London - British scientists have carried out a series of controversial experiments in which the eyes of kittens were sewn shut.
The revelation has sparked a row with animal rights campaigners who called the experiments “unacceptably cruel”.
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), which opposes all testing on animals, claims the research into a childhood eye condition could have been carried out on humans using different experiments.
However, Cardiff University said it was impossible to use any other method and stressed it followed strict Home Office guidelines to justify the use of cats and ensure minimal suffering.
Cats are used in eye research because they have forward-facing eyes like humans and are born with poor vision and “learn” to see as their brain cells develop connections with the eye.
If this process falters in early childhood it leads to amblyopia, better known as lazy eye, which can lead to loss of vision, crossed eye or blindness in one eye.
In the study into eye development, five kittens were raised normally for a month before having surgery under general anaesthetic to sew up their eyes for either two or seven days.
Another 11 kittens were raised in total darkness with their mother for between one and 12 weeks and 15 other cats were raised in normal conditions for up to a year.
All 31 cats were then anaesthetised and the activity in their brains and eyes was monitored to see how their vision had developed, before they were put down.
BUAV chief executive Michelle Thew said: “We know the public will be shocked to learn of publicly funded experiments at Cardiff University in which kittens have been subjected to unpleasant procedures such as depriving them of light or sewing up an eyelid before invasive brain surgery and death.”
BUAV’s veterinary adviser Dr Ned Buyukmihci said: “There are established methods of obtaining essentially the same information in a humane way from people.”
But Cardiff University stressed the research was subject to an ethical review by the Home Office’s Science in Animals Regulation Unit.
It said developmental eye disorders, such as amblyopia, are incurable beyond childhood and understanding how the brain adapts to signals from the eye would help patients in the long-term.
A spokesman said: “Cardiff University completely rejects the accusation that this experiment, which was completed in 2010, is cruel or unnecessary.
“The university will always use alternative technology where it exists and only uses animals when absolutely necessary.
“While a treatment for older children may be some time away, Cardiff University believes this research raises the prospect of markedly improving the sight of sufferers of this serious condition.”
A spokesman for the Medical Research Council, which part- funded the research from taxpayers’ money, said: “Our reviewers judged that this project proposal was worthwhile and of high quality, in the face of very strong competition for funding.”
The same procedure on cats was at the centre of an animal-rights furore in the 1980s in which activists attacked Professor Colin Blakemore, of Oxford University, who was researching childhood blindness. - Daily Mail