Animal rights organisations have reacted with dismay to the second consecutive increase in the annual number of procedures performed on live animals in the UK.

However, supporters of animal research for medicines highlighted trends such as a substantial reduction in the use of new-world monkeys and a rise in the proportion of experiments for veterinary or environmental purposes.

And the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) contends that the annual Home Office Statistics mask real progress in delivering the 3Rs agenda.

The latest Home Office data on the use of protected animals in scientific procedures started during 2011 show that just over 3.79 procedures were initiated last year across the UK, an increase of 68,100 or 2% on 2010.

In the previous year the number of licensed procedures was up by 3% over 2009, following a slight fall in volume for 2008-2009.

GM impact

It is often argued that new techniques such as the use of genetically modified (GM) animals in medical research have inevitably pushed up the number of recorded procedures.

Yet breeding of GM animals and harmful mutants (HM) remained stable in 2011, accounting for 1.62 million procedures, the Home Office reported. And if breeding of GM and HM animals is stripped out, the total number of procedures started in 2011 rose by 3% year on year to 2.18 million.

There were increases in the volume of procedures for a number of species, such as cats (+26%), pigs (+37%), birds (+14%) and fish (+15%), the Home Office noted.

At the same time, the number of experiments conducted on several other species declined year on year – for example, rats (-11%), guinea pigs (-16%), dogs (-21%) and non-human primates (-47% overall, with procedures using new-world monkeys down by 68% and old-world monkeys by 41%).

BUAV “appalled”

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) said it was “appalled by the lack of progress to reduce animal suffering”, which called into question the coalition government’s post-election pledge to cut down on the number of animals used in scientific research.

Not only was the latest increase in procedures “completely unacceptable” but there was “no evidence that this appalling suffering is producing any meaningful benefit to humankind because the Government and research industry persistently refuse to subject animal testing to rigorous review”, commented BUAV chief executive Michelle Thew.

Troy Seidle, director of research & toxicology for Humane Society International/UK (HSI), described the Home Office statistics as “deeply depressing news for science, medical progress and animal welfare. It demonstrates the government’s failure to grasp the sea-change in attitude needed to escape the scientific cul-de-sac of animal experimentation”.

While “an astonishingly impressive biotechnology revolution” is driving “innovative and human-relevant” advances in research, “we continue to paralyse rats, poison dogs and brain damage monkeys in the millions”, he said.

Recent opinion-poll data show that 69% of the UK public support the government’s pledge to replace and reduce animal experiments, HIS noted.

Open letter

HSI president Dr Andrew Rowan has joined a number of leading UK scientists in sending an open letter to Home Office Minister Lynn Featherstone that urges the government to step up its support for novel non-animal research techniques.

“To its credit, Britain has in recent years increased its investment in non-animal research through the NC3Rs and otherwise,” the letter acknowledges.

Nonetheless, it adds, “there is still much more that we could do in order to lead the world in this field. The forthcoming European Union ‘Horizon 2020’ framework programme for research and innovation funding provides an important opportunity for Britain to demonstrate that leadership”.

The Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research (DHT) called the 2% annual rise in animal procedures “hugely disappointing”.

The recent update to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 was “an important step forward in helping to replace the use of animals in medical research and in enshrining the 3Rs principles of reduction, refinement and replacement of animal experimentation in law”, commented DHT chief executive Kailah Eglington.

“But it is clear that much work remains to be done to reduce the use of animals in experiments and to promote the development of proven alternatives that are better scientifically, economically and morally,” Eglington added.

“Dramatic” decrease

Considerably less phased was Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the pro-research organisation formed from the Research Defence Society and the Coalition for Medical Progress.

Welcoming the latest Home Office figures, Professor Fran Balkwill, chair of the UAR Council, said they “show that, once again, nearly half of all ‘procedures’ amount to the breeding of a GM or HM mouse. We also saw a dramatic decrease, of nearly three-quarters, in the use of new world monkeys”.

Moreover, Balkwill pointed to the increased quotient of procedures conducted for veterinary or environmental purposes.

“Nearly all animal procedures involve rodents or fish, and in 2011 fish and domestic fowl accounted for most of the rise in the number of procedures. Almost all domestic fowl were used for veterinary purposes, while fish are increasingly used for basic research into medical problems such as heart conditions.”

UAR hopes to see further reductions in the number of dogs, cats and primates used for research in years to come, “in line with efforts towards reduction, refinement and replacement of animals in research advocated by scientists and overseen by NC3Rs”, Balkwill added.

The NC3Rs itself used the annual publication of the Home Office statistics as an opportunity to publicise a new Evaluation Framework designed to gauge the impact of Centre’s efforts to promote alternatives to animal testing.