Published online 7 October 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.524

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European research animal use holds steady

The use of transgenic mice is on the rise, along with non-animal alternatives.

ratFewer rats are being used in European toxicity tests.CONEYL JAY / SPL

About 12 million animals were used for scientific purposes in the European Union (EU) during 2008, according to the latest statistics published by the European Commission (EC).

The number is similar to that of 2005, when the last statistical report was published. But the figures mask the impact of the gradual introduction of alternatives for safety testing of chemicals and drugs that use many fewer animals. And they have not yet been affected by the deluge of animal tests that stand to be carried out over the next decade or more as a result of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) legislation, which requires safety testing of all chemicals marketed in the EU by 2018.

The largest proportion of research animals is used in fundamental biology studies, and this has increased from 33% in 2005 to 38% in 2008 — a jump of more than half a million animals. Most of this rise is attributable to the growing use of transgenic mice. The total number of mice used for all scientific purposes increased by more than 690,000 in this period. The number of animals used in research and development for human and veterinary medicine dropped from 31% to around 23% over the same period.

European Commission

More than two-thirds of the animals are used by just five of the EU's 27 member states — France (19.4%), the United Kingdom (18.9%), Germany (16.9%), Spain (7.5%) and Italy (7.2%) — where much of the EU's pharmaceutical industry is based. Many drug companies say that they are increasingly relying on non-animal strategies.

Thomas Singer, a drug safety expert from pharmaceutical company Roche, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, says, "The use of human tissue, stem cells and in silico knowledge have greatly and positively impacted our field, in regards reduced use of animals in safety assessment."

In accordance with EU rules, no great apes were used in either 2005 or 2008. All new-world monkeys used were bred in captivity in Europe.

The proportion of animals used in toxicology tests for drugs and industrial chemicals remains the same: 8.7% of the total, representing a little over one million animals. Of these, 80,000 were used for safety testing of industrial chemicals and consumer products. In 2005, this number stood at 100,000, and in 2002 — when there were just 15 EU member states — the figure was 140,000. This steady decline is attributable to the increasing use of validated safety tests which use no, or fewer, animals. But companies meeting the requirements of the REACH legislation will add a further nine million animals by 2018, according to EC estimates. Those figures have been disputed, however (see 'Chemical-safety costs uncertain').

Alternative methods of toxicity testing have already had some effect on animal use, but a bigger impact is expected in the coming years. Thanks to accepted modifications in LD50 testing — which determines how much of a compound is required to kill half of the animals in a given sample — the number of rats used per chemical tested has fallen from 45 to a maximum of 12. This is reflected in a drop in the number of rats used in such tests from 19,700 in 2005 to just 7,000 in 2008. Meanwhile, new alternative methods meant that the number of rabbits used for skin irritation tests fell from 5,100 to 4,200, and that rabbits used in eye irritation tests numbered 2,100, down from 4,000.

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"These are relatively small numbers," says Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and former director of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) at Ispra, Italy. "A bigger impact is likely in the required testing of preparations for injection for their ability to produce fever — there we are talking of tens of thousands of rabbits." The European Pharmacopoeia accepted the ECVAM-validated non-animal methods to replace the rabbit tests this year.

But, for all the reductions, overall numbers have remained about the same, meaning that some must be on the up. One factor raising the numbers of lab mice used is BoTox, a highly toxic biological preparation of botulinum toxin that is used clinically to treat painful muscle spasm. However, it is much more widely used cosmetically, to reduce wrinkles. Each batch of BoTox must be safety tested on mice: in 2005, this required 33,000 mice; by 2008 this had increased to 87,000. 

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  • #60908

    I think the mirror test was done in Elephants and it apperad they passed it, with all the usual caveats.

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