By Paul Rincon and Mark Kinver
Science reporters, BBC News
The UK government is being taken to court over its duty to cut suffering to lab animals, as figures show another rise in animal tests.
Tests showed a rise of 4% on last year's figures
News of the judicial review case coincided with the release of official Home Office figures showing a large rise in animal experiments last year.
Scientists said tests were necessary to help cure life-threatening diseases.
A total of three million procedures were carried out on animals in 2006, a rise of 4% on the previous year.
The 4% rise in total procedures represents the greatest increase in five years, and the highest number since 1991.
Home Office minister Meg Hillier commented: "Where animal research is the only option, we will continue to ensure that the balance between animal welfare and scientific advancement is maintained."
However, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav) announced it was taking the government to the High Court in London on Tuesday over the fate of laboratory animals.
The case will seek a declaration that the government has failed to ensure animal suffering in Home Office licensed laboratories is kept to a minimum. The judge will be asked to order the Home Office to re-examine its licensing regulations.
In total, 2.95 million animals were used in procedures last year in England, Scotland and Wales.
The majority of procedures - 83% - involved mice, rats and other rodents. The remainder involved primarily fish (9%), birds (4%) and reptiles/amphibians (1%).
Dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates receive special protection under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. These were used in less than half of 1% of the procedures.
Professor Dominic Wells, from Imperial College London's department of medicine, put the major part of the 4% rise down to an increase in the use of genetically modified (GM) animals, "primarily GM mice".
The use of GM animals has more than quadrupled since 1995. In 2006, they were used in 1.04 million procedures - an 8% rise on 2005 figure.
John Richmond, head of the Home Office's scientific procedure division, told journalists: "This is the fifth increase in a row and we think it now signals the previous downward trend (in the number of overall procedures) has been reserved by the increase of use of genetically altered animals."
Alastair Kent, director of the Genetic Interest Group said the statistics were good news for patients with serious diseases. He commented: "Each experiment brings the day closer when we no longer need to use animals, because then we will know enough to work safely with patients."
Buav and others are arguing that government has not managed the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in the expected way, failing to ensure numbers of animals in laboratories has been reduced and that animals' suffering is minimised.
The so-called three "R's" are supposed to underpin laboratory rules and culture. The framework, which is 50 years old, emphasises the need to reduce suffering and find replacement methods that do not involve animals.
Michael Balls, emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Nottingham, was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher's government during the drafting of the 1986 Act.
The act was an attempt to reform rules on animal testing, making individual research projects, as well as scientists, subject to specific approval.
He told the BBC News website: "I don't think the bill would have become law in the form that it did if it hadn't been believed by everybody that much more progress would have been made in the last 20 years."
"People accepted it on the basis of sincere promises that there would be fundamental changes, and I don't think those have happened."
Professor Balls, who is also chairman of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (Frame), an animal welfare charity, said it was "high time" the way animal experiments are licensed in this country was re-examined.
The judicial review is due to start at 1030 BST on Tuesday at the High Court. The Home Office strongly disputes the claims by Buav.
"The UK runs the strictest animal testing regime in the world. Under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, animal procedures are only allowed where the research is essential, there is no other way of obtaining the information, and suffering will be kept to an absolute minimum," a Home Office spokesperson said.
"The Home Office carries out its regulatory responsibilities under the Act with great care and strongly contests the claims made by the Buav."
The three "R's"
But Michelle Thew, chief executive of Buav countered: "The government's handling of the entire animal experiment licensing system is deeply flawed.
"The Home Office is this week charged with ignoring its duty to ensure laboratory animal suffering is kept to a minimum and pulling the wool over the public's eyes about the numbers of experiments that cause substantial animal suffering in laboratories up and down the UK."
Dogs are one of the animals which receive special protection
Animal procedures are "rated" according to how severe they are expected to be when they are licensed.
Michael Balls said he believed some procedures applied to primates, especially those involving the insertion of electrodes into the brain, involved substantial discomfort and suffering. Yet these procedures were classified as "moderate" in terms of the level of suffering.
He commented: "The Royal Society, the medical profession, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London are so powerful in this country that nothing can happen without their approval.
"All (they) have to do is say 'Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and cancer are very serious and if you don't let us use Rhesus monkeys and dogs etc, then we can't solve the problems'. I think somebody ought to call that bluff.
He added: "Clearly we are faced by very serious medical conditions, but if someone says, 'I want to do this work because it will potentially lead to a cure,' how long do we have to wait for it to arrive?
"Every week we have a breakthrough reported and it says 'it is hoped that one day this will lead to a treatment'. On a case-by-case basis, we should monitor more carefully whether progress is being made or not."
John Richmond said there were many signs that alternatives to animals were being taken up.
"The report records that no animals have been used to test cosmetics or household products this year; that no animals have been used for the testing and development of weapons, alcoholic or tobacco products," he explained.
"This gives us an insight to where alternative measures are being taken up. Although the overall procedures are up, there is evidence in the numbers that the development and use of alternatives are up too.
"There has been a sustained reduction of (animal) use by the commercial sector over the past 10-15 years, despite the fact that the investment by the sector in animal research continues to grow."
The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) has launched a national survey of scientists who use animals in their research.
The aim of the survey is to determine what scientists actually know about the three "R's" and how they use them in their everyday work.