Getting the measure of animal use in research
Earlier this month the Home Office released its annual statistics on using animals in research, showing that the number of procedures increased by two per cent in 2011. But does this mean that efforts to implement the 3Rs (the replacement, reduction and refinement of animal use) are failing? Not at all, says Dr Mark Prescott, Head of Research Management and Communications at the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).
Many areas of biomedical research are dependent upon the use of animals. The NC3Rs is leading UK efforts to develop new ways of reducing this dependence on animals which can also bring wider benefits to biomedicine. Improved models, whether animal or non-animal, can lead to better research, the results of which can be translated into benefits for people such as more effective drugs.
Over the past eight years NC3Rs has committed more than £25 million in grants to scientists in universities and other research institutions. Research we’ve funded has reduced by many thousands the number of mice used to study diabetes and motor neuron disease, while providing insights into these conditions. Other work has refined procedures on rodents used as animal models of pulmonary embolism, systemic amyloidosis, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. We have many more examples of how our research investment has improved the use of animals in research.
So if the UK is making more progress in the 3Rs than ever before, why do the Home Office statistics show that the number of scientific procedures on animals continues to rise? Well, partly this reflects a highly dynamic scientific landscape. The total number of procedures fluctuates in response to many factors, including strategic investments in particular research areas, changing regulatory requirements for animal use, or decisions by companies to change their R&D operations.
These factors mask what is happening with the 3Rs. But there are also real issues with the way the statistics are collected and presented which means that they cannot be used as a gauge of progress — for example, the statistics cannot tell you how many animal studies were avoided, do not include animals killed for organs and tissues, and present little information on animal welfare.
We’ve recently developed an evaluation framework to better monitor and evaluate the impact of our work. This, coupled with our partnerships with major UK scientific organisations such as the MRC, provides an opportunity to create a true measure of national 3Rs activity and progress, independent of Home Office statistics.
The MRC is a core funder of the NC3Rs, and is providing £3 million of new funding to support the centre’s open innovation programme, CRACK IT.