If alternatives have these advantages, why do we need any animal research?
Every model system has pros and cons. Alternatives are quicker and cheaper but there is an important trade-off: the simpler the system, the greater the need to confirm the relevance to humans. Alternatives take the research so far and greatly reduce animal use but to know what it means for us a limited amount of work in mammals is unavoidable.
How do you know that the mice in your care aren’t stressed or ill?
The health checks and daily surveillance of the mice means that any deviation from health is quickly identified. Our animal technicians are highly trained and committed to the wellbeing of the mice they look after. They are familiar with the normal behaviour of the facility’s mice and can quickly tell when something isn’t quite right. In that case, the facility’s Named Animal Care and Welfare Officers and vet are on hand to provide expert advice.
We track indicators of animal wellbeing throughout the facility, including by participations in networks and exchange of good practices with other facilities. A key indication of wellbeing is breeding success, which is carefully monitored.
For any mice involved in an experiment, this is a care checklist that anticipates any possible issues and sets out clearly defined routes for management to ensure that suffering is minimised.
Beyond the individual care of each animal, our facility is managed to protect the wellbeing of the animals. All the large-scale equipment that provides power and heating to the facility are situated in an area where the noise and vibrations won’t be sensed by the mice.
What do animal systems tell us?
The simpler the system, the greater the need to confirm the relevance to humans. For example, to understand why an ageing immune system responds less well to vaccination, short-term cell culture is not a good model system. We have to use ageing animals. We can learn a lot from nerve cells in culture, but a real brain is vastly more complicated. Genes and chromosomes can easily be studied in yeast, nematodes and fruit flies but their genomes are more than ten times smaller than ours so results need to be validated in a mammal. New hypotheses based on computer models have to be tested experimentally and refined when the results do not fit the model.
Not confirming the results using the minimum number of animals will divert science down the wrong path sooner or later. Getting the science back on track may use more animals than if it had been carefully validated in the first place. Nevertheless, the alternatives play a critically important role in our research, especially for initial studies.
I will donate my body to medical research, so why do you need animals too?
Human studies are vital for research but they are not enough by themselves. Despite some very sophisticated methods there are major limitations to what we can find out in humans. For example, in degenerative brain disorders samples obtained post mortem are in the final, untreatable stages. Therapies have the best chance of working in the early stages. Modelling aspects of the disease in a mouse make it possible to study these early stages, providing vital information that could never be obtained in humans. Some tissues are more accessible so biopsies may be available, but obtaining control material can still be difficult. Removing important tissues from healthy human controls brings its own ethical dilemmas. There have been huge advances in imaging inside our bodies, but the resolution of this imaging is still too low to shed light on the behaviour of individual cells.
Human and animal studies together are an effective combination. Some of the best science takes a detailed understanding gained from animals and asks whether the limited information available in humans is at least consistent with this. For this reason, many Babraham scientists collaborate with clinicians from Addenbrooke’s and elsewhere.
What about the limitations of animal research?
Every model system has limitations. For example, mouse lifespan is only 2-3% of ours, some gene regulation differs and its brain is far simpler. We also shield laboratory mice from many of the stresses we experience every day such as temperature fluctuations, viruses or pollutants. However, mice have the same organs, the same types of cells and nearly all the same genes as we do. A good scientist will always be aware of the limitations and carefully ask: ‘What is likely to be similar in humans and what is likely to be different?’.
Who decides what animal research we do?
Before research is permitted in a protected animal species, the plans are scrutinised by two groups of people. First, they have to be justified to a local ethical review panel that includes vets and animal care staff, other scientists and external, lay members who are wholly independent of the Institute. Together this group provides peer review to ensure the science is high quality, checks on the use of alternatives, minimum numbers and the least harmful methods (known as the 3Rs for Reduction, Refinement, Replacement), and it enables external scrutiny of the process and plans. Second, applications have to be authorised by the Home Office. Both processes involve frequent revision of the plans. The competition for funding also means only the best science goes forwards and that plans for animal research are carefully checked.
Looking for further information? Find out more about commonly asked questions about animal research more widely on the Understanding Animal Research website and their FAQs.