Despite live animal testing reaching its lowest level since 2007, the most recent UK animal experiment statistics indicate a 'reluctance in the industry to embrace modern tools that would advance British labs into the 21st century', according to Humane Society International UK.
Recent Home Office statistics revealed that researchers carried out 3.52 million procedures on living animals in England, Scotland and Wales last year, marking a decrease of 7% on 2017.
Data show that a total of 3.52 million procedures were completed in the UK in 2018, including tests on mice (1.1 million), rats (170,665), birds (146,680), rabbits (11,159), guinea pigs (6,445), monkeys (3,207), dogs (4,481), cats (159), horses (10,424) and fish (297,881).
Half of all procedures were reported as experimental procedures, with the other half intended for the creation and breeding of genetically altered (GA) animals. Over half (56%) were for the purpose of basic research, most commonly focusing on the immune system, the nervous system, and cancer.
The government made a commitment in 2010 to reduce animals used in scientific research; despite clear progress since then, the UK remains one of the highest lab animal users in Europe.
Nevertheless, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's Dr Jennifer Harris said “pharmaceutical companies are increasingly using computer models or cell culture to replace the animals they use in research," and noted that the figures show "we’re making good progress towards our goal of ultimately reducing the number we use".
On the other side of the fence, Humane Society International senior scientist Dr Lindsay Marshall said: “As a scientist myself, I know all too well the drawbacks of relying on animals to study and treat human disease. The fact is that animal models fail far more often than they succeed, so it’s hugely frustrating and worrying to see the UK, year after year, failing to move away from outdated animal experiments.
“It’s high time UK research funding bodies stopped squandering British taxpayer money and charitable donations on dead-end research, and made a serious investment in human organoids, organs-on-a-chip, computerised systems biology models, and other advanced, non-animal technologies that are the true future of modern medical research.”
However, Chris Magee, head of policy and media at Understanding Animal Research, argues that "reducing animal usage is not as simple as swapping out an animal assay for an in vitro alternative.
"Alternatives can’t always tell us, for instance, if a compound will cause DNA damage leading to cancer, but they can some of the time, so we may be able to avoid using animals in the case of compounds with well understood adverse pathways. Likewise, many of these in vitro techniques will have been used alongside animal studies to build up a picture of a drug’s safety or otherwise.”
He also applauds the pharma industry for "enthusiastically embracing alternative methods, and actively helping to develop them," further noting that there has been "an exponential rise in the use of alternatives since the year 2000 and in the last ten year the use of dogs and primates has reduced by a quarter".
According to analysis by the group, almost half of all animal testing in 2018 in the UK was carried out by just 10 organisations (in descending order): the Medical Research Council, the Francis Crick Institute, University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh, UCL, University of Cambridge, University of Glasgow, King's College London, University of Manchester and Imperial College London.
Frances Rawle, director of Policy, Ethics and Governance at the Medical Research Council, said: “The use of animals in medical research remains essential for us to develop new and better treatments and to understand the biology of disease. If researchers are applying for funding for studies involving animals, they must give clear scientific reasons for using them and explain why there are no realistic alternatives. The MRC is committed to ensuring that these programmes are carried out to the highest possible levels of animal welfare and to replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research.”
The 10 organisations listed in the Home Office report as partaking in animal research are all signed up Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK, an organisation that helps the public understand more about animal research, and who also focus on the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research's (NC3R) “3Rs” - a system that was developed over 50 years ago providing a framework for performing more humane animal research.