Rising investment in research and development and the more complex demands of targeted therapies are behind the 14% rise in the number of animal testing procedures reported by the UK Home Office last week, the pharmaceutical industry says.

Animal rights campaigners and supporters of humane research were vocal in their condemnation of the Home Office figures, which showed that the number of procedures started in 2008 reaching 3,656,080, with a 16% increase in the use of non-human primates.

But the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said the jump in the number of procedures was “in large part down to the success of the scientific community working in the UK”. And Understanding Animal Research, the pro-research organisation formed at the end of last year from the Research Defence Society and the Coalition for Medical Progress, pointed out that the volume of animal procedures was now at around the same level as in 1988.

“Because the UK is recognised as among the best in the world [for medical research], investment within academia and within industry is going up,” the ABPI commented. In 2006, R&D spending in the UK was just under £4 billion and by 2007 it had risen by 14.7% to around £4.5 billion, the association noted, adding: “Consequently, there is a related rise in animal research, but the rate is not like-for-like – it is smaller due to all the work being carried out to reduce the need for animal research.”

The ABPI also cited the trend towards targeted therapies in pharmaceutical research pipelines, particularly in respect of the increased use of non-human primates.

“The advance of science has led to new classes of medicines which target disease with much greater accuracy,” the association stated. “Most research is still done traditionally in test tubes, but this accuracy means new medicines have to be tested in final stages on animals which are much closer to humans to show that they work and they are safe.”

Hence, the ABPI explained, the rise in the number of experiments involving non-human primates, a trend that was likely to continue next year. “This work will eventually lead to the discovery of new medicines which will treat unmet medical need in fields like cancer, arthritis, pain relief and neurodegenerative disease,” it added.

According to Understanding Animal Research, the most important message from the latest Home Office figures was that “we are doing more and better research to find solutions to serious diseases. This is a continuation of the trend which saw funding of biomedical research increase in real terms by over 50% in the decade to 2006, while animal procedures increased by just 12.5% over the same period”.

One criticism of the rising trend in procedures over the last few years is that it betrays a lack of urgency in the drive towards replacing, reducing and refining animal experiments. But while the 3Rs are “central to animal research”, they are “not just about reducing numbers”, Understanding Animal Research commented. “Improving animal welfare by refining procedures and replacing higher animals with lower animals are also important. Using more animals does not mean more suffering.”

With the Council of Ministers still to discuss the European Commission’s proposed revisions to the European Union’s animal testing Directive, 86/609/EEC, the debate over animal testing is likely to retain a keen edge for some time yet. On home turf, the annual report from the UK government’s Animals Scientific Procedures Inspectorate & Division suggests that next year will see further outcries.

As the report noted, 2008 was the busiest period in recent years for assessing project licence applications for regulated procedures. The Inspectorate recommended for grant a total of 695 licence applications (plus 21 preliminary applications that were not taken forward), an increase of 16.8% over 2007.