One of the world’s top genomics centres — the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK — has decided to close a 13-year-old laboratory dedicated to animal research that supplies mouse strains to thousands of genetic researchers worldwide. But some scientists worry that it’s too soon for Sanger to scale back animal research — and that the move will curtail the centre’s ability to do cutting-edge science.
Set up in 2006, the animal facility, which was built at a cost of £30 million (US$38 million), hosts mice, zebrafish, rats and frogs used in research, and employs about 70 people.
The institute says that the closure, announced to staff on 16 May, is a consequence of a move towards using alternative technologies, such as cell lines and organoids — 3D biological structures that can be grown in a dish — in genetics research, instead of animals. But Sanger scientists studying complex diseases such as cancer, which require an understanding of how genes interact in whole organisms, will still use mice in individual labs on-site until the facility closes in 2022 at the latest. They may also be able to use animal facilities at nearby institutions, such as the University of Cambridge.
“This decision has been driven by the institute’s scientific strategy” and was based on a rigorous review and consultation, says director Mike Stratton, who informed staff of the closure.
The Sanger institute is most famous for its role in the Human Genome Project, decoding one-third of the sequence of human DNA. The institute is also well known for the part it played in a project in which researchers ‘knocked out’ every gene from the mouse genome one by one. It also created reference library of the genomes of mouse strains commonly used in research, which enables researchers worldwide to work out whether mutations they find in experiments are new or established.
The animal facility’s closure reflects the gradual reduction of animal research at the Sanger over the years, says Mike Turner, director of science at the Wellcome Trust in London, the biomedical charity that funds Sanger. The institute’s scientific strategy is shifting towards alternative projects, such as the Tree of Life, which will sequence the genetic codes of 66,000 species of UK plants and animals. Sanger is also a partner in the international Human Cell Atlas project, which will create reference maps of all human cells, he says.
“The current trend is to move towards in vitro systems to study human biology,” agrees Ramiro Alberio, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, who was not surprised by the closure.
But the decision has prompted questions among some biomedical scientists. They fear that Sanger will not be able to stay at the forefront of genetics research, which they say still relies on experiments using animal models of disease.
The closure is a “giant step backwards”, says Robert Weinberg, a cancer biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who uses animals in his research. “I’m very surprised because this decision is so wrong-headed. It is premature by a decade or two. Sanger will fall behind.”
He says that as scientists learn more about the processes of diseases including cancer, they are increasingly realizing that genome analysis alone will not provide all the answers. Mice are particularly useful for studying complex tissues. “Mouse models are irreplaceable and have not been obviated by complex data sets,” he says.
The animal facility at Sanger is one of the best in the world, says Monica Justice, a molecular geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. Justice says that the Sanger facility was set up to help scientists understand what mouse genes do, and that many mouse programmes in this field — called functional genomics — are ending because they have made progress, so there is less need for large mouse colonies like the one at Sanger. But she says that other institutes are expanding their mouse research — mouse models are increasingly used by scientists in preclinical research, for instance.
The changes could also dissuade mouse geneticists from working at Sanger, and such in-house expertise is crucial for a first-class biology programme, says David Beier, a developmental geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The closure comes six months after Sanger scientists voiced “grave concerns” about animal welfare at the facility in a letter to Sanger’s chief operating officer, Martin Dougherty.
In the November 2018 letter, an unsigned version of which Nature has seen, the scientists said that staff shortages were risking the facility’s high welfare standards and that the lack of trained staff meant animals were being culled because they could not be used. This violates ethical standards, as well as requirements laid out by the Home Office, the UK government department responsibile for animal research, said the letter. “The failings are such that we believe there is an imminent risk of Home Office infringements and potentially licence revocations.”
A Sanger spokesperson told Nature that it responded to those concerns, implemented a programme to address them, and notified the Home Office. The closure of the facility is not linked to welfare issues, said the spokesperson, and animal welfare is of the utmost importance at the institute.
Allan Bradley, a mouse geneticist who worked at Sanger until November 2018 and who helped to set up the animal facility, says it is regarded by scientists worldwide as a treasure. The facility has upheld the highest international standards of animal welfare over the past 12 years, says Bradley, who is also a former director of Sanger.
Nature 569, 612 (2019)