MRC Seminar Series – NC3Rs: Pioneering better science
by Guest Author on 14 Dec 2020
Following our blog about the launch of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Seminar Series, Claire Mooney, Strategic Stakeholder Engagement Manager for MRC and the organiser of the series, writes about the October seminar and the projects working to improve animal welfare in research.
Picking up a lab mouse using a tube rather than by the tail causes less stress to the animal. When I heard this while attending the October instalment of the MRC Seminar series, I was struck by how potentially impactful such a simple measure could be in improving the welfare of the 2.5 million mice used annually for research in the UK. The finding of the tube vs tail study is the result of one of the many ways that the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) supports and contributes to the development of new ways of applying the 3Rs in animals research and testing. During the seminar, Dr Anthony Holmes (Director of Science and Technology) and Dr Nathalie Percie du Sert (Head of Experimental Design and Reporting) from the NC3Rs spoke about its history and some of their previous and current projects.
The 3Rs refer to the principles of replacement (avoiding or replacing the use of animals where possible), reduction (minimising the number of animals used per experiment) and refinement (minimising animal suffering and improve welfare) of animals used for scientific research. Core funded by MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the NC3Rs was established in 2004 to pursue ways of avoiding the use of animals and, where this is not possible, to promote high standards in the design and conduct of experiments.
Some of their previous projects had specific 3R principles at their core: a recent collaborative project with industry investigated the current requirement for testing in two animal species, aiming to reduce the numbers of animals used during the drug development process. By conducting a retrospective analysis of how drug safety decisions were made in 18 different pharmaceutical companies, they highlighted the potential for changes towards the wider use of a single species. In a separate project, also focused on reduction, they developed an online experimental design assistant tool to help improve experimental design and minimise the number of animals required. Other projects demonstrated their efforts in refinement of animal experiments in order to improve animal welfare and the validity and reproducibility of experimental results. These include their support for the study mentioned above on the benefits of handling mice correctly and another in-house study which identified ways of minimising aggression and thus injury in male mice housed in the same cage.
A current project encompasses each of the 3Rs. It involves conducting a review of the animal testing requirements in the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for the quality control and batch release testing of biological medicines, such as certain vaccines and blood products. These items are produced in and purified from specially engineered cells and due to their biological nature, there is a strict approval process for testing these medicines before each batch is released for use by humans. These tests are usually carried out in animals, amounting to approximately 8 million annually. Working with more than 20 different international organisations including manufacturers, regulators and trade associations, the NC3Rs aims to review more than 60 of the guidelines and then make evidence-based recommendations to WHO to implement within their guidance documents. If successful, this ambitious project will ultimately influence how these tests are carried out globally.
The above examples are just a snapshot of the ways the NC3Rs supports and advances the use of the 3Rs principles in research and testing. Their efforts encompass the entire research community and are essential to ensure that animal research is carried out ethically. Whether it is through large international networks of multidisciplinary experts or working locally to fund UK scientists, the collective impact of these efforts contributes not only to improving animal welfare but also the quality, reproducibility and ultimately the reliability of research.