Posted on behalf of Chloe McIvor.
Animal research is on the up in the UK, reports the Home Office in its annual announcement. Just over 3.7 million procedures were performed on animals last year, an increase of 3% on 2009. The increase is part of a general upward trend in recent years, which could seem concerning, but it is important to understand the reasons behind these figures.
Judy MacArthur Clark, chief inspector of the Home Office animal inspectorate, explains that it is largely due to an increase in the number of genetically modified animals, particularly mice, being bred for research. Genetic modifications are included in the definition of ‘procedure’ used to produce these statistics. The use of GM animals in research increased by 6% this year but this is not new; the same trend was reported last year.
But not all of the mice have harmful mutations. Dominic Wells, a researcher in neuromuscular disease at the Royal Veterinary College, said that many of the GM mice bred do not actually express phenotypes that have any adverse effect on the mice.
The increase was also partly due to an increase in the use of fish; they are particularly important for ecological research into global warming effects, which has been expanding in recent years. Plus, zebra-fish are proving increasingly important for neurological research. The figures are also likely to reflect increased investment in biomedical research in recent years.
In terms of the ‘higher’ animals used in research, figures for cats, dogs and horses were all down on last year. The number of non-human primates, however, has increased. Primates only account for 0.12% of animals used in research but they still play an important role in pharmaceutical development and safety testing.
The increased number of procedures does not necessarily reflect a neglect of the 3Rs (the target to Reduce, Refine and Replace the use of animals). Following last May’s general election, the coalition government pledged a commitment to reducing the number of animals used in research and as well as ending the testing of household products on animals; an announcement on the details of this plan is due before the summer recess begins next week.
Animal research is likely to attract attention over the coming months as the new European directive on the use of animals in research, which was finalized in November 2010. It is currently going through a public consultation on to how the UK should implement the EU rules, which must be incorporated into national legislation by November 2012. Martin Walsh, head of the Home Office Animals Scientific Procedures Division, says the directive as a chance to raise standards in the rest of Europe so they meet those of the UK.
Image: photo by Ruud Hein via Flickr under Creative Commons.