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Australia is missing an opportunity to replace animal use in medical research
Despite our supposed commitment to the 3Rs principle of Replace, Reduce and Refine, Australia has made very little progress in replacing animals in research – as illustrated by the vast numbers of animals used each year. With growing concern within the research community that flawed animal studies are contributing significantly to failures in translational research – this is an area that requires urgent attention.
According to FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), in spite of huge research effort and expense, development of new treatments has slowed, as preclinical success has not followed through into clinical trials. Latest figures have revealed a 95% failure rate of clinical trials following ‘successful’ animal tests.
In a discussion paper addressing health and medical research, the Victorian government has recognised the challenges of “PhD students and scientists confronted by issues related to career progression, security and remuneration.” Page 19 of the discussion paper states that “Australia punches far above its weight by producing 3 per cent of global research publications with only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population. However, compared with international standards, Australia has a poor record of commercial translation…”[Emphasis added].
The use of animals in research is, according to the code , for cases where no alternative exists, but alternatives will never exist without support for the development of non-animal based scientific testing. There have been international moves towards supporting alternatives to animals in research. Techniques such as computer modelling, genomics, nanotechnology, microdosing and microfluidic chips, just to name a few, have been developed with government funding and support to provide human-relevant models.
It is acknowledged that Australian funding bodies will accept applications for “3R’s research”, however their systems of application review mean that those applications do not stand a realistic chance of success. Therefore, the only way such applications would succeed through the system would be for dedicated funds being set aside specifically for this area of research. We need this both to reduce animal suffering in labs and also to ensure that Australia is a pioneer at the forefront of developing new non-animal technologies which will be more likely to result in clinical application.
Overseas examples of government funding
Around the world, a number of government-funded initiatives are addressing the need to further develop and validate non-animal methods of research, including:
- NC3Rs, The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, an independent UK organisation established in 2004;
- ECVAM, The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM), established 1991;
- ICCVAM, The Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM), established in the US in 1997; and
- ZEBET, The Centre for Documentation and Evaluation of Alternatives to Animal Experiments, which forms part of the German Federal Institute for Risk Management, Berlin, established in 1989.
While other nations forge ahead in the area of alternatives research, Australia is missing an opportunity to excel in clinical translation.
Current legislative changes banning the testing of cosmetics products on animals illustrate that it is both possible and preferable to adopt non-animal methodologies. As a next step, this must be extended to the use of animals in other areas of research. It is evident that, Australia should establish a government-funded institution dedicated to the replacement of animals in medical research. Suggested interim measures include:
- allocating a percentage of medical research funding specifically for the development of research methods that will replace animals;
- awarding a state or federal prize for innovative research replacing animals; and
- implementing grants to enable researchers to seek replacements for animals in medical research.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are distributed for medical research every year. As the validity of animal testing is increasingly questioned, Australian research is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Hence, there is a compelling argument for allocating a significant proportion of funding to provide financial incentives for researchers to develop alternatives – as is already happening in other nations.
- Personal correspondence with CEO, Australia and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, 14 December 2016
- Taylor K et al. (2008) Estimates for worldwide laboratory animal use in 2005. Altern Lab Anim 36:327-42.
- Accelerating the Delivery of New Medical Treatments to Patients, FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (http://www.fda.gov/ScienceResearch/SpecialTopics/RegulatoryScience/ucm228207.htm accessed 29/11/16)
- Arrowsmith, J. (2012). A decade of change. Nat Rev Drug Discov 11, 17-18
- Victorian health and medical research strategy 2016-2020.
- 1.5(ii) Page 9, Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific procedures. 8th edition 2013.