Animal Research - Doing it with the Three Rs

19 December 1997

A Wellington animal vaccine company has reduced the number of laboratory test animals it uses by 90 percent through the development of a test system which is a world first.

The test currently saves 30,000 laboratory mice a year and it is predicted it will save an additional 250,000 mice world wide once it is adopted as an internationalstandard. 

The company is keen to share its research with its competitors to hasten the move away from testing on animals during vaccine manufacture. The breakthrough cost $2 million, plus additional funding from the Public Good Science Fund. The development is a New Zealand example of a world wide trend to find reductions in, or alternatives to, the use of animals in research.

The development of transgenic animals, synthetic animal hormones and the increasing use of xenotransplantation (where animal organs are used in humans), are all pushing the boundaries of modern science and altering the relationship between humans and animals in ways which were not even conceivable 20 years ago.

For those opposed to the use of animals for any purpose, no experiment on an animal will ever be considered necessary. On the other side of the debate are those who advocateresearch free of restrictions with the belief that human needs outweigh those of theanimals. Both views are at either end of a spectrum, with most people somewhere in themiddle ground. On an emotional level, they are against experimentation, but pragmatically,if potential cures for cancer or AIDS came into sight, most would not deny research the goahead.

Many of the medical benefits we live with today - a cure for syphilis, the isolation ofinsulin and the first hormone extract - arose from research on animals. Research iscarried out on animals to test the safety of a range of consumer products, food, anddrugs. They are used in the production of biological extracts and in psychological andmedical research. Whether you believe it is right or wrong, animals play a role inensuring that many of today's vaccines, antibiotics, medications and products are safe forhumans.

Animals are also used in education. While children often interact with animals in primaryschool,  learning how to care for them and studying their behaviour, most secondaryschool students will  be exposed to some form of animal dissection using abattoirmaterial. University students studying medicine, veterinary and agricultural science,zoology, physiology, and chemistry all use animals in their studies. While most cope withit, some may find they're incapable of carrying out the experiments.

For those who cannot, career opportunities in the biological sciences can be limited.Ironically, it's often those who care so strongly about animals who alienate themselvesfrom animal welfare careers because of their non experimentation beliefs.

It is important therefore to know that there are alternatives to the use of animals.Scientists have been working since the turn of the century on the development ofalternative techniques which would provide the same level of results as those obtainedfrom experiments using animals, but which involve no, or fewer animals, or entail fewerinvasive procedures. During the 1950s, the principles known as the three Rs (Replacement,Reduction and Refinement) were established.

Very few outside of the science world know of these principles, yet it is upon these thatmodern laboratory animal science and welfare are based. The principles are accepteduniversally and in some countries form the basis for legislation. The ultimate aim of thethree Rs matches that of committed animal welfare lobbyists, which is the replacement ofthe use of animals in experiments.

The replacement or reduction options rely on the replacement of sentient animals withnon-sentient animals, such as earthworms, molluscs and insects or non-living alternatives,such as computer simulations, mathematical modelling, computer simulation and the use ofaudiovisuals for training and teaching. Some are quite sophisticated and can take astudent through dissections and allow an insight into the interactive nature of the brain,heart, circulatory system and other functions.

At Massey University they've found computer simulations can enhance a student'sunderstanding, while reducing the number of animals used. Instead of using live horses orhooves from a dead horse, a computer program was developed to teach veterinary studentswhich parts of the hoof are affected by different nerve block techniques. A plungerappears (in place of a cursor) when a nerve is located and when clicked injects localanaesthetic, with the results appearing on screen.

In the future, Virtual Reality is predicted to overtake all other replacementalternatives, allowing students to perform operations without using a patient.

Humans can be used in experiments with the post-mortem use of human tissue for a varietyof purposes. Many science students already perform non-invasive experiments on each other.

In vitro research allows scientists the opportunity to study many physiological systems byusing tissues, cell culture, organs and organ slices. However, regardless of the growingsophistication of replacement methods, many argue these cannot replace the need for actualdissection experience.

Refinement refers to the alteration of research techniques to reduce the impact ofinvasive procedures on animals. This can include new behavioural, husbandry or veterinaryprocedures that improve the well-being of research animals which can increase the value ofexperimental results and minimise or completely eliminate suffering to the animal beforeand after the experiment. Good husbandry techniques can eliminate anxiety to the animalwhich can occur from having altered living patterns, such as changes in light, housing,air and being handled. Such stress can be worse than physical pain from the actualexperiment.

By using the three Rs, universities and research facilities will have people versed in thetheories and practices promoting the humane care of animals used in research andexperiments.

Modern science is continually pushing the boundaries; 80 years ago the discovery ofinsulin would not have happened without the use of animals. Today research tools are moreadvanced with the use of non-animal tests such as tissue culture and other in vitrotechniques. Methods will continue to evolve as knowledge is gained, but this may not haveoccurred if tests previously done had not been carried out.


For further information contact:
Kate Horrey,
Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC) secretary,
c/o MAF Regulatory Authority Animal Welfare and Environment
phone (04) 4744296
Gita Parsot,
MAF Communications,
Phone: (04) 4989806.



Last Updated: 10 September 2010

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