All-time high animal use in research shows need for change, say alternative-method advocates

Monte Stewart
November 24, 2021

New study procedures need to be expanded following record animal use in Canadian research projects during 2020, say alternative-research-method advocates.

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, executive director of the University of Windsor-based Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods, called the record “especially disconcerting” given that it occurred in a pandemic year in which many universities were closed and their research capacity was reduced for several months.

Total number increases 11 per cent

Animal use in research, teaching and regulatory testing increased 11.1 percent to 5,067,778 in 2020 from 4,562,522 in 2019, according to the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s (CCAC) annual animal data report.

Dr. Chandrasekera said it is “truly disappointing” to see how far behind Canada is when it comes to implementing the “internationally revered 3Rs principle designed to refine, reduce, and replace the use of animals in science — which the CCAC supposedly promotes.”

“We must focus on human biology — not mouse or monkey biology," she said. “There is overwhelming evidence that this animal-centric paradigm of science is not serving well. Mice mislead and monkeys exaggerate, would be the colloquial science expression.”

Birds, mice, and fish used most often

The three animal types most often used were birds (50.0 percent), mice (21.4 percent), and fish (11.7 percent). Most animals (55.7 percent) were used in studies tied to the development of products or appliances related to human or veterinary medicine.

Pierre Verreault, executive director of the CCAC, said many research projects continued, albeit under revised work schedules, in 2020 and his group still counted animals that were part of stopped studies. Animals placed in a “holding protocol” were also tabulated.

“Of course, if people would have known that the pandemic was coming and that the labs would reduce their operation, especially on certain studies and all that, they would have decreased the number of animals,” he said. “But this thing was kind of sudden.”

Dr. Chandrasekera said scientists have access to a plethora of animal-free, human biology-based methods. By choosing to shift away from animal research and testing, researchers could unravel disease processes and develop new responses to drugs and chemicals, she said. Alternative methods range from organ-on-a-chip 3D technologies that mimic multi-level organ functions to disease models in petri dishes to computational simulations designed to recapitulate human biology from DNA and RNA molecules.

At a time when Canada is more advanced and doing more research than ever, 95 percent of drugs tested to be safe and effective in animals fail in human clinical trials, she added. And it would take “hundreds of years” to complete full toxicological profiles on 80,000-plus chemicals requiring them.

“It's time to shift to a human biology-based paradigm of science,” she said. “The world is surely headed this way.”

Causes hard to pinpoint

Verreault said it’s hard to say why the number of animals increased. Often, increases stem from a combination of factors, such as the study of a particular animal feed, the type of research funded, the intensity of funding, or the use of a particular species in one large study, as was the case in 2020 with birds.

Birds and primates were the only animal groups that saw increases, according to the CCAC report and additional related data posted on the group’s website.

The use of birds — primarily chickens — more than doubled to 2,535,052. The additional data showed that 2,274,787 chickens were deployed in one undisclosed study alone.

Although the chicken-related study “changed the picture,” a large study involving one species is “not that uncommon” and happens “almost every second year,” said Verreault.

“So it's really hard to predict what's going to happen, what species is going to be more used this year or next year,” he said.

Primate use rises 23 percent

Primate use rose 23 percent year-over-year to 5,932, but accounted for only 0.1 percent of the total.

“Primate numbers are likely from Covid research projects where many research groups have been focused on higher order mammals since rodents were not ideal for SARS-CoV-2 studies,” said Dr. Chandrasekera, adding the reasons for the declines in other species use are unknown.

Verreault said primate use could have increased due to Covid-19 studies, but the animals were not used to test vaccines.

The CCAC does not advocate for or against the use of animals in research, he said, but all projects must follow the 3R protocol mentioned by Dr. Chandrasekera.

Verreault said the CCAC “will always encourage” the replacement of animals with other methods.

“If there’s an alternative method, it should be used instead of the animals,” he said. The CCAC is trying to promote alternative methods “as much as possible.”

In addition to alternative research methods, more legislation and policies are needed to effect change, said Dr. Elisabeth Ormandy, executive director of the Vancouver-based Canadian Society for Humane Science.

“Canada has no legislation to oversee the use of animals in science, but we do have some laws that govern specific practices, [such as] the Food and Drug Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act,” she said. “We need to amend existing Acts like these to make sure there is legal language requiring the replacement of animals wherever it is scientifically possible. We also need a broader piece of legislation to oversee the use of animals in science.”

She said animals are starting to be phased out of biomedical research projects in which they are being used as “proxies for humans," adding that “If we continue to use animal models to advance human health, we’re not going to get very far."

But the use of animals in research projects will never end, Ormandy asserted. “If we're trying to, for example, do wildlife research to understand the impacts of climate change on wildlife, then that's a type of animal research, too. And I wouldn't be at all opposed to that continuing." It depends on the context, she said.

Most animals experienced little or no discomfort

According to the report, 65.9 percent of the experiments caused little or no discomfort or stress, while 17.8 percent suffered moderate-to-severe distress or discomfort and 16.3 percent resulted in minor stress or pain of short duration. 1.8 percent of experiments caused severe pain among unanesthetised conscious animals.

The CCAC is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The 23 CCAC members include Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Associations for Laboratory Animal Medicine and Laboratory Animal Science, the Canadian Bioethics Society, Health Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the National Research Council Canada, and Universities Canada.

Dr. Chandrasekera said the report’s animal-use numbers “are not accurate” because they were only compiled from CCAC-accredited institutions, and private companies are not obligated to report their animal-use figures.

“We are simply not doing enough as a nation to get into the groove of 21st Century human-relevant science,” she said.

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