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Animals in research – the complexity behind the stats

Posted by on July 22, 2013

animals in research - complexity behind the Home Office statsby 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.

5 Responses to Animals in research – the complexity behind the stats

  1. 14002923

    Deliberately exposing GM animals to carcinogens in order to be studied is not only unethical, but there is no proof that the success of finding a cure for a lab rat will be equally effective on a human being. There are too many biological differences between the two groups. Even so, every individual differs and factors such as age, gender and health status can influence the results and alter the success of the medication originally intended to cure the GM animal of the induced disease. With this being said, one could question whether or not animal testing is ethical or not

  2. Daniela Peukert

    That’s a really good question! Carcinogens might have been used in the past but it was my understanding that mice are genetically modified (similar to IVF), so they are born with a certain genetic defect that will develop a specific type of cancer at one stage. It is certainly not ideal but it is currently a more humane method to study and treat cancer at an early stage – before mice will suffer pain. Animal care staff and scientists are able to monitor mice from the beginning and treat them appropriately at an early stage.

    Scientists are keen to detect cancer at an early stage, to optimise medical diagnostics and to find an effective treatment. Scientists could wait until animals get cancer but they would suffer severe pain before a professional (e.g. vet) would actually notice. It might be even too late for a treatment because they reached the highest stage of cancer. The autopsy would then verify the type of cancer but it would never show whether a new treatment would have worked and how efficient it could be in a complex vertebrate system.

    The use of carcinogens could be difficult for research because every mouse could react differently (like humans) at a different time point – a set up that might be difficult for research studies.

  3. Zahir Shoukat

    Are the GM animals exposed to carcinogens in order for them to actually get cancer so that we can study it? It feels like that’s just ethnically wrong.
    I used to believe that GM animals are just used as a source of food. Deliberately exposing them to illnesses so that we can study them seems too cruel.
    There are enough cancer cases as it is. Maybe we should just wait until animals get cancer or whatever else it is and then research on it.

  4. Rebecca Nesbit

    I think these points are important – I am far more worried about the level of suffering than about the numbers themselves. So many statistics reported in the press actually need more analysis to work out exactly what they mean.