science

Australian supplier of lab animals to close, sparking fresh debate about use of mice and rats in research


A major supplier of laboratory animals to Australian researchers since 1988 will close within the next 18 months due to financial difficulties, renewing debate about the use of animals in medical and scientific research. .

While some researchers say the announcement from the Animal Resource Centre [ARC] in Western Australia caught them off guard and will further exacerbate difficulties facing research programs caused by Covid lockdowns, others say it is long overdue that scientists look for alternatives to using animals in medical and scientific research.

An email to ARC customers sent by the acting CEO Kirsty Moynihan said the decision to close “… has been made on the basis that it is not able to operate in a financially self-sustaining manner, as required by legislation”.

“In addition, the ARC is required to vacate its current premises at Murdoch University,” the email said.

The ARC referred requests from Guardian Australia for comment to the Western Australian government. A senior WA government spokeswoman told Guardian Australia on Thursday that the ARC had not been financially viable “for some time”.

“The ARC is required to be operated in a financially self-sustaining manner,” she said.

But, she said, the WA government had repeatedly had to step in to cover the ARC’s costs.

“The ARC was originally set up with a focus to provide laboratory animal models to WA research institutions. In recent history, only about 16% of the ARC’s production has gone to WA research institutions.

“The majority of the animal stock sold is supplied to interstate and overseas markets for medical research at a loss – effectively being subsidised by WA taxpayers.”

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Dr Malcolm France, an independent consultant in laboratory animal care and management, said the ARC was the major breeder of specialised strains of lab mice and rats, and supplied animals to medical research programs at most of Australia’s universities and medical research institutes.

“Closure of ARC would not just affect the many medical research programs that depend on these specialised strains of mice and rats, there is also the potential loss of the technical expertise required to breed them,” he said.

“Breeding the highly specialised strains of mice and rats required for medical research is very demanding. Of course, animal welfare should be top priority but to ensure that research data are reliable, a huge amount of effort also has to go into other aspects of their breeding, especially the genetics.

“For example, most lab mice are simply white or black, so without careful genetic monitoring, there is no way of knowing what strain you are working with – which of course is utterly crucial to the quality of the science. ARC has always maintained the highest standards in these aspects of their breeding programs and I can’t see how this can be replaced.”

Associate Prof Brett Lidbury, a scientific adviser to Humane Research Australia and infectious diseases researcher, said he no longer used animals in research. Not only did the high death rate of the animals and ethics of using animals concern him, but he said animal findings were usually not even scientifically useful.

“Animal models are 90-95% ineffective at predicting human disease,” he said. “The overwhelming evidence suggests animal models are in no way the best way to study human disease.”

But he said the culture in Australian research of demanding results in animals before allowing tests in humans had been slow to change. That had made it difficult for researchers who may feel uncomfortable using animals, and know of the limitations for translating those findings to humans, to do things differently.

Lidbury said various alternatives to animal models were already being used overseas.

Computer modelling has advanced so that computer programs can analyse large chemical databases to predict a chemical’s toxicity to humans more accurately than testing them in animals can, and increasingly human tissues and cells are being used in research, though the ethics approvals for this can be long and difficult.

“There are credible advances away from animal models, but getting those alternatives validated and accepted by broader research culture is proving difficult,” Lidbury said. “As a scientist and academic there is always the ‘f’ word – funding. There is almost no significant funding to take alternatives and run large validation studies. In toxicology they have made advances in this space, but in fundamental biomedical research we don’t have that culture and we can’t get the money.

“The other big issue is pressure on academics to publish and compete for grant funding, which sets up a system where people won’t change methods because it’s hard enough to get funding for animal models you’ve spent years developing and trying to get funding for. You can see why that might be career-ending and lab-ending for colleagues to move away from that, though many would love to if they could. But it might mean going for a year or two without publishing and getting funding while they set new, non-animal systems up.”

According to Animals Australia, more than six million animals are used annually in research and teaching in Australia and New Zealand, and many of those experience some degree of pain or stress either due to the experiments they are used for or due to the environments they are kept in.

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Australia does not yet publish national animal research and teaching statistics. Humane Research Australia used to try to collate the data, but stopped doing so in 2018 because of a lack of reporting of this data by state and territory governments.

Prof Melissa Little, the chief scientist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said “huge number of researchers in Australia rely on the ARC”.

The closure of a well-managed facility may mean that laboratories would need to set up their own animal colonies, which would not be good for monitoring, welfare and quality control such as ensuring consistency in the genetics and health of the animals to make them appropriate for use in experiments, she said.

“I get contacted a lot by people who would like to completely eliminate animal research,” she said.

“For all of my research career I have done what I can to reduce use of animals, but we work within a clinical trials framework within which regulators need data to show some evidence of safety before allowing studies to move on to humans. Now that doesn’t mean a mouse is always a good model, but in many instances mice models are informative.

“I think it’s nice for people to imagine that we’re going to completely remove animals from science, and we do try to use, for example, human stem cell models, but the regulators might still say to us there is not enough information, not enough evidence, to allow those studies. They need to see data from a living animal.”

Her own laboratory was trying to work out how to address research once the ARC closed, she said.

But the cost of setting up a new purpose-built facility for research animal breeding was not considered commercially viable, a WA government spokeswoman confirmed.

Dr Monika Merkes, a social researcher and policy consultant who investigates methods and technologies that can replace animals in biomedical research and testing, said the EU and US were phasing out animal research.

“This work has been going on for many years, and the results are documented in publicly available databases,” she said.

“Unfortunately the federal government has so far not provided sufficient incentives for the development of new animal-free methods, nor provided support to animal researchers to update their skills and move with the times.”

The federal government did not respond to requests from Guardian Australia for comment.



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