The untold story: what statistics don't tell you about animal use in science

Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of NC3Rs, talks about progress in the 3Rs that can’t be measured by a statistic of animal use and argues that we need to look beyond the headline figure. You can also listen to Vicky talk about limitations to the statistics on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, 31 July 2013 - ‘Will grants reduce animal testing?”

Nobody wants to use animals for scientific research. Statistics published today by the Home Office, the UK’s regulator and inspector of animal use in scientific procedures, might suggest otherwise.

Showing a year-on-year increase in the headline figure since 2001, the annual statistics contain a large amount of information on animal use – numbers, species and purpose. What they fail to show in any context is the long-held ambition of the UK’s scientific community to lead the world in delivering cutting edge approaches which replace, reduce and refine the use of animals (the 3Rs). This is an exciting area of science and one in which I am proud to be part of at the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

At first sight it could be perceived that a headline figure of the number of animals used would be a simple and effective gauge for measuring progress in the 3Rs. This is not the case. Many factors influence animal use, such as increased investment in particular research areas, the availability of new technologies such as genetic modification, and requirements from regulatory agencies for more safety testing – all of which require the use of more animals and subsequently drive the headline figure up. Developments in science which avoid animal use, however, are not easily counted.

The statistics also fail to show the significant advances being made to improve the welfare of the animals that continue to be used – real differences that affect the lives of millions of animals, not only in the UK but also elsewhere. This is the untold story.

The public is concerned about animal suffering in experiments. At the NC3Rs, we have championed animal welfare science providing an evidence base for change. The science we lead cuts across the whole life time experience of the animals – from the way in which they are housed through to how they are euthanised. We are funding ground breaking research to develop and apply novel technologies to assess and improve welfare. This includes using non-invasive behaviour tracking technology (originally piloted in sheltered accommodation for elderly people) to identify signs of stress in zebrafish, and an automated system for assessing the emotional state of mice and rats in response to invasive procedures and enriched environments. This is important given that rodents make up over 80% of the laboratory animals used in the UK and because how animals ‘feel’ is a key component of welfare.

To date we have invested around £6 million for 31 grants in research which will benefit animals, with around £1.3 million going to the Pain and Animal Welfare Sciences Group at Newcastle University, world leaders in investigating ways to assess and alleviate pain in animals. This includes some fantastic work with rodents, rabbits and monkeys which builds on a recent discovery that animals in pain have specific facial expressions and that these may indicate the emotional component of pain. These ‘pain faces’ can be used to rapidly and reliably identify those animals in need of pain relief.

Supporting high quality science is one way the NC3Rs has been able to support refinements in animal welfare. The other has been to review existing practice. Our collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry has been a great example of what can be achieved by sharing data. We recently published the results of a data-sharing exercise looking at whether animal welfare could be improved in short term toxicity studies (up to seven days) used to establish what is known as the maximum tolerated dose (MTD) of a drug – the highest dose that can be given without adverse effects being observed. This is used to help decide a safe dose of a new drug for use in clinical trials.

Thirteen companies provided data on body weight loss in 151 MTD studies using rodents and dogs. Body weight is often used as an indicator of animal welfare in these studies – the higher the body weight loss the higher the potential for suffering. Our analysis showed that it is possible to use lower limits of body weight loss to indicate the maximum dose than those currently used – for example, from over 20% body weight loss down to 10% for the rat. This is a significant refinement which will impact on the welfare of thousands of animals worldwide.

Of course there is no point finding ways to improve animal welfare if these aren’t put into practice. We continue to work closely with scientists and animal care staff across the UK to ensure this is the case. We provide training opportunities through our online resources such as Procedures with Care (used by 40,000 people worldwide in the past year) and our events dedicated to animal welfare, which this year has included meetings on using smaller blood samples in pharmaceutical testing and minimising the welfare impacts of imaging technologies.

Animal research is a contentious issue and it can often be difficult to hear anything other than the polarised view. I am always inspired by the hundreds of scientists and animal care staff who are working to make a difference. Theirs is the untold story and I hope today will be an opportunity to reflect on that too.

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