At this year’s British Science Festival, Star Speaker Lord Robert Winston will be talking about a new bill that he’s sponsoring to bring transparency about animal testing to medical packaging. Animal research is always a hotly debated topic in science, and Dan Richards of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research explains the progress his team is working towards.
In search of better methods for better science
Last month animal research was in the news once again . The latest statistics from the Home Office revealed that procedures using animals were at an all-time high with an 8% increase on the previous year. Some people may take that to mean that scientists want to use animals in their research, which of course is untrue.
As well as the well-known ‘3Rs’ of reduce, reuse and recycle, or indeed the long-standing reading, writing and arithmetic, there are 3Rs that apply to scientific research involving animals. Replace, reduce and refine (the 3Rs principles) is now a widely accepted ethical framework when conducting scientific experiments with animals. What last month’s statistics didn’t show in any context is the long-held ambition of the UK’s scientific community to lead the world in delivering cutting-edge approaches to embed these principles in their research. It’s an exciting area of science, led in the UK by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research  (NC3Rs).
Looking beyond the headline figure you see the factors that influence animal use in science - increased investment in particular research areas, the availability of technologies such as genetic modification, and requirements from regulatory agencies for more safety testing of chemicals and other products. All of these are driving the numbers up. Developments in science which avoid animal use, however, are not easily counted – nobody counts what they don’t use.
Set up in 2004 as an independent, science-led organisation, the NC3Rs operates as both a funder of research into new methods, and at a grassroots level across academia and the pharmaceutical, chemical and consumer-product industry, where we facilitate the sharing of knowledge and guide best practice. Funded by government, industry and charities, our approach is targeted across several different areas of science and engineering. It’s clear that no single ‘silver bullet’ is going to replace animal use in one go; instead a cross-disciplinary effort to develop and implement a wide range of alternatives and improvements in welfare practice is the more realistic option.
Animal research has scientific limitations
It’s not just about the ethical concerns; the 3Rs strive towards better science. While animal research has value, a key scientific issue is that animals are not always able to effectively predict the effect of a chemical or drug once used by humans, so science needs systems that better mimic human physiology and disease. Recent advances in areas such as tissue engineering, stem cells and computational modelling may have the answer, presenting exciting opportunities to reduce animal use and accelerate progress in medical research.
Advanced technologies and improvements to welfare
Take the breathing lung-on-a-chip  for example, developed by the recipient of this year’s NC3Rs 3Rs Prize. A USB-sized silicon chip, this neat little device contains hollow channels lined by living human cells. It can mimic normal lung physiology, as well as the human inflammatory response to bacterial infection when human white blood cells are introduced into the channels.
What this and other systems like it provide are new tools to study the mechanisms of disease and drug action. They are shedding light on possible new treatments for a wide range of diseases such as cancer, asthma, epilepsy, tuberculosis – the list goes on. But their development doesn’t happen overnight; so what about the animals that continue to be used? For the most part, animal research is going to remain an important aspect of science for the foreseeable future, so improving animal welfare practice in science is paramount. A better understanding of the needs of animals and new insights into how to assess and relieve pain are just some of the areas that NC3Rs grant holders are investigating.
An untold story?
Working closely with researchers, veterinarians, animal technicians and regulators, the key findings of these research efforts are put into practice across animal facilities in the UK and abroad to reduce suffering and the severity of procedures. This untold story of all those working to improve welfare, along with the exciting alternatives in development, rarely gets talked about in mainstream media.
With public opposition  to animal research growing, and the number of animals used in science on a ear-on-year increase, is it time to normalise this nuanced debate?
It’s no secret that animal research is one of the most challenging topics to talk to the public about. The Ipsos MORI Public Attitudes to Science Survey in 2011  showed it to be an area of science garnering the most public concern, alongside GM food and nuclear power. Animal research has so far been a necessary enabler of all the medicines that keep us healthy, much like genetic modification and nuclear power are helping to supply our food and energy demands. We can’t escape the fact that at the moment it has value.
We’re now seeing more scientists being open about their animal research, which is important for transparency and greater public acceptance - but there’s much more to be said. In the same way that the search for alternatives is no-longer the subject of niche groups and is becoming embedded in mainstream science, its story now has much wider appeal. Having come a long way in recent years, the science and technology of the 3Rs presents an exciting and interesting prospect for public engagement, and deserves more recognition than it currently gets.