and Research (CULATR) was established in 1980 by the university to advise teaching and research staff on matters concerning animal experimentation.
Protocols for all teaching and research experiments using live vertebrate animals have to be scrutinised by the committee beforehand and experiments involving live animals may be performed only by staff licensed under the Animals (Control of Experiments) Ordinance.
In their applications to the CULATR, university staff are required to give a clear explanation of how their projects advance scientific knowledge in comparison with past experiments, a clear indication that alternatives to experiments on live animals and/or a reduction of the number of animals to be used have been considered and why such alternatives/reductions have been rejected.
They have to outline experimental procedures involving animals, with special reference to those procedures which may be expected to cause particular suffering/injury and measures which will be taken to minimise suffering/injury.
The committee chairman is a professor of the Faculty of Medicine and its membership constitution is well-defined, consisting of teachers from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, Science or Social Sciences, one teacher from a department not involved in animal experimentation (currently a lawyer from the Department of Professional Legal Education), Head of the Laboratory Animal Unit (LAU) who is a veterinary surgeon (ex-officio) and other co-opted person(s) - currently the Deputy Executive Director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)].
The SPCA's representation on the CULATR started in 1992 and the committee has been carrying out annual site visits to animal facilities within the university since 1993.
As far as the reported discrepancy in the number of experimental animals used annually as recorded by the university and the Government is concerned, the LAU will issue annual report forms bearing the quantity of animals the unit has supplied to individual researchers/teachers during the year for their verification before they submit their annual returns to the Government.
The Government could also take a more active role to check on the licensees' compliance with this requirement.
Regarding regulation of local researchers performing animal experiments elsewhere, it should be noted that the university (like its overseas counterparts, say in Australia) currently has no jurisdiction over academics who choose to do research in other institutions/countries except that the researcher is expected to notify the CULATR that there is approval elsewhere for a project.
Finally, I wish to point out that experiments on animals have made invaluable contributions to advances in medicine and surgery, which have brought major improvement in the health of human beings and animals, for example, immunisation against diseases like polio and hepatitis, antibiotics, cancer therapy, open heart surgery, insulin for management of diabetes and organ transplantation.
A look at the Nobel Prizes for medicine awarded during the period 1980-1991 shows that animal research was involved in nine of the 12 awards.
Dr K.S. LO Head of Laboratory Animal Unit Faculty of Medicine, HKU