Category Archives: Guest Posts

New steps towards transparency at Belgian EARA member

EARA member Union Chimique Belge (UCB) has included the total number of animals used in research for the first time in its latest annual report.

The 2018 report of the biompharmaceutical company, based in Belgium, contains a governance section that outlines the use of animals in its biomedical research.

UCB states that a total of 17,020 animals (both internally and externally at CROs) were used: 97.6 % of all animals used were rodents, with non-human primates, dogs, llamas, mini-pigs and rabbits accounting for the remaining 2.4%.

‘With its continued commitment to the progressive implementation of in silico and in vitro technologies, UCB continues to take every opportunity to decrease the number of animals used in research studies’, says the report.

See also the UCB video.

Why Belgium still needs animal testing in the fight against cancer

In a piece first published in the Belgian news magazine Knack (in Dutch), Prof. Damya Laoui, from the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB, an EARA member), in Belgium, together with Dr. Liesbeth Aerts and Dr. Jeroen Aerts from Infopunt Proefdieronderzoek (IPPO, also an EARA member), explain that researchers don’t take the use of animals in biomedical research lightly. 

Many people are critical of animal testing, and from an emotional point of view this is very understandable. Animals are living beings. They have basic emotions and they also experience physical pain. As researchers, we are not blind or insensitive to animal suffering, but neither can we ignore the pain of almost 10 million people who die of cancer worldwide every year.

In 2018, some 70,000 Belgians received a new cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, their prognosis is in many cases a lot better than for people who received the same diagnosis 10 or 20 years ago. Thanks to advances in biomedical research – including through animal testing – the treatment options for cancer are rapidly expanding. Nevertheless, the number of cancer cases continues to increase as well, and the disease continues to take many lives.

To the people who claim that we can face this challenge without animal research, we would say: please walk the talk. From our hands-on experience as biomedical researchers, we would like to argue for greater nuance in the debate against animal testing. Let’s bust some often heard myths:

Myth One: Animal testing is no longer necessary because we can get the same results through computer simulations

Unfortunately, we cannot simulate what we do not understand; that’s kind of the definition of a simulation. Despite our increasing knowledge, there are still a lot of body processes that we do not understand well enough to be able to fully predict them. If we could, we would already have a solution to all diseases.

Just like animal experiments, computer simulations are one type of tool in our experimental toolbox and they can certainly help us in the search for answers. For example, computer simulations are useful to screen different versions of a candidate drug molecule, or to predict possible negative effects of a drug on a cell. Depending on the substance and the application, additional (animal) tests will nevertheless be required.

Myth Two: Researchers use laboratory animals because it is easier and cheaper

Researchers who work with laboratory animals don’t do this for fun. The breeding and housing of experimental animals is – depending on the species – time-consuming and very expensive. There are strict rules and conditions (and rightly so!) which mean that for each test an ethical file has to be drawn up and submitted to an ethical committee.

If an experiment can be done in a cell culture dish, then the animal experiment simply cannot take place. Can human samples be used instead? Also then, animal tests are prohibited.

Myth Three: Animal experiments are useless, because mice are not the same as humans

Mice are indeed not people, but they do show a lot of similarities. The functioning of many organs is similar and by changing certain genes in mice, we are able to answer very fundamental questions, for example about the interaction between the immune system and cancer cells in a complex organism. That’s exactly why mice are used to study new immunotherapies.

Exactly because there are also important differences in mice and humans, researchers sometimes need to use other animal species such as dogs or monkeys. As these are more evolved animal species, they are only used in very exceptional situations.

We have achieved many medical breakthroughs thanks to animal experiments; think of organ transplants, blood transfusions, treatments for diabetes and AIDS, or the development of vaccines against polio, hepatitis and, most recently, the Ebola virus. More than 80% of the Nobel Prizes in Medicine also went to breakthroughs that were based on animal research.

VIDEO: In a lecture for the University of Flanders, Prof. dr. Damya Laoui, of VIB, in Belgium, underscores the need for animal research for her pioneering work into immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.

Animal experiments are not a perfect fix; of course they also have limitations. They shouldn’t be the default option, rather, it’s about using the right model for the right questions. Just as for other non-animal research methods, such as computer simulations or experiments in cell lines, there are advantages and disadvantages that have to be weighted.

The legislation on animal testing is therefore built around the principle of the 3Rs: Reduce, Refine, Replace.

  • Reduction means that only the absolutely required number of animals is used for each experiment. It is up to the researchers to make a statistically solid estimate for each experiment, and up to the ethics committee to finally decide.
  • Refinement means that an animal test must be done under the best possible conditions, e.g. with painkillers if necessary, and that animal welfare should be considered at all times. This includes legally specified conditions relating to the number of animals per cage, the control of temperature and humidity in the room, and the provision of toys.
  • Replacement emphasises the legal need to replace animal testing where alternatives exist.

As researchers, we also apply the fourth ‘R’ of responsibility. It goes without saying that there should be zero tolerance policy of researchers who would flout these rules.

Scientists would love to have the tools available to map the complex mechanisms of cancer metastases, for example, or to explore new avenues for immunotherapy, without animal testing. For the time being, however, we don’t. That does not stop us from trying to do better every day. We keep pushing, not only for new treatments for patients, but also for better, more refined research methods.

End

The first ten years of the UK’s Understanding Animal Research

by UAR Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett

Understanding Animal Research (UAR) reached its tenth birthday on 1 January 2019 and we have been engaging and informing people about how and why animals are used in research for a decade. So we thought that it would be a good time to have a look back at some of the highlights of the past decade and remind ourselves of how UAR came about and what it has achieved so far.

UAR has inherited the DNA of two parent UK organisations – the Research Defence Society (RDS) and the Coalition for Medical Progress (CMP). RDS was founded by Stephen Paget in January 1908 as a response to the rising profile of organisations opposed to the use of animals in research, primarily the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV, now known as Cruelty Free International). Continue reading

EU Directive ‘cannot be implemented in isolation’ Brussels roundtable agrees

At a roundtable discussion on the use of animals in scientific research there is overwhelming agreement that Europe has appropriate and detailed legislation regulating the use of animals in scientific research, that adapts to and encourages scientific progress.

Conclusions also show that successful implementation of the Directive is a shared responsibility. The round table identified opportunities to join forces and work together, as the Directive 2010/63/EU cannot be successfully implemented by organisations or individuals working in isolation.

At the meeting in Brussels, representatives from the diverse sectors within the biomedical community (academia, industry, research organisations, medical charities, etc.) and policy-makers discuss the recommendations of the European Commission review report of the Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.

The objective of the roundtable was to  inform policy discussion in EU institutions and to identify recommendations for the users’ community on this basis. Topics under discussion were: the implementation of the Directive; improving openness and transparency; ideas for further areas to be tackled. Continue reading

Supporting excellent biomedical science in Europe

The first FEAM European Biomedical Policy Forum annual lecture took place in Brussels, in March, dedicated to the topic Biomedical and health research: developing a vision for Europe.

The Forum is an initiative from the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) and aims to bring together representatives from academia, research charities, industry, European and national trade associations and professional bodies, regulators, public health bodies, and patient and consumers groups. Among the topics discussed were: thematic priorities for future research; linkage with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); research missions; current gaps in support; and how to improve coordination and consolidation of research programmes across Europe.

This  is  an  important  time  for  European  health  policy  and  for  sustaining  biomedical  research  and innovation. The forthcoming EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, FP9, provides a critical opportunity for stakeholders across the biomedical and health sectors to discuss their research vision and priorities for Europe, linkage with global goals, and defining approaches to closing gaps in support and to promoting coordination of effort. Continue reading

Three cheers for China’s cloned monkeys

The cloning of primates is a great scientific breakthrough.

Academic and author Stuart Derbyshire hails the scientific possibilities of the successful cloning of non-human primates in China.

It’s likely that you have heard of ‘Dolly’ the sheep, famously announced as the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned, in February 1997 (Dolly was born in July 1996). Dolly was a product of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), which involved taking an adult cell from the udder of a female sheep and using the nucleus from that cell to replace the nucleus of an egg from another female sheep. The egg was successfully encouraged to fuse with the new nucleus using electric shocks and then began to divide as would a normal embryo. The fused egg was implanted into a third female sheep for gestation. Dolly, bizarrely, had three mothers, and was a genetic clone of the mother who donated the udder cells.

Last week, scientists from Shanghai’s Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience reported that they had used a similar SCNT technique to clone two macaque monkeys – called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. Cloning of animals by SCNT had been previously reported in 23 other mammal species, including mice, cattle, pigs, rats, cats and dogs, but had never before been reported in a primate species. The relative genetic closeness of humans and monkeys has generated a lot of hand-wringing and concerns about the now nearer possibility of human cloning.

Most reports have, however, downplayed that possibility. The eventual birth of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua followed the production of 260 early embryos, resulting in 43 pregnancies of which 41 failed. Such failure rates would not be tolerated as reasonable to produce human offspring. Also, the SCNT technique used to produce Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were only successful with cells taken from foetal, rather than adult tissue. The attempts made with adult tissue all failed. Although we do have a primate clone, therefore, we still do not have a primate clone generated from adult cells as was the case for Dolly. That makes the prospect of cloning as a fertility treatment, and more fanciful suggestions of rearing a clone of an adult or recently deceased relative, currently distant. Continue reading

Opinion: Making sense of sentience

With a draft UK Animal Welfare Bill looking to put the concept of ‘animal sentience”directly into law and an ongoing debate about the levels of pain different species might experience, psychologist Stuart Derbyshire asks if we are really observing pain in some animals or some other reaction.

Recently, the government of Switzerland ordered that lobsters should no longer be dropped alive into boiling water in case the lobster feels pain. Much of the evidence that lobsters might feel pain is extrapolated from observations of other crustaceans, such as hermit crabs, which avoid areas where they previously received electrical shocks, and will leave a protective, sheltered, area when shocked. It is also noted that lobsters and other crustaceans will move away from intense heat.

Still, how much of a ‘pain’ experience can we expect a lobster to have with such a sparse nervous system?  The avoidant behaviour of crustaceans is certainly consistent with an experience of pain. Locusts, for example, have been observed to continue munching on vegetation even while they are themselves being eaten, which is much less consistent with pain experience. Avoidant behaviour, however, is far from demonstrating an experience of pain. Even the humble fruit fly drosophila (otherwise known as a maggot) will bend and roll away if you light a naked flame next to it. Continue reading

University of Munster launches Principles document on the ethical treatment of animals in testing.

The University of Münster, in Germany, has launched its Principles on the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Scientific Research and Teaching, as part of the institution’s approach to greater transparency on the issue of animal research.

Part of this initiative has been to invite journalists to visit the university’s European Institute for Molecular Imaging (EIMI) and the Central Institute for Animal Experiments (ZTE), which houses rats, pigs, zebra fish and 14 white rabbits for courses on animal testing. this article is reproduced from the university’s website.

Dr. Sonja Schelhaas, who works at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging at Münster University, answers questions from ZEIT editor Fritz Habekuß during the journalists’ visit.

BEHIND THE SCENES: JOURNALISTS VISIT THE ANIMAL TESTING LAB
AT MUNSTER UNIVERSITY

“The white mouse has been anaesthetized. Its little legs have been fixed to a heating plate by means of adhesive strips, and a large amount of gel has been spread over its clean-shaven breast. An ultrasound probe is positioned overhead, and Richard Holtmeier, a member of the team at the European Institute for Molecular Imaging (EIMI) at the University of Münster is using this to study how the mouse copes with a plastic catheter which has been inserted into its carotid artery. Sources of infection inside the body can be seen on the screen of the ultrasound device.

“We can’t see inflammations without using optical imaging,” says Prof. Michael Schäfers, the Director of EIMI. The researchers use this experiment to try and find out why bacteria collect on artificial implants such as hips or knees. The experiment lasts ten minutes, and afterwards Richard Holtmeier carefully puts the mouse in the storage box. “We need animal testing because we can’t carry out the experiments on humans,” Schäfer explains. “It takes a very long time before our findings can be used for the benefit of patients.” During any series of experiments a mouse is used, on average, two and a half times. After this, the animal is killed and tissue is removed from it for further research.

In the lab there are seven journalists from newspapers and a news agency who have been invited here by the Münster University Press Office. Full of curiosity, they watch the EIMI staff at work. A hubbub of voices fills the cramped room. Everyone is wearing a white coat, everyone has to watch out for the others in the room. While the researchers around Michael Schäfers describe their daily work and demonstrate three experiments involving imaging, the journalists go about their own work: asking questions, making plenty of notes. The reason for the journalists’ visit is the unanimous vote by the University Senate in October to adopt the six-page “Principles on the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Scientific Research and Teaching”.

Call for greater transparency
Seeing journalists in an animal testing laboratory at the University of Münster is something that would have been unimaginable until just recently. Over the past few years, though, there have been ever louder demands – from both inside and outside the University – for greater transparency. Calls for a debate came not only from among students, but also from scientists and researchers who advocated more openness. The idea of drawing up a set of principles was born and was supported by the Rectorate. On the “Coordination Committee for Animal Testing”, whose members came from a variety of disciplines, there then followed some lengthy, painstaking wrangling to reach agreement on content and wording.

The Principles were to be presented to the Senate in 2016. The Committee informed the University Press Office. One thing was clear: publicly, the Principles should be made as widely known as possible. But it was also clear that it would be difficult to persuade external journalists to come to Münster for a press briefing just to hear about these Principles. For journalists, it is incomparably more interesting to see and experience what the issue is all about. Thus it was that the idea was born of combining a press briefing with discussions and a look inside an animal testing laboratory. The Press Office had already worked out the plans with the researchers involved when the preparations had to be halted. The reason was that the Senate asked for a public hearing to be held before the Principles were adopted. And so the thought of any PR work was put on hold until then. Continue reading

We aren’t sadists, but we do animal research

A group of young, ambitious Belgian scientists have had enough of standing by doing nothing while animal research is criticised in the media. This article by Liesbeth Aerts and Jeroen Aerts was translated from the original Dutch version published in De Standaard on 26 December 2016.

‘Sadists’, ‘bastards, ‘a gang of psychopaths’, ‘worse than Dutroux [serial killer and child molester]’ … a selection of the insults directed at animal researchers that appear each time the debate about animal research surfaces in the media. One day we are awarded with prizes for our research, the other day we are cursed, insulted or threatened.

As young ambitious researchers, we care deeply about our work and also about this controversial subject. The mixed feelings of the general public indicate there is still a lot of mystery about what really goes on behind the doors of a scientific laboratory.

Spokespersons and policy makers don’t seem to understand it very well either, and the people heading our research institutes are silent as usual. Since we are doing the actual animal experiments, we are the ones at the receiving end of all of these insults. We are told to keep our head down, for fear of reprisal; but we don’t want to stand by and do nothing while we are put on trial in the press and on social media. Continue reading

The wild card of animal rights’ groups: Freedom of Information requests

This blog post was originally published on the Understanding Animal Research website on February 3.

EARA and Understanding Animal Research, one of our UK partners, promote the importance of universities and other research institutions across Europe of being clear and open about their research. To pre-empt the regular Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about the numbers of animals used, some institutions have taken to pro-actively publishing these on their website (often including a breakdown by species). Continue reading