1. Why use animals at all?

1.1 Models of human normality and disease

Animals are used in research when the biological systems being studied are too complex to be modelled in any other way. For example, our immune systems are composed of very many different cell types, located in different parts of our bodies. We can study some of the properties of each of these individual cells in isolation, having harvested them from a dead animal, and this is indeed a very informative approach. However, at present, we can only see how they work together to produce a reaction, for example to a vaccine, by studying the immune system in an intact organism. Likewise, the control of blood glucose levels (which goes wrong in diabetes), involves not only the pancreas (where the hormone insulin is made) but also our muscles, fat stores and the brain.

More and more complex biological systems are being modelled successfully, so the range of non-animal subjects for productive research will continue to grow. It is a central ethical principle, also enshrined in UK law, that, when such opportunities to replace animals with other equally informative experimental systems arise, then these must be taken.

There is another important ethical principle, also enshrined in law, that there must be a potential benefit to human and/or animal welfare to research carried out using animals. Simple curiosity, in itself, is not sufficient justification for this use. In many instances, therefore, animals are being used because they share important features with humans and results obtained in animals in these specific cases will be relevant to human conditions.

1.2 Use in the University of Dundee

Animals are used in research in the University in two connected ways:

  1. As examples of normal physiological systems. How are these controlled (down to the molecular level)? How do they respond to changes in the environment? In what ways can these control mechanisms become disrupted and how does this lead to disease?
  2. As models of diseased or abnormal states. Can these be reversed, or at least slowed, by interventions that might form the basis of new treatments?

While the number of medical treatment and prevention options to improve human health have increased dramatically over the last few decades, there remain a number of very challenging areas, such as:

  • cancer
  • degenerative diseases of the nervous system (e.g., Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease)
  • diseases associated with the global obesity epidemic (e.g., diabetes and cardiovascular disease)
  • "neglected diseases" (often involving parasitic infections and prevalent in some of the poorest countries in the world)
  • diseases involving imbalances in the immune system (e.g., multiple sclerosis, lupus and severe combined immunodeficiencies)

The University has important research programmes in all these areas. We need to have much better understanding of how the conditions first arise if new methods for prevention, early detection and treatment are to be developed. The initial "benefits" are therefore in terms of enhanced knowledge, with the expectation that this will become the basis of improvements in human health. For example, if we understand the molecular details of how certain parasites survive, reproduce and associate with their "host" organisms, we can then identify targets for the development of entirely new drugs that will disrupt these processes, while having only minor and acceptable effects on the human or animal host. This onward development might also occur in the University or almost anywhere else in the world, spurred on by the basic findings coming out of Dundee and collaborating institutes.

2. The 3Rs

The University constantly strives to improve animal welfare and to minimise animal suffering through implementation of the "3Rs". These are:

  • The REPLACEMENT of animals, wherever possible, with alternative systems with which to conduct research.
  • The REDUCTION of the number of animals used to the minimum consistent with the desired outcome, e.g., by detailed review of the existing scientific literature to avoid unnecessary repetition, careful design of new experiments and rigorous statistical treatment of their results;
  • The REFINEMENT of procedures so that the least possible harm is done in collecting the scientific information;

The ethical review process acts as a central hub for the dissemination of best practice in the 3Rs within the University, so that an advance made by one individual or group can be swiftly adopted by as many others as possible.

There is a National Centre for the 3Rs (https://nc3rs.org.uk), which exists to drive progress in all three of these principles across the UK. Some research projects in the University are aimed specifically at enhancing the 3Rs and others have been recognised (in one case by the award of a prize from the National Centre) as having made significant contributions in this area as well.

3. What do we mean by "animal"?

To a biologist, the animal kingdom encompasses a huge range of organisms, from single-celled organisms to humans. A more restricted definition of "animal" is used in UK law, which defines an "animal" to be any vertebrate (i.e. with a backbone) except humans, and any cephalopod species (octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus). The reasoning behind this choice is largely based on "sentience", i.e. our expectation that an animal can perceive events as being unpleasant, distressing and/or painful. This is, of course, a subjective judgement and, while "lower" species such as worms and insects should be used wherever possible instead, there may still be ethical questions that need to be addressed as to their welfare, and whether they in turn can be replaced in future by even less sentient systems.

The UK law provides additional protection to non-human primates (monkeys, apes, etc.) and to species commonly thought of as companion animals, i.e. cats, dogs and horses. In other words, having made a case why the use of animals in research is necessary, someone must then have further justification why only members of these species are suitable.

4. Species in use in the University

The University currently has facilities for the housing of mice, rats, some other small rodent species and amphibia. It currently has no facilities suitable for housing other legally recognised "animal species", though some research is done on insects (fruit flies) and on nematode worms. At present, there is little or no field research carried out on wild animals or birds.

5. Legal regulation

In the UK, the use of animals for scientific and education purposes is regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA). The law was modified slightly in 2012 to bring it into complete compliance with updated EU legislation. No significant change to the UK law is expected, should the UK leave the European Union.

ASPA controls the performance of "regulated procedures" on protected animals (see above). A regulated procedure is defined as one that

  • is carried out for a scientific or education purpose, and
  • might cause the animals pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.

The threshold is set at the likely pain or distress caused by the skilled insertion of a hypodermic needle (i.e. equivalent to the fleeting pain we experience when receiving a single vaccination).

While the law allows for the performance of regulated procedures on living animals for education purposes, no such procedures are currently carried out at the University. The only use of regulated procedures here is therefore for a scientific purpose.

There are some procedures on living animals that are not regulated. These include:

  • procedures which cause less pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm than the threshold. Examples include observational or behavioural studies;
  • Certain methods for the humane killing of animals, listed in Schedule 1 to ASPA. These might be used, for example, to kill animals prior to harvesting tissues or cells for detailed laboratory study.

The University breeds and uses genetically altered mice, as these are invaluable tools for studying the effects of individual genes or groups of genes on normal physiology and on the development and treatment of disease. These animals, however normal their welfare and behaviour appear, are regarded, simply by existing, as being on a regulated procedure. In other words, the benefit of the doubt is given to the animal.

Legal regulation is by the granting of licences by the Home Office and by the scrutiny of our facilities by the Home Office inspectors. There is an Establishment Licence, whose holder accepts overall responsibility for the University's compliance with the law. Project licences are issued to senior researchers and describe the regulated procedures to be performed, the scientific necessity for those procedures, their expected effects on animal welfare and the steps that will be taken to reduce these effects to a minimum. Personal licences are granted to individuals who actually perform the regulated procedures. There are approximately 45 project licence-holders and about 120 personal licence-holders in the University.

6. Ethical review

The ethical issues arising from the use of animals in scientific research can usefully be debated in terms of the balance between harms and benefits. "Harms" in this context relate to the deviations from normal welfare experienced by the animals undergoing regulated procedures. "Benefits", as described above, relate to the potential for better human or animal health in the future.

The "harm / benefit" analysis is carried out in the University's ethical review process. This involves a detailed analysis of research proposals by a welfare and ethical use of animals committee, which comprises a mixture of scientists and non-scientists and includes people with specific animal welfare expertise (e.g. a veterinary surgeon). As well as the consideration of applications for projects to use animals, there are processes for monitoring progress and compliance of on-going research programmes, overseeing the training and competence of University members who work with animals and maintaining the standards of housing in which animals are kept.

7. Animal numbers

The numbers of regulated procedures carried out in the University over the last few years are shown in the table and as a graph.

Species201520162017
TOTAL 43656 34895 33649
Mouse 41953 33861 32725
Rat 938 608 539
Frog 699 392 373
Hamster 66 34 12

image of a grid

The University makes extensive use of genetically altered mice in its research programmes, primarily to develop our understanding of how certain genes affect the development of disease and the response to therapies. While the great majority of these animals apparently experience completely normal welfare throughout their lives, the law requires us to view their maintenance and breeding as being, in themselves, regulated procedures. In 2017, a total of 22211 mice were recorded as being used for the maintenance of established breeding colonies of genetically altered mice, and a further 1888 mice for the generation of new colonies. The number of regulated procedures in mice in that year, excluding those in breeding programmes, was 8626.

In 2017, all licensed establishments were asked to submit statistics as to their use of animals for scientific purposes that did not require licences (i.e. were "non-regulated"). In that year, 6719 mice and 752 rats were used for such activities in the University. About a third of the mice and all of the rats were genetically normal animals that were killed humanely to provide tissues and cells for detailed laboratory study. The other two-thirds of the mice were genetically normal animals that were generated in the breeding of genetically altered mice.

8. Relevant websites

  1. The Institute of Animal Technology (http://www.iat.org.uk). This is the professional body for animal care staff working in the scientific domain. The University is a corporate member.
  2. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research (http://concordatopenness.org.uk). The University is a signatory to this important agreement.
  3. The University has endorsed the ARRIVE guidelines (https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/arrive-guidelines), which are intended to improve the reporting of experiments involving animals in academic publications.
  4. The Home Office (https://www.gov.uk/research-and-testing-using-animals).
  5. The European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/index_en.htm).