Mice, MRI's and microchips
As Christmas and the New Year loom, politicians across Europe are in the final stages of affirming new laws to embed the concept of replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in scientific research. This is a great step forward for the welfare of animals used in research which has been unanimously welcomed by the science community.
Improving the way we conduct experiments with animals makes the results more reliable and also makes the experiments more humane, and more efficient as we don’t need to use as many animals. And scientists are also developing new methods that don’t use animals at all. These types of improvements are known as the 3Rs – replacing, refining and reducing the numbers of animals used in research.
The UK has its own centre dedicated to enabling this process – the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), funded by the government, charities and industry. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland all have similar institutions.
Even so, animals are often the best and sometimes the only way to test the effect of medicines or other chemicals. They contain organs connected together in an incredibly complex system, just like humans. This is hard to replicate. As the organs are often the target of medicines, animals must be used to measure the impact of the medicine and perhaps killed so that their organs can be analysed.
Recently, Nicolau Beckmann and his research team at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Basle, Switzerland, have shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to observe organs without operating on the animals. The results were more informative and better still, only one animal was required for an MRI scam when previously 10 would be needed, impressively reducing the numbers of animals required in each experiment.
When working with animals it is important to minimise pain as much as possible, but detecting pain, especially mild pain, in animals can be difficult. Margerete Arras’ research group at the University of Zurich have been studying mice in the hope of developing a method to detect when the animal is experiencing mild pain. They measured heart rate, body temperature and movement of mice following surgery using micro-chip implants that did not disturb the animal so that natural behaviour could be measured.
The data from the implanted chip was compared to observations of tunnelling and nest building behaviour, allowing the scientists to correlate these activities with the physical indications of pain detected by the microchips. As a result, scientists can now monitor pain by observing activities such as tunnelling and provide pain-relief where necessary.
Reducing the numbers of animals needed and refining the experiment to improve welfare is important, but how can animals be replaced altogether? Each type of experiment presents unique hurdles to this challenge but step by step scientists are developing new ways to replace animals in their experiments. In its latest research grants round, the NC3Rs in the UK is challenging scientists to use maths and computer modelling to find the solutions.
One new recipient of an NC3Rs grant is Dr Gary Mirams at the University of Oxford. Dr Mirams and his team will use data collected from previous animal tests and human clinical trials to develop a computer simulation able to predict whether a drug will cause adverse effects on the heart without using animals.
The current UK regulations, which have been in place since 1986, insist that where possible scientists must use alternatives to animals in experiments, reduce their number and any possible pain they may experience. The new EU Directive 2010/63/EU, passed in Brussels in September 2010, now makes this compulsory across Europe. It also introduces an ethical review process to ensure these standards are met, again, something that has been in place in Britain and a number of other EU countries for many years. Because each EU Member State needed to make changes to their own laws, two years was given for the Directive to be adopted across the continent. EU countries have until the 1st January 2013 to adopt the Directive or face a fine. It is currently being debated by parliament in the UK and is expected to be voted through very soon.
Like with all scientific advances, replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research is a slow, step by step process. But it is a reassuring sign that countries across Europe and further afield are taking this challenge seriously, as the above examples demonstrate. The new Directive will mean that more countries will look to projects such as Dr Beckmann’s and Dr Miram's to improve the welfare of animals in their laboratories.
Mouse pain study: http://www.forschung3r.ch/data/news/Info_71-00-Arras-e.pdf
Computer modelling: http://www.nc3rs.org.uk/news.asp?id=1850