July 11, 2012

UK Research On Animals At Highest Level In 25 Years

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

U.K. scientists are conducting more animal testing than ever–raising ethical concerns over the use of them in these experiments.

Figures released by the Home Office, a British interior agency, show that a record 3.8 million procedures were carried out on animals including dogs, cats, mice and monkeys in 2011.

The report said that the figures were boosted by increased toxicology and physiology experiments and marked a rise of 68,100 procedures, equivalent to a 2% increase from the previous year.

Genetics experiments have accounted for the greatest increase in the number of animals used since 2000, the report noted. Genetic modification research has accounted for a 40% increase in animal use over the past 11 years.

The Home Office has monitored animals in research since 1987 by counting the number of procedures that scientists annually commence. In that first year, the department reported 3.5 million uses of animals in research projects.  Incidentally, the agency does not count repeated use of the same animal as successive uses.

The official report comes two years after the British government pledged to reduce the number of animals used in research.

"You may be able to reduce the number of animals in specific areas, but the overall rise would tend to mask this. It's something you can't do in 12 months," said Martin Walsh, head of the Animals Scientific Procedures division at the Home Office who added that reduced animal use research was "a long-term project."

The rise in the number of animals that are used by scientists at universities and in the pharmaceutical industry masks an overwhelming drop in the number of procedures carried out on mammals, including rats and monkeys, which are down around 50 percent.

Making up for those reductions was the surge in procedures on fish, up 73,000 from the previous year. This figure was boosted by more university researchers using zebrafish to study basic physiology, embryonic development, and toxicology. In the first few days of life, zebrafish are transparent, which allows scientists to observe their development, and test the impact of chemicals on their growth.

The latest figures have alarmed many animal rights advocates. Mark Prescott from the National Centre for 3Rs, a group focused on reducing the number of animal experiments, said demands from researchers are reducing the gains made by his organization.

"Speaking personally as someone who is passionate about animal welfare, any increase in the number of animals used is a cause for concern,” he said.

"I think we have a very sensible and efficient strategy for reducing animal use and reducing suffering. We could do very much more if we had a larger budget, without a doubt. Our budget is small in comparison with the major funders. Clearly if you want a major shift you will need to increase investment."

In a letter written to The Guardian, a group of scientists offered a solution to what they say is a growing problem of animal use in research.

“A host of powerful human-biology-based cellular, genomic and computational tools are available that can often better predict people's real-world reactions to drugs and chemicals than conventional animal tests,” wrote the group led by Kelly Berube from Cardiff University.

“For many of us, replacing, reducing and refining animal experiments is driven by a desire to develop better approaches to researching human illness."