Saturday, 19 May 2012

Talk : Animal Testing

The latest in the Café Scientifique series of talks was presented by a member of the University of Nottingham’s animal ethics committee and was entitled "Exploring some myths on animal testing".

The speaker felt uneasy about publishing their name online, due to potential attacks by animal rights protestors, so let use call him “John Smith” for the purposes of this post.

John explained that he was a lay member of the committee, there to ask questions as a non-scientist His personal view was there was a need for a limited amount of animal testing.

At the outset of the talk, John stated that, for the most part, he had seen a lot of care of animals used in animal experiments. He added that that, at the University of Nottingham, there was a large team caring for the animals and that many scientists felt that “happy animals” resulted in “better data”.

Indeed, as soon as an animal showed signs of stress, such as going off their food or staying in a corner of their cage, some kind of action was immediately taken. This might range from removing the animal from the experiment to stopping the experiment to putting the animal down.

Indeed, there was an overall aim to reduce the level of animal testing in biological research, an aim that was encompassed in the “3 R’s”:

Reduce - the amount of animal testing required
Refine - animal experiments to reduce suffering
Replace - animal experiments with other forms of testing

John emphasised that animal testing was a time consuming and expensive process - certainly not something that researchers would embark on unless they felt they had to.

The animal testing at the University of Nottingham could proudly be broken down into testing involving small animals, such as mice, at the Science Park Campus - and testing involving larger animals such as sheep and pigs at the Sutton Bonnington Campus.

Small animals such as mice were generally used in medical research (e.g. cancer, hearing loss and alzheimers) whilst the larger animals were often used in farming related research (e.g. feeding trials and fertility testing)

It was pointed out that after the first animal ethics committee was set up at the University in 1998, the number of animals used in experiments started to decrease, but has now started to increase again. This is partly because of the increase in genetically modified mice in medical research and, surprisingly, partly because the breeding of these mice is itself classed as an animal experiment, with each bred mouse being counted in the statistics.

A measure the seriousness with which animal welfare is taken can be seen in the fact that the Home Office is copied into all meeting notes and can attend any meeting they wish.

John described how he would read each application and form his own view on whether the application was acceptable or not - he commented that, in his experience, if he had an issue with a particular application it was a concern that the rest of the committee usually shared.

Part way through his time on the University of Nottingham ethics committee, John took a sabbatical and spent some time in the US, visiting many University laboratories there.

In contrast to their reputation for having poor standards of animal welfare, John found that the US Universities had standards that were similar to those of the UK, with the possible exception that the physical environment of caged animals (such as mice) lacked the “natural” elements such as straw bedding and toys such as running wheels and cardboards tubes that were routinely provided at Nottingham. There was a feeling in the US that having very plain cages somehow made the experiment more “equal” and free from variability.

One other observation that John made was that, whilst the US is a single country, the costs of travelling around it mean that universities will sometimes only visit institutions within their own state, in order to minimise costs.

John also visited Huntingdon Life Sciences(HLS) in the UK, an organisation that had come close to collapse in 1997 after undercover footage shows dogs being treated very badly there. New management was brought in which stated an aim to make HLS a world leader in the humane treatment of animals. John commented that they have certainly made a lot of progress and a number of their initiatives (such as techniques to give injections to animals with minimal pain) have been adopted widely in the rest of the research community.

The broad animal rights movement has managed to make a real difference to the attitudes towards animal testing and has also caused companies to improve their standards dramatically.

One example of where the animal rights movement has caused problems to medical researchers, however, occurred recently in the case of a successful boycott of a US airline that was transporting laboratory mice. If transport of these animals (especially mice) by air becomes widespread, it will have a significant effect on research as scientists often wish to use mice from some specific breeding colony (to ensure their research is comparable to others in their field). If they are unable to obtain these easily, they may have to resort of less suitable animals or to breeding their own colonies - which takes time.

Moving on to explain the way in which animal tests were graded, John explained that there were three categories:

Mild : e.g. blood samples, minor surgery under anaesthetic

Moderate : e.g. small surgical procedures under anaesthetic, with post operative care, non-lethal toxicity tests

Substantial : e.g. major surgery, disease states

Whereas “substantive” testing was rare at the University of Nottingham, it might be much more common at other laboratories, especially those in the pharmaceutical sector.

In answer to a question about the trends there at play in this area of research, John commented that increased globalisation and increased focus on genetic therapies and research were the two biggest trends that were likely to shape the way animal testing is performed in the future.

He added that forthcoming European legislation was likely to less strict than current UK legislation, which is some of the strongest in the world and that globalisation is already resulting in animal testing on larger animals and primates being undertaken in countries with laxer legislation such as India or China.

On the other hand, scientist want any animal testing to be performed in labs that are clean and well organised, and are aware that happy animals make better data, so some kind of balance has to be found.

In answer to another question about the way the animal keepers interacted with the animals, John said that whilst this was not such a big issue with small animals, it was certainly the case that dogs (for example) were profoundly affected by the degree of interaction they had with their keepers. As an example of good practice, John mentioned a (now closed) AstraZeneca lab in Loughborough where a a small army of handlers would arrive every day to walk the dogs and play with them and where the dogs had a large, feature filled, play area to enjoy.