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Wednesday, 8 September, 1999, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Animal experimenters' 'changing mentality'
A conference of 900 scientists has endorsed a three-point plan to reduce the use of animals in medical experiments and cosmetics testing.

The scientists gathered in Bologna, Italy and backed the "three R's" of Reduction, Refinement and Replacement.

In the UK, the use of laboratory animals has fallen since the 1970s but government statistics do not include as many as five million mice in which gene alterations have been unsuccessful.

Anti-vivisectionists gathered outside the conference maintained that not enough was being done. "They make too many compromises," said Fabrizia Pratesi.

But the conference chairman Michael Balls said the three R's were gaining popularity with younger researchers: "There is a changing mentality and more and more people are coming to believe that the three R's are a way for everybody to win. It's good for science and good for animals."

Alternatives to the use of animals on show in Bologna included a rat model, complete with monitored heartbeat, on which trainees can practise surgical operations. Cosmetics company L'Oreal displayed their artificial skin, grown from real human cells, which can test for adverse skin reactions.

The three R's endorsed by the 3rd World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences are:

  • Reduction - Using fewer animals by employing more efficient methods or using procedures that do not involve animals.
  • Refinement - Using more humane methods that alleviate or minimise the potential pain and distress to laboratory animals.
  • Replacement - Developing completely new forms of experimentation that do not require the use of animals.
Official government statistics show that the number of animals used in experiments in UK laboratories rose slightly last year to just over 2.6 million. This is about half the level of animal experimentation in the 1970s.

However, the raw statistics do not convey the complete picture. The production of transgenic animals - animals whose genetic make-up has been modified for a particular experiment - results in large numbers of unwanted animals that cannot be used in laboratories and are simply destroyed.

These animals are not counted in the Home Office statistics.

It is estimated that as many as five million animals were destroyed in this way last year because the genetic modifications did not work or the breeding process resulted in animals that were "useless" for other reasons such as wrong sex or weight.

Richard McGowan, from the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (Frame), says the introduction of alternative methods is required if usage rates are to fall further.

"The pharmaceutical industry has been using a lot of cell tests instead of animals early on in drug development, so that very toxic chemicals can be weeded out. They might also use computers to compare the structure of their new compound with data from existing drugs to determine what the effect of a new pharmaceutical might be."

Last year the UK Government announced an end to licences for cosmetics testing on animals. However, the change affects only a tiny fraction of laboratory animals - less than 0.1% of the total used - and much of the existing work is expected to be transferred to other countries where no voluntary ban exists.

See also:

17 Nov 98 | Science/Nature
08 Dec 98 | Science/Nature
05 May 99 | Science/Nature
13 Aug 99 | Politics
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