The UK government has been thrown back on the defensive over animal testing as the Home Office released data showing that just over 3.01 million scientific procedures involving animals were started during 2006, a rise of around 4% on the previous year.

The increase was largely down to increased breeding use of genetically modified mice, a trend that is expected to continue in years to come, the Home Office said. But the figures prompted a sharp response from animal rights groups, with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) pointing out that the number of animal procedures reached its highest level since 1991 and the 4% rise was the biggest in five years.

This week also saw a judicial review of the government’s licensing system for animal research open in the UK’s High Court. The BUAV has accused the government of ignoring its legal duty to ensure that animal suffering is kept to a minimum in UK laboratories.

In particular the BUAV’s case, which includes video and documentary evidence collected during a 10-month undercover investigation of a Cambridge University neuroscience laboratory, will ask why the Home Office assigned a ‘moderate’ suffering banding to experiments that involved highly invasive procedures such as removing the top of a marmoset’s head to induce stroke.

Embarrassingly for the government, the judicial review has the backing of Professor Michael Balls, chairman of the trustees of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) and father of Cabinet member Ed Balls, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

Professor Balls advised the then government on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which currently regulates animal testing. His son recently opened a new FRAME Alternatives Laboratory at Professor Ball’s academic base, the University of Nottingham.

The government insists the UK has “the strictest regulations on animal procedures in the world”. All researchers must take into account the ‘3Rs’ – measures to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals – when devising programmes involving animal testing, the Home Office notes. Where scientific objectives can only be met through animal research, “reasonable steps” must be taken to minimise the numbers of animals used and any suffering caused.

GM effect

The latest figures show there was an increase of 5% or 133,800 in the number of animals used for scientific procedures in 2006. The number of procedures declined after 1976, levelled out in the 1990s and has been steadily climbing in recent years, rising by 10% since 2000.

The vast majority of procedures started last year – 83% – involved mice, rats and other rodents. Dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates, which receive special protection under the 1986 Act, were used in less than 0.5% of procedures, with the number of tests on primates falling by 10% against 2005. Genetically modified animals (mostly mice) were used in 34% of all procedures, compared with 33% in 2005 and 8% in 1995.

Toxicological testing, the bulk of which (74%) was for assessing pharmacological safety and efficacy, accounted for 14% of the total, compared with 25% in 1995. Overall, around 45% of animal procedures were started by universities last year, with commercial interests accounting for roughly 35%.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said there had been a small increase in the use of animals by industry, reflecting a “burgeoning medicines discovery pipeline” in the UK. The latest survey of research by companies based in the UK had shown there were a record number of compounds in pre-registration clinical development, it noted.

Most of the overall increase rise in animal testing last year was due to increased activity in academia, the ABPI added. The number of procedures attributed to industry was still well under half the level 20 years ago. “We are working hard to ensure that the use of animals in research is challenged whenever the science no longer justifies it,” commented Dr Philip Wright, the association’s director of science and technology.

The new outbreak of controversy over animal testing comes at a time when more stringent legal sanctions against extremists and more open support from scientists and others for necessary testing have taken some of the heat out of what will always be an incendiary debate. There was a significant decline in violent harassment by animal rights protestors last year.

The ABPI has also just released figures for the first six months of this yea showing that violent activity by animal rights extremists against drug researchers and their associates have fallen to new lows.