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Scientists defend use of animals in research -

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ELEANOR HALL: A Senate inquiry has been examining the process of importing of live primates for medical research and is due to report next month, but the Greens want to ban any future imports already.

Advocates say animal research is not transparent enough in Australia and alternatives need to be found.

But scientists working with animals say it's a responsibility they don't take lightly.

Sarah Sedghi has our report.

SARAH SEDGHI: Each year, millions of animals such as mice, dogs, cats and primates are used in Australia for research and education.

But scientists say there's more to the statistics.

Dr Malcolm France is a vet and chairman of an animal ethics committee at the University of Technology, Sydney.

MALCOLM FRANCE: The majority of these 6.7 million animals are not actually locked up in laboratories or involved in medical research. This figure includes animals counted in activities such as wildlife surveys or agricultural field trials.

SARAH SEDGHI: Last month a Fairfax Media investigation reported that experiments on primates are taking place secretively in some Sydney hospitals and universities, with little detail being made available about the numbers of animals used and their fate.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has introduced a private members bill calling for a ban on importing live primates for animal research.

A Senate inquiry on the issue is due to report next month.

Helen Marston, the chief executive of Humane Research Australia, wants a ban on importing primate for experiments.

HELEN MARSTON: We're absolutely in support of this bill because there should be absolutely no reason that we should be subjecting the sentient, wholly-cognitive animals to long, arduous journeys in the cargo of a plane to end up in research laboratories, where they're going to be further abused in experiments and ultimately killed.

We already have three government funded breeding facilities in Australia where the birds, marmosets and the cats are bred specifically for research purposes.

SARAH SEDGHI: But scientists say they take the responsibility of working with animals extremely seriously.

Professor Doug Hilton is the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne and president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

DOUG HILTON: The researchers and the technicians that work with animals in my experience feel a remarkably deep sense of responsibility for the care of those animals that really comes with the privilege of being able to work with them.

SARAH SEDGHI: Associate Professor James Bourne is a researcher at Monash University and chairman of the Nonhuman Primate Breeding and Research Facility Board.

He says there's a need to import primates for research and that all proposed experiments using animals are scrutinised heavily before approved.

JAMES BOURNE: It's about genetic diversity. So, as a human populous we're heterogeneous, which means you know different mothers, different fathers mix into the bowl and you create a heterogeneous population of individuals.

So when we're actually designing studies to use primates we want to actually be replicating that in the model system. So we need to keep those heterogeneous populations of animals.

SARAH SEDGHI: He points to advances in medicine that have been made possible through animal research.

JAMES BOURNE: So one of the big things that is often claimed is that the knowledge gained from animal research is not applicable to humans and this claim is simply false, and its dissemination of course leads to misperception by the public and media.

I've highlighted many examples of where animal research has been important but, you know, of the 106 Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine of course, which awards the greatest medical advances, 94 were dependant on animal research. And that includes every prize in the last 30 years.

SARAH SEDGHI: Dr France says there's more advocates and scientists could be doing to understand each other better and inform the community.

MALCOLM FRANCE: Something I've seen too many times when an institution receives an inquiry from an animal protection organisation is that that's seen as a threat.

It will often be referred to lawyers or the security team will be alerted or the media office will be briefed to prepare a potential damage control response.

And I think that's a sad mistake. In my personal experience in dealing with animal protection organisations, I've found it extremely fulfilling and often enlightening to speak to them, get to know the people and see where they're coming from and learn from their different points of view.

ELEANOR HALL: That's vet Dr Malcolm France ending Sarah Sedghi's report.