Replace, refine, reduce. Those are the goals of a centre founded 10 years ago to improve the welfare of animals used in research. But more still needs to be done to embed these ideas, according to the head of the centre.
Vicky Robinson, chief executive at the London-based National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), says that when the centre was launched 10 years ago there was “some uncertainty” in the scientific community about it. The organization has since funded research that ranges from using facial expressions of animals to assess pain and improve welfare to growing ‘micro-cancers’ in a dish in order to reduce the use of animals used in drug development.
Last week, launching the NC3R’s strategy for the next decade, she said: “Ten years on I think the transformation has been huge. Getting a grant from the NC3Rs really does count these days.”
But she added that there were still “too many scientists who think that the 3Rs belong in the animal house” and do not apply to their research. And she admitted that there were still concerns in the scientific community to be overcome around whether changing laboratory conditions to improve animal welfare could also negatively impact research outcomes. The new NC3Rs strategy includes working to ensure that standardised measures of animal welfare can be used to improve both the welfare of animals and scientific results, that all scientists are committed to the ‘3Rs’ and that this is expanded to other countries.
Jim Smith, chief of strategy at the UK’s Medical Research Council, told the meeting that the work of the NC3Rs had been “enormously influential”. He cited the widely-backed ARRIVE guidelines, which lay down how researchers using animals should report their work in journal papers, as an example (although there is some debate over how effective the guidelines have been).
Despite the work of the NC3Rs, Smith admitted, the statistics show an increase in animal use in UK research every year. However, much of this is down to the UK measuring procedures, rather than animals used; breeding counts as a procedure, meaning that simply producing genetically modified animals needed for scientific research is a huge contributor to the overall rise.
Stephen Holgate, the chair of the NC3Rs board, told the meeting that the centre had created a community of like-minded animal-welfare scientists that did not exist before.
“The success of the NC3Rs is without doubt,” he said. “Our challenge now is to get adoption and uptake.”