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NC3Rs | 20 Years: Pioneering Better Science

Statement in response to e-petition 611810

The e-petition

The UK e-petition 611810 calls for a ban on commercial breeding of animals for laboratories and for reforms to approve and use non-animal methods (NAMs). It has reached over 100,000 signatures and will be discussed in a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament on 16 January 2023.

Commercial breeding for laboratories

Public interest in the breeding of animals for use in scientific procedures has increased in recent years, coinciding with campaigns by anti-vivisection organisations that are primarily focused on a beagle dog breeding facility in Cambridgeshire. The vast majority of animals used in UK laboratories, from mice to non-human primates are purpose-bred. This is important for scientific and animal welfare reasons as the animals have a known history in terms of their genetics and any microorganisms they might have – factors that can affect the animals and the reliability of the studies they are used in. Animals are either bred by specialist commercial breeders or at the research institutes themselves – a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 is required to do this.

The 3Rs applies to the breeding of animals and is therefore included in the NC3Rs remit. We have a range of programmes to help researchers ensure that they breed the minimum numbers of animals and that any suffering is kept to a minimum. For example, working with experts we have recently published guidance on the management of colonies of genetically altered mice that focuses on efficient breeding practices. This is an important area given the extensive use of genetically altered mice and the complex genetic crosses that may be required for some studies.

The use of dogs in research

We understand that the breeding and use of species such as the dog is a cause for concern for many people. Dogs are mainly used in tests to assess the safety of potential medicines and they are always purpose bred for this. The commercial breeding facility in the UK helps to avoid the import of dogs from elsewhere in the world (and the associated stress for the dogs of long distance travel) and dog studies being conducted in other countries (sometimes where standards are lower than in the UK).

We do not have any work that focuses on dog breeding. Rather our priority is to find ways of replacing the use of the dog – we have already succeeded in some areas but in others there is still a long way to go. Our work with researchers in the UK and internationally to replace the use of dogs includes research that has helped to avoid the use of laboratory dogs in the testing of drugs to treat heartworm – a serious veterinary infection for pet dogs and cats.

An open innovation project to replace the use of dogs

Through our CRACK IT Challenges programme we are currently leading an international collaboration with major pharmaceutical companies to develop virtual dog tissues and organs that are based on artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches. This will ultimately replace the need to use dogs in the testing of new medicines. The project is complex practically and conceptually given the amount and type of data that is needed to build the models and because the project is pushing the boundaries of what is currently scientifically possible. We have made £2.6M available for the project which builds on work we have previously led with the pharmaceutical industry demonstrating that for some studies it is possible to avoid using two species without compromising human safety. For many years testing the safety of potential medicines has involved two species – a rodent (a rat or a mouse) and a non-rodent (a dog or a monkey). Our work shows that there are opportunities to drop the non-rodent species and the development of the virtual dog is intended to help this.

Improving dog welfare

While our focus is mainly on replacing the use of dogs, the welfare of those that continue to be used is a priority. We have published work to encourage the social housing of dogs (rather than being kept on their own) for studies that involve measuring cardiovascular function with telemetry devices, as well as guidance on limiting the amount of weight loss permitted on some toxicity studies involving dogs (weight loss is often an indicator of the health and welfare of an animal).

The approval and use of non-animal methods

The petition also refers to the use of non-animal methods or NAMs. The term NAMs is typically used by the life sciences sector, including the NC3Rs*, as the abbreviation for New Approach Methodologies – that is technologies for assessing the toxicity of chemicals or drugs that do not use animals. We use the term non-animal technologies (or NATs) for what the petition refers to as NAMs.

NATs include a range of approaches from organ-on-chips through to computer models and artificial intelligence. These are being used to replace the use of animals in many areas of research although the full potential has yet to be realised. This is an important area of investment for the NC3Rs. Since the NC3Rs was launched in 2004 we have committed £49.2M for research and innovation in NATs. This includes a recent almost £5M investment with BBSRC and UKRI to accelerate the development of NATs with 24 new projects being awarded.

Replacing the use of animals is at the heart of the NC3Rs strategy. We have recently published our plans to increase our investment in this area to 75% of our research budget and to only award PhD studentships for NATs projects. Despite the scientific and technological developments with NATs there is much to do to integrate them into standard practice for academic research and the testing carried out for regulatory purposes. For the latter we have an exciting programme working with the chemical, agrochemical, consumer product and pharmaceutical industries and regulatory bodies worldwide to build confidence and acceptance in the use of NATs (NAMs in the NC3Rs definitions) for toxicity testing without animals.


* You can find more information on the way the NC3Rs uses the terms on our 3Rs page.