The UK government’s record on animal testing has come under fire again after Home Office figures showed that the number of procedures started in 2007 rose by about 6% to just over 3.2 million.

The 4% rise in the number of animal procedures seen during 2006 was already the biggest in five years, according to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which was quick to condemn the latest data. “Despite the fact that the UK claims to have the tightest regulation on animal testing in the world, the number of animal experiments has risen by a massive 21% since the Government came to power, from 2.6 million in 2007,” the BUAV said.

The sixth consecutive increase in the volume of experiments “shows that there is no Government strategy to reduce the numbers of animals being used in experiments in this country, despite overwhelming public concern about the issue”, the group claimed. Moreover, the 15% increase in project licences shown by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate annual report for 2007 meant “we can expect an increase in animal experiments in coming years”.

Once again the rise in the number of procedures was put down largely to increased breeding use of genetically modified animals, the vast bulk of them mice or fish. This is a trend the Home Office expects to continue in years to come. Genetically modified animals were used in a total of 1.15 million regulated procedures, up by 11% over 2006 and representing 36% of all procedures last year, compared with 34% in 2006 and 8% in 1995.

The strong growth in these procedures was welcomed by supporters of animal research such as Pro-Test and Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who saw it as evidence that testing methods were becoming more innovative and sophisticated.

The 6% increase in procedures overall during 2007 was mainly due to higher usage levels for mice, fish and domestic fowl, the Home Office noted. Mice, rats and other rodents were used in 83% of procedures, while most of the remaining experiments involved fish (10%) or birds (4%).

Dogs, cats and human primates combined were used in less than 1% of all animal procedures, with the number of experiments on non-human primates falling by 6% to around 4,000. The number of procedures on dogs rose by 9% or 600 compared with 2006, while experiments on cats fell by 41% or 240.

Less toxicology

Non-toxicological procedures accounted for around 87% of all procedures started in 2007, up from 75% of the total in 1995. The main areas of use were immunological studies, pharmaceutical research and development, cancer research, anatomy and physiology. A strong majority (78%) of toxicological procedures started in 2007 were for evaluating pharmaceutical safety and efficacy.

Around 39% of the procedures initiated last year used some form of anaesthesia to alleviate the severity of the interventions. “For many of the remaining procedures the use of anaesthesia would have potentially increased the adverse effects of the procedure,” the Home Office claimed.

“Advances with non-animal test methods continue to be made, but at present licensed animal use remains essential to develop improved healthcare technologies,” commented Home Office Minister Meg Hillier. “The UK continues to maintain a strong science base, and high animal welfare standards, in line with the requirements of the 1986 [Animals (Scientific Procedures)] Act.”

Last December the UK government announced that funding for the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3RS) would more than double over the next three years. Responding to the latest Home Office figures, though, NC3RS chief executive Dr Vicky Robinson said: “The scientific demand for using animals outstrips the pace at which alternatives are being developed. We have to redress this balance.”

Dr Robinson acknowledged the increased investment in the 3Rs (replacement, refinement and reduction) over the last few years, adding that “we need to build on this momentum to reduce animal use, and also to deliver scientific and technological benefits which improve human health and accelerate the development of new medicines”.