Australia’s biggest supplier of mice and rats for research announced last week that it plans to shut down operations over the next 18 months — a decision that scientists say could have a devastating impact on biomedical research in the country.
The imminent closure of the Animal Resources Centre (ARC) “obviously is going to leave a huge gap in the supply of animals to many universities and medical-research institutes”, says Malcolm France, a Sydney-based veterinary consultant and former president of the Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Association.
The ARC is a breeding facility in Perth, Western Australia, with an annual revenue of around Aus$8 million (US$5.9 million) and around 60 staff members. In 2020, it sold 199,258 rats and mice. The vast majority went to Australian clients, but it also exports animals to nations including New Zealand, Indonesia and South Korea.
However, on 2 July, the ARC e-mailed its customers, delivering the news that supplies would soon be running dry. Operations will wind down over the next 12–18 months, wrapping up completely by December 2022.
Not financially viable
The facility is “the only major producer of animals specially for sale” to Australia’s 43 universities, more than 50 medical research institutes, and other government and commercial research organizations, so the “overall reliance on ARC is very high”, and the loss of these animals is likely to be very problematic, says France.
The e-mail from acting ARC chief executive Kirsty Moynihan said that the decision to wind down operations was taken because the centre had not been “able to operate in a financially self-sustaining manner” — and it needed to vacate its premises at Perth’s Murdoch University.
The ARC is run by a body of the Western Australia (WA) state government, which made the closure decision. In a statement e-mailed to Nature, a spokesperson for the state health minister clarified the reasons. They said the ARC is not financially viable and “the WA government has repeatedly been required to step in and make financial contributions”.
The spokesperson added that the ARC was originally intended to supply laboratory animals as models of disease to research institutions in Western Australia, but currently only about 16% of animals sold remain in the state; “the majority of the animal stock sold is supplied to interstate and overseas markets for medical research at a loss — effectively being subsidized by WA taxpayers”.
A catalyst for the decision was the fact that the centre’s lease at Murdoch University is due to expire in 2023, and “the cost of setting up a new purpose-built facility for research-animal breeding is not seen as commercially viable”.
But this justification ignores the impact that the centre’s closure will have on institutions in Western Australia, and “shows no inclination to work with the federal government or other stakeholders to come up with a plan”, says France.
Kirsty Short, a virologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, says the news was shattering and she initially didn’t believe the e-mail was real. “I just didn’t see how that was possible,” says Short. She relies on the ARC as the sole supplier of animal models for her research into the effects of diabetes and obesity on the immune response to viral infection.
Until an alternative source of these animals is found, many researchers might have to halt experiments, she says. “We are all worried about that.”
Researchers at the University of Sydney are also very concerned, says deputy vice-chancellor for research Duncan Ivison. The closure “will have major implications for Australia’s medical-research effort, given that animal models are critical to our understanding of disease processes and to the development of new medical interventions”, he adds.
Michelle Haber, executive director of the Children’s Cancer Institute in Sydney, says the ARC accounts for 80% of the animals her institution orders, including one strain of mice not available from any other supplier in Australia. The closure could have a significant impact on the institute’s research programmes and ability to develop new treatments for children with cancer, she says.
The problem will not be easy to fix, say researchers, because other breeding centres will find it hard to scale up in time to fill the gap. One option is to import animals, which would be expensive, difficult owing to quarantine rules, and stressful for the animals.
Individual universities could extend their own breeding programmes, and expand to maintain highly specialized animal lines, but many have limited space to house the animals, say researchers. “The question is, who is going to bear the burden of that cost and how feasible is that?” says Short. The ARC’s high quality-control standards will also be “difficult to replicate across many universities”, adds France.
Ivison says the University of Sydney has in recent weeks joined other research-intensive universities to try to find a solution, but that might not materialize before the centre closes, “which will leave researchers scrambling for alternatives”.
For now, scientists have been left reeling. “There are just so many questions that have to be answered,” says Short. But she and others hope another supplier will step in to fill the vacuum. “We must come up with a solution nationally,” says Haber.