There has been a small decrease in the number of animals used in scientific research in the UK during 2013, according to government figures published today. But there has been a slight increase in the number of procedures conducted overall. 4.02 million animals were used in 2013, a decrease of 0.4% on 2012 figures. And 4.12 million procedures were started in 2013, a 0.3% increase. Half of the total number of procedures were for breeding genetically modified (GM) animals, mostly mice. Excluding breeding procedures, the number of procedures decreased by 5%.
Every year, the Home Office publishes the number of animals used and the number of scientific procedures carried out using animals in the UK. Procedures can be actual experiments - like testing a drug, taking a blood sample or changing a rat's diet to see if it gets fatter - but the definition also includes the mating of GM animals. One procedure usually accounts for one animal but sometimes, under tightly controlled conditions approved by the Home Office, more than one procedure will be carried out on one animal.
What are the new figures?
There were 4.12 million scientific procedures using animals started in 2013, an increase of 11,600 (0.3%) compared with 2012. 4.02 million animals were used in these procedures, an decrease of 15,552 (-0.4%) compared with 2012. Mice, rats, birds and fish account for 98% of animals used.
Since 1995 there has been a steady increase in the amount of animal research conducted in the UK. But as the graph below shows, the increase has mostly been due to an rise in the genetic modification of animals, mostly mice. This is because of new, more sophisticated genetic techniques being developed over recent years to study health and disease using animals in the lab. The number of non-breeding procedures has remained relatively stable at around the 2m mark now for over ten years, and is currently on a slight downward trend.
There has been a rise in the use of mice (+18,300 procedures or +1%), fish (+6,500 or +1%), guinea pigs (+13,602 or +107%), sheep (+2,919 or +7%), rabbits (+1,233 or +9%), pigs (+350 or +10%), gerbils (+279 or +82%), primates (+216 or +7%), and reptiles (+183 or +36%).
123, 200 more procedures were carried out for the purposes of breeding GM animals, mostly mice. This is a 6% increase on 2012. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) has produced a great factsheet about the use of GM animals in research if you want to know more about their use and why they are so valuable for research.
All documents and supplementary figures for the Home Office statistics are available here.
What do these figures tell us?
In part, more procedures suggests that more research is underway, which is a good thing for improving healthcare and fighting disease. And the rise in the use of GM animals reflects the increasing importance of these animals in this research. None of the procedures reported in the statistics were for testing cosmetics or household products. Testing cosmetics on animals has been banned in the UK since 1998.
Less animals have been used in 2013 compared to 2012 but we should be careful about reading too much into this. The NC3Rs themselves are clear that these figures are not helpful in assessing the impact of the 3Rs (the replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research), for example, and have developed a more detailed data collection framework to help monitor our success in this area and ensure we can keep improving the 3Rs. And we have provided new guidance on how charities can promote the 3Rs when funding animal research (I've also blogged about this for NC3Rs here).
What does this mean for medical research charities?
It's really important that everyone understands why animals are needed in research to understand disease and develop new treatments, and that we only use them when absolutely necessary. Talking about the use of animals helps provide context to the numbers released today.
The biomedical research sector has committed to greater transparency in animal research through the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, which AMRC signed up to on behalf of the charity sector, along with research councils, universities, learned societies and industry. We are developing a number of resources to help our members talk about the role of animals in the research that they fund, including our guide Talking to the public about animal research, an upcoming workshop (there might still be a few places left) and a public facing leaflet that all our members can use to show their supporters why they fund animal research (coming soon, watch this space).