From The Herald
PAUL was my cousin but felt more like a brother. We were born six months apart and spent our early years living in the same tenement block. Then our families obtained council houses facing each other across a neat little street. For years, we spent every moment of our free time together. We fished, built dens, dammed streams and enjoyed an oldfashioned childhood exploring the beaches, woods and moorland around our home on the lower Clyde at Gourock. It never occurred to me that he couldn't keep up, despite his yearround pallor and spindly limbs. We grew used to his regular spells in the old ear, nose and throat hospital, just as we stopped noticing the foul smelling sludge he was forced to consume before meals, to help him to gain nourishment from his food.
I was in London when he died, a few weeks short of his 23rd birthday.
I had completed a degree course and post-graduate studies. I was soon to be married, and looking forward to a career in journalism. But Paul had been unable to move on because of his illness. My grief was further blighted by guilt that I had left him behind in a race to embrace the exciting new adult world which was closed to him. Paul's education had suffered through his long absences from school. He may well have had the same potential as his younger brother, who became a brilliant doctor of physics, but it was impossible for him to test his capabilities.
He bravely refused to give in, working when he could, keeping busy during the long periods when he was weak by building intricate models of the boats which obsessed us as children. During his last few months, he was sent to London for treatment, allowing us to spend some time together. He knew he was dying. On one occasion, we attended the motor show at Earls Court and I found him on a balcony, looking down over the vast exhibition space, visibly upset and overwhelmed. The huge scale of the place and the mass throng of humanity turned the individual into a tiny, insignificant speck. I imagine Paul felt like he was disappearing.
He was one of 7500 people in the UK suffering from cystic fibrosis, this country's most common, inherited, life-threatening disease. Half are children, 70-per cent are aged under 20 and three of them die every week.
CF affects vital organs in the body, especially the lungs and digestive system, making it difficult to breathe and to break down food. Life expectancy is about 30 years, because the lungs are progressively destroyed through recurrent infections by a bacteria which causes no problem for healthy people.
But there is hope. After Paul died, scientists identified the CFTR gene, defects in which cause cystic fibrosis.
In 1992, they bred a mouse carrying a defective gene. As a result, we now know how the disease attacks the body and have developed new treatments. We know, for example, that CF mice can fight lung infections more effectively when given lipoxin, a substance related to aspirin and ibuprofen. We have discovered that increasing the amount of liquid in the airways helps prevent the mucus build-up which leaves patients needing intensive physiotherapy. The mice are key to developing gene therapies, and finding ways safely and effectively to deliver these into the lungs using viruses. Putting copies of the healthy gene on to common cold viruses has resulted in a 25-per cent improvement in lung function among the mice. Experiments on the animals have also helped researchers understand the damage to human digestion caused by CF - the reason my cousin was so thin. Only last year they found that the yellow pigment in turmeric can prevent gastrointestinal symptoms in the mice.
The challenge now is to replicate this success in people. Can anyone imagine a more noble use for the humble rodent? Mice have also played a key part in developing other life-saving treatments. These little mammals were used to develop insulin for diabetics; anti-coagulents, such as warfarin which prevents blood clots and heart attacks, antibiotics; vaccines to eradicate polio, whooping cough and Hib meningitis;
and chemotherapy treatments for leukaemia which mean that eight out of 10 children with the most common form of the disease now can expect long-term survival. Mice will also save lives in the future, not just in the privileged west, but right across the world. They are currently being used to develop an effective vaccine against malaria, which kills three million people a year, most of them children under five.
Guinea pigs may have a higher cuddliness quotient than mice, but as mammals they too have a vital role to play in the cause of medical research.
Studies using these rodents have helped to develop treatment for tuberculosis, diphtheria, kidney disease and asthma. They are particularly useful for research into the latter disease because their airways are sensitive to allergens. Without guinea pigs, children wouldn't have inhalers.
None of this will make the slightest impression on the militant animal activists who this week forced a guinea pig breeder in Staffordshire to close because he supplied a laboratory. Like so many ideologues throughout history, they lack human empathy. Why would these people be moved by the story of my cousin's short, painful life, burdened as it was by a cruel understanding of his own impending death? It was Robert Burns who defined the difference between mice and men with a poetic intelligence which is relevant today.
He pointed out that the field mouse, though its home was destroyed, was more fortunate than the ploughman because it could not anticipate the future. Only the present touches the dumb animal. The human being can guess and fear his future - like my cousin Paul in Earls Court, horribly aware of the fragility of his life.
The extremists' exaggerated identification with animals masks emotional and psychological flaws.
How else can we explain their theft of the body of Gladys Hammond, the elderly lady whose son-in-law owned Darley Oaks farm? I've no doubt they argue that guinea pigs deserve more respect in life than human beings do in death. But their sinister campaign displays no more sensitivity to the living than it does to the dead. One farm worker had his name spelled out in gun cartridges on his lawn and was forced to quit his job when they threatened to kill his 71-year-old grandmother.
These are not isolated incidents, and they are terrifyingly effective. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reports that last year 113 firms supplying medical research establishments were forced to back out of the business because of harassment from extremists. This is not just an attack on science. It's an attack on ordinary people whose lives could be saved by scientists.
Credit: Newsquest Media Group