The annual release of figures on animal testing procedures by the UK Home Office has once again brought expressions of dismay from animal rights campaigners and supporters of humane research.

The data showed that the number of procedures started in 2008 was up by 14% on the previous year, to just under 3.7 million experiments. The higher level was mainly due to increased use of fish (+85%), mice (+9%), amphibians (+81%), pigs (+114%), sheep (+9%) and turkeys (+135%), the Home Office said. A large majority of the procedures (77%) involved mice, rats and other rodents.

There was also a 16% increase in the use of non-human primates, with 1,000 more procedures (+33%) involving ‘old-world’ primates and 400 fewer (-53%) on ‘new-world’ primates.

According to the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, the latest figures marked a “shocking 17-year high” and a 39% increase since the Labour government came to power. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) said the increase in the volume of overall procedures from 2007 was the biggest year on year since 1987.

Breeding of genetically modified animals for research continues to be a significant component of experiments undertaken in the UK. There were 1.4 million such procedures in 2008, up from 1.2 million in the previous year, although the share of genetic modification in the total number of scientific procedures remained stable at 38%.

Last year saw a fall in the number of experiments started on rats (-8%), domestic fowl (-4%), guinea pigs (-8%), rabbits (-13%) and beagles (-17%). Dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates, all of which have special protection under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, were collectively used in fewer than 1% of all procedures.

Some form of anaesthesia was used in 35% of the experiments initiated last year. For many of the remaining procedures, the Home Office commented, “the use of anaesthesia would have potentially increased the adverse effects of the procedure”.

More toxicology

Toxicological procedures accounted for 13% of the total in 2008 and showed a 16% increase over 2007 “after falling in most of the last few years”, the Home Office noted. In 1995, toxicological procedures made up 25% of the total. In 2008 the majority (79%) of these experiments were for assessing pharmaceutical safety and efficacy.

BUAV chief executive Michelle Thew called the latest increase in scientific procedures involving animals “an outrage”. This was the seventh year of consecutive rises in the number of animals used and there was “clear public concern on this issue”, she said.

The UK “claims to have the tightest regulation on animal testing in the world. We should be leading the way in reducing animal testing, not inflicting even more pain and suffering,” Thew added.

The Dr Hadwen Trust was similarly unimpressed, and has written to the main UK political parties calling on them to commit to a ‘roadmap to replacement’ that would identify key target areas for increased funding, technology development, R&D and political support with the aim of reducing progressively and ultimately replacing animal experiments.

“This year is the fifty-year anniversary of the very concept of replacing, reducing and refining animal experiments and yet instead of an alternatives revolution we are marking the occasion with the highest level of animal experiments in seventeen years,” commented Dr Sebastien Farnaud, the Trust’s science director.

“It has repeatedly been shown how irrelevant to human patients animal disease models can be, so sustaining such high animal use is not in the best interests of science,” Farnaud said. “With the scientific expertise this country has to offer, we should have seen far greater progress to replace animals with more advanced techniques. Instead animal numbers are now as bad as they were in the early 1990s.”

3Rs not failing

However, the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) insisted the increased use of animals in 2008 did not mean efforts to advance the 3Rs were failing.

“Rather, it reflects new research trends, increased investment, and changes in regulatory requirements,” said NC3Rs chief executive Dr Vicky Robinson. “Much is being achieved in implementing the 3Rs but the statistics are not designed to show this, because they focus on animal use rather than replacement or reduction. For every area where a non-animal method is developed, there may be many more where science is driving an increase in animal use.”

All the same, she acknowledged, the higher volume of animal procedures “should be a call to all scientists to re-focus efforts to try and stem this increase whilst maintaining progress in science and innovation”.