Insights into animal research

By Gabriele Butkute, Science Policy Assistant at the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology

Animal research has led to the development of asthma inhalers, anaesthetics, vaccines and antibiotics. I’d be surprised if there was a person who hasn’t benefited from at least

Image: Understanding Animal Research

one of the above. Yet, there are many people who oppose animal research and still associate it with testing cosmetics, which has been illegal in the UK and EU since 1998 and 2013 respectively. A recent survey by UAR has showed that only 38% were aware of this.

As a signatory of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, the Biochemical Society was recently offered a visit to the King’s College London animal research facility which was kindly organised by Understanding Animal Research. King’s College London was awarded the Openness Award due to its outstanding achievements in raising awareness of their animal research and engaging with the public and the media (they had invited a reporter from the Mirror to visit its marmoset facility and take photos in response to an article from Animal Aid calling for charities to stop funding primate research).

Image: Understanding Animal Research

My colleagues and I were met by the facilities manager, Stephen Woodley, given an extensive tour and introduced to several animal technologists. To see what the day in their job looks like, you can see the video below:

At King’s College London they house many different species of animals and we were able to see mice, rats, fish, amphibians, marmosets and snakes. The most common species are mice (~73% of animals) and zebrafish (~23% of animals). A purpose-built, state of the art zebrafish facility was opened in 2013, which is currently the biggest single plant supported fish research facility in Europe.

All animal research in the UK is regulated and inspected by the Home Office. We were talked thought the different types of licences: establishment (for the place where the work is carried out), project (for the programme of work) and personal (for each person carrying out procedures on animals).

It is reassuring how many technological advancements are put in place to ensure a high level of welfare for the animals, as well as a high quality of research. Procedure protocols are also being improved all the time to minimise the suffering of the animals. For example, the average time of an embryo transfer procedure is now 3-4 minutes, a procedure that would previously have led to the animal being under anaesthesia for approximately an hour using injectable anaesthesia methods.

Image: Understanding Animal Research

A common myth is that researchers could use other methods, but they prefer animal research. The welfare of animals in research is protected by law. So if there are viable non-animal methods that can be used, not only could they use them, but they would be required to by law. Researchers care about the animals a great deal and are committed to their welfare. Husbandry checks are carried out daily, as well as, social interactions where appropriate.

What I wasn’t aware of before the visit to King’s College London is what a high proportion of animals used in research are used for breeding or genetic modification. Recently released Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals Great Britain 2015 suggest that in 2015, of  a total of 4.14 million procedures, 2.08 million (50%) were experimental procedures and 2.06 million (50%) related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further experimental procedures. Only 6% (123 thousand) were assessed as severe[1] (see below for official definition), which I think is a lot lower than many people would guess – 70% of procedures are classified as mild or below.

The Parkinson’s research carried out on marmosets at King’s College London would be classified as severe. It was particularly interesting to see the primates that haven’t yet been through the procedures and those who have. The difference was visible and you could see a slight tremor in their movements, one of the characteristic symptoms of the disease.

Yes, I did get a teary eye when walking through the establishment. If one didn’t feel any emotional attachment it would be surprising. However, it is important to look at the bigger picture – possible treatment for Parkinson’s and other diseases, new vaccines, safe medicines and an overall enhancement of understanding the body in health and disease.

We thank Stephen Woodley and other King’s College London staff for accommodating us and being open about their research. We were told they have been carrying out many school visits too, which is very encouraging. Hopefully, those children will grow up knowing that the animal welfare is at the top of the research agenda and it isn’t quite the Frankenstein lab they might have envisioned.

For more information have a look at UAR flyers on the use of animals for veterinary research and where the medicines come from.

A day in the life of an animal technologist – film around King’s College animal research facility with one of the animal technologists who in this episode shows us mice, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs.

[1] Mild procedures may cause short-term mild pain, suffering or distress and/or minor changes in well-being or condition. They can include:

  • anaesthesia
  • non-invasive imaging, like and MRI scan
  • short-term social isolation
  • taking a blood sample
  • superficial surgical procedures

Severe procedures may cause severe pain, suffering or distress or long-lasting moderate pain, suffering or distress. They can cause severe impairment in well-being or condition. Examples include:

  • any test where death is the end-point or fatalities are expected
  • testing a device that could cause pain/death if it were to fail
  • inescapable electric shocks

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