The Portuguese biomedical research sector has welcomed the publication of the first comprehensive statistics, from across the EU, on all uses of animals in scientific, medical and veterinary research.
The headline figures published show that the total number of animals used in the EU in 2017 was 9,388,162 – equivalent figure in 2016 was 9,817946. More than 92% of the total were mice, fish, rats and birds, whereas dogs, cats and monkeys, account for around 0.25% of the total.
The total is made up of animals used in basic and applied research, and regulatory studies aimed at ensuring the safety of medicines and other products, routine production and education and training.
Statistics were also released for animal use in Portugal in 2017 (see case studies below). The most used animals in Portugal in 2017 were mice, rats, and fish, which represented 97.7% of the total - dogs, cats, and monkeys made up 0% (see also Notes to Editors below).
Portugal’s biomedical sector confirmed its commitment to openness when 16 institutions signed a Transparency Agreement to communicate in a more open way about how animals are used in research.
Commenting on the figures, Kirk Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association (EARA), said: “The EU biomedical sector is committed to transparency and openness on the use of animals in research and this is another step towards that.
“Using animals as a research model is often the only way to develop new treatments and understanding of the human body and we congratulate the EU for making these statistics public.”
Separate figures were also produced to record the number of animals that were bred but not used in experiments, which was 12,597,816 across the EU. These can be animals that underwent no procedures themselves; that were the wrong gender for a particular research study; or were a necessary surplus from breeding.
Electronic modulation used in rats to treat diabetes
Scientists at the CEDOC-NOVA Medical School, Lisbon, Portugal, have found a therapy that could provide a way for patients to manage type 2 diabetes with fewer side-effects.
In partnership with Galvani Bioelectronics, the team found that is possible to improve insulin resistance and normalize sugar levels in blood, by modulating electrically the carotid sinus nerve (CSN) in rats - the nerve that connects the carotid body with the brain (see video).
The carotid body is an organ that regulates insulin sensitivity and its dysfunction is involved in the development of metabolic diseases.
This research showed that is possible to maintain glucose homeostasis in animals in which electrodes have been implanted in the CSN and submitted to electrical modulation, without significant adverse effects. Also, it was shown that the electrical modulation is reversible.
It could provide a long-term management of the disease with few adverse effects and interference with daily activities.
Ana Isabel Moura Santos, Vice-Dean of NOVA Medical School and President of Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Associations (FELASA), said:
“The use of animals has been essential to understand the mechanisms underlying chronic diseases. NOVA Medical School is committed to proving open and transparent information about its research involving animals and the standards of animal care and welfare carried out in the institution.
For us signing the Portuguese Transparency Agreement has helped to demonstrate our engagement in a dialogue with the society to improve the level of understanding the reasons why animals are still needed for biomedical research.”
Fighting skin cancer with a vaccine
Scientists in Portugal have created a vaccine based on nanotechnology which can prevent the development of skin cancer in mice.
The nanovaccine, which consists of components of skin cancer cells, was developed by scientists from the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Lisbon, an EARA member, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University.
This nanovaccine does not target tumor cells directly, but instead uses the body's immune system to achieve selective destruction of cancer cells.
These results are extremely relevant for cancer patients, preventing the spread of cancer through the body.
Cecília Maria Pereira Rodrigues, Coodinator of the Department of Biochemistry and Human Biology at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Lisbon, said:
“The use of animals in research is essential as it enables us to discover and develop new treatments. Animal models have greatly improved our understanding of human biology and health. They also help ensure the effectiveness and safety of new treatments.”
Separate figures were also produced to record the number of animals that were bred but not used in experiments, this was 12,597,816 across the EU.
There was also a figure for animals used for the creation and maintenance of genetically altered animal lines (1,276,587).
Most of the medicines we have come from animal research. Often science doesn’t need to use animals, but for many key questions they are crucial.
Animals are used alongside several other techniques such as cell cultures, human studies and computational models. These methods are used – often in tandem – to answer the key biological questions necessary to understand and treat disease. Before an animal model is selected, researchers must show that the knowledge could not be acquired using non-animal methods.
Notes to the editor
Animal research is strictly regulated under the EU Directive 2010/63. Every procedure, from a simple blood test to major surgery, requires individual, establishment and project licences, as well as approval from animal welfare and ethical review bodies.
All organisations are committed to the ‘3Rs’ of replacement, reduction and refinement. This means avoiding or replacing the use of animals where possible; minimising the number of animals used per experiment and optimising the experience of the animals to improve animal welfare. However, as institutions expand and conduct more research, the total number of animals used can rise even if fewer animals are used per study.
Since 2013, it has been illegal to sell or import cosmetics anywhere in the EU where the finished product or its ingredients have been tested on animals.
Dogs can be used to test new drugs before clinical trials are conducted in humans, while monkeys are also used in drug testing and have played a significant role in research in AIDS and developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
Dogs are currently being used to develop treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a debilitating muscle wasting disease that has no cure and ultimately leads to early death.
Like humans, non-human primates (NHPs) have a prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in cognitive behaviour. This means that NHPs can help scientists understand how the brain works and help us develop treatments for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and OCD.
Why can’t these statistics be compared to previous reports from the old legislation?
These new EU reports were developed to provide significantly more detailed and tailored information on animal use. Moreover, the new reports cover areas of animal use that were not included in the reports under the previous legislation. They also include aspects of animal use, which have not previously been available, for example, on the genetic status of animals and the actual severity experienced by the animals during their use in procedures. In terms of numbers, some uses of animals, which were previously grouped together, are now covered by different sections of this report.
As errors are being detected and consistency improved, it is clear that some of the fluctuations in numbers, or even what may seem to appear as trends at this early stage, may indeed instead be due to improved understanding of the reporting obligations. For these same reasons it is too early to draw conclusions on any firm trends on the basis of the first three years of data.
The European Animal Research Association (EARA) is an organisation that communicates and advocates on biomedical research using animals and provides accurate, evidence-based information. It has more than 80 partner organisations, including private and public research bodies, universities, regional and national biomedical associations and suppliers, across 17 European countries.