by Daniela Peukert, policy officer at the Society of Biology
The Home Office published their annual statistics on the use of animals in scientific research this week, and it shows that 4.11 million procedures were started in Great Britain in 2012.
Animal research is controversial and these statistics caused very mixed reactions. Therefore I think it’s a fair to ask why we are still using animals in scientific procedures.
We need to remember that animal research advanced live-saving treatments such as vaccines, antibiotics, cancer treatments and pioneering medical procedures (e.g. deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s), for the benefit of humans and animals. To ensure that new drugs are safe and effective, most of them have to be eliminated through in vitro experiments in the lab and/or animal studies, before they can be tested on humans (clinical trials).
The Home Office statistics show an overall increase of 8% from last year, with an increase of 22% of genetically modified (GM) animals. This number includes also the breeding of animals which are not used for scientific procedures. If we exclude the breeding of GM animals, the total number would actually decrease by 2% compared with 2011. Now 46% of animals used in science are GM; so why is their use increasing? It is because GM models are often a more precise model of human diseases and are essential, for example, in rare genetic diseases and cancer research. These animals can actually harbour a genetic mutation that is commonly found in human cancer patients. It is known that patients with lung or pancreatic cancer have a point mutation in KRas and upon activation of this mutant allele GM animals show exactly the same disease progression as human patients, allowing scientists to study the complex mechanism and to develop potential treatments.
The transposition of the new European directive on animal research into UK legislation marked an important step in harmonising standards with other EU member states, consolidating the highest standards of animal welfare and protection. The Society of Biology Animal Science Group contributes to the UK Bioscience Sector Coalition outputs on options for an effective implementation, communicated to the Home Office.
Nevertheless, it is essential to continue to challenge potential weaknesses in animal research (e.g. PLOS Biology & PLOS Medicine), in order to improve the efficiency of experiments and therefore results. It is not a secret that good welfare and good research go hand in hand and lead to better results. We should therefore continue to focus on the 3Rs (reduction, refinement and replacement) and I believe the latest NC3R / Society of Biology Symposium demonstrated the energy and effort being given to these developments. Scientists show encouraging state of the art scientific advances in 3Rs, in the continuous effort to improve animal welfare while promoting UK bioscience research.
Read more in our Society of Biology statement.