Replacing the use of animals in research

How can we change the current thought culture of the research community in regards to animal use in basic research? The question was asked by Kathrin Herrman in this online conference that I’m attending today.

With 20 years experience of working with animal welfare and 3Rs research in a biomedical research institute, I certainly have thoughts around that question. For transparency, the evidence base for this is only my own experience; I haven’t systematically collected data.

A challenge when tackling the question is that we don’t know a lot about how researchers actually think about the use of animals versus non-animal replacement alternatives as research models. But if we think about the research community and its practice as a reflection of collective and individual thinking, there certainly is a rather large acceptance of the use of animals. That doesn’t mean that researchers wish to use animals, it means that at least in their current context they understand that it is sometimes the best way.

Legislation is definitely not going to change this. We have very good legislation regulating animal use in research in Europe, but however much that legislation includes the aim of total replacement of animal research with non-animal methods, it is not (and should probably not be) designed to lead to that replacement. The legislative mechanism for what kind of research will be allowed is the review process for licensing experiments. In this process, researchers present their project plan to an ethics committee (or something similar, the names vary between countries). The review can lead to many changes of the project, but the choice of research method isn’t really something an ethics committee can influence much. Only people who are real experts on the research in question can in an authoritative way challenge the choice of methods, and the discussion in an ethics committee which has to evaluate projects from a wide range of topics can’t be on that level.

But there can be other types of “external” influence on researchers’ choice. The currencies in research are successful funding applications and published papers. So decisions that affect funding attribution and publication acceptance will be highly influential. The challenge in influencing culture that way is that funding and publication decisions are still made by scientists – so it is still about changing how scientists think.

My own personal belief is that the change from animal to non-animal methods come through a combination of concerns about the use of animals (which many scientists have; they are after all often the ones who have to carry out the experiments) and availability of non-animal models which are actually better than animal models. The current development of organoids and advanced 3D models is very interesting from this perspective.

The overall research infrastructure is also important. Funding and publication decisions are part of that, but also the support structure that exist in the immediate environment. If I think about my own organisation, we provide excellent support for people who plan to use animals (and we are legally required to do that, people need to have training to get a license, the animal house need to be licensed and have enough personnel etc). We need to provide the same amount of support for people who want to use advanced non-animal models.

And in most research institutions that is far from where we are today.

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