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Why undertake research involving animals?

Many major medical breakthroughs have come from scientific work involving animals that share genes with humans and therefore are good models of human diseases. Animal models are usually the only option for researching treatments to ensure they are safe before progressing to clinical trials, conducted elsewhere, in humans.

The use of animals can help us understand how different parts of the body work – knowledge which can eventually be applied to humans and the discovery and development of medical treatments for various conditions such as Alzheimer’s, cataract, cancer, stroke, diabetes and more.

Animal research is also usually the last and only option for ensuring treatments are safe before progressing to clinical trials in humans and, in many cases, it is a legal requirement to carry out such evaluation.

Not all animal research is focussed on benefits for human beings. Some research may help us understand more about the animals themselves or how animals are affected by human activities. Its purpose may be to understand more about how animals develop skills such as communication, or it may contribute to conservation work, for example.

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What types of animals are involved in our research?

Durham University is licensed by the Home Office to carry out laboratory research on small mammals, amphibians and fish. Individual researchers may also be licensed to carry out research outside the laboratory, and this may involve fitting trackers or monitors to wild animals in order to understand their behaviour.

We also carry out observational work on animals in the laboratory, in their natural environment and in controlled environments. Though we do not need Home Office permission to do this observational work, all work that involves animals requires approval from our Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB).

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How are laboratory animals kept at Durham University?

The animals receive the highest welfare standards and University staff work hard to ensure their wellbeing. All University staff holding a Personal Licence must be deemed to be competent by the Named Compliance and Training Officer. The animals’ day to day care is provided by a dedicated team of qualified technical staff. They have unannounced inspections from Home Office Inspectors, and access to approved veterinary surgeons who visit on a regular basis and provide 24-hour cover.

The animals are housed in modern, hygienic rooms, in environmentally controlled conditions. In line with Home Office Guidance and the 3Rs – the guiding principles underpinning the humane use of animals in scientific research - their environment is as close to their natural habitat as possible. Stressed animals would invalidate the research and therefore every effort is made to ensure the best standards of welfare, hygiene and environment.

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What are laboratory animals?

As well as conventional animals, Durham University houses some transgenic mice and fish - meaning, for example, they have been genetically modified to carry a ‘marker’ gene so that this gene can be studied more closely by scientists and possibly reduce the number of animals needed.

Some animals have been bred selectively to express certain characteristics such as immune deficiencies, which allow the implantation of cells from other species without rejection, which is useful in studies of diseases such as cancer.

All work with genetically modified animals is regulated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and we work according to their published guidelines. This involves approval and oversight of all work involving genetically modified animals. Animals with potentially harmful modifications are not held at Durham University.

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What kind of research involves animals?

Some animals are used in procedures which aim to find out more about the interactions of different parts of the body, knowledge which can, in the long term, be applied in the development and discovery of new medical treatments for debilitating conditions such as stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack and eye disease. For example, scientists study mice and rats to understand how specific regions of the brain respond during certain tasks, and this data can be used to help develop diagnostic tests for early Alzheimer’s disease.

Research may involve animals outside the laboratory in order to understand more about their behaviour. Such work may be licensed. For example, scientists fit collars equipped with a GPS tracker to wild deer in areas frequented by hillwalkers in order to better understand how the deer react to human disturbance.

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Where do laboratory animals come from?

Under the conditions of our Home Office licence, and under UK law, we only source our animals from reputable, Certificated breeders who are members of the Laboratory Animals Breeders’ Association (LABA).

The University can also acquire animals from other institutes/universities that are non-commercial and therefore are not required to be members of LABA. These animals are often acquired through collaborations that meet the criteria of the 3Rs.

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How is animal research regulated?

Durham University is strictly regulated, licensed and regularly inspected by the Home Office, under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. These regulations are among the strictest in the world and we are required to have a series of licences covering research premises, projects and every individual researcher.

All projects involving animals at Durham, including observational studies which are not subject to Home Office licence, are scrutinised by an internal Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB). Board membership consists of scientists, people with animal care and veterinary expertise and lay members of the community, who weigh up the potential benefits of animal research against the effects upon the animals concerned. The Board is also committed to the principles known as the ‘three Rs’ and ensures they are applied in all cases, which are:

  • Reduction: to use the minimum number of animals.
  • Replacement: To use alternatives wherever possible, which may include computer modelling and cell or tissue culture.
  • Refinement: To strive for the highest possible standard of animal care, use and welfare, to initiate improvements where possible and to minimise the suffering and stress caused to animals.

Only when all panel members are satisfied that these principles are being adhered to will proposals be approved and, where a licence is required, submitted to the Home Office for its approval.

Durham University is also a signatory to the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research in the UK which commits its signatories – including a range of research funding bodies, charities and other UK universities - to supporting clear, transparent and open communication and proactive public engagement on the subject of animal research.

For further information on regulation, see additional information, below.

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Are there any alternatives to work with animals?

At Durham, all scientists make use of alternative models where scientifically possible to minimise the use of animals. We are one of the UK’s leading universities for the quality of our science and we are proud of the scientific and medical advancements we have made over many years. Our researchers are also using and developing new alternatives to animal laboratory testing, one of which includes a new and more realistic way of growing human cell tissue in the laboratory, and they are also involved in programmes to improve the welfare of animals in their natural habitats and in captivity.

All projects go through the Universities ethical review process which scrutinises the project design and ensures that any involvement of animals is both unavoidable and justified.

Computer modelling is another approach that is used to predict outcomes and help minimise animal use. In both of these examples, information had to be gathered from prior research on animals, conducted by scientists across the world, to deliver an effective alternative.

A Durham University spin out company Reinnervate (sold to Reprocell) has developed a new and more realistic way of growing human tissue in the laboratory, which should result in more accurate testing with human material and less research involving animals.

Durham University scientists have also received funding from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) to conduct research directly aimed at improving animal welfare and conservation.

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What happens to the animals at the end of the research?

Animals used in laboratory studies involving scientific procedures are humanely euthanised and numbers are recorded in accordance with Home Office guidelines. A variety of tissues are retained to carry out further laboratory-based work.

Following field studies, the animals are left in their original environment. Where appropriate, and with approval, some laboratory animals can be rehomed.

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Further information about the Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB)

The University is required by law to set up an Animal Welfare Review Board (AWERB) to oversee the local ethical review process. This is a standard condition of the Establishment Licence.

The Board oversees every Durham University application to carry out work involving animals, which includes laboratory experiments and observational work in the laboratory and in the field, and also where work is carried out overseas. Board members include University staff connected with animal research and animal welfare, a Home Office approved veterinary surgeon and lay community members.

The Board provides guidance and support on the applications of the principles known as the ‘3Rs’ which are:

  • Replacement: use non-animal methods where possible
  • Reduction: use the minimal number of animals necessary for scientifically sound research.
  • Refinement: strive for the highest possible standard of animal care, use and welfare, to initiate improvements where possible and to minimise the suffering and stress caused to animals.

Applications must be amended to take feedback from the Board into account before approval is granted.

All Procedure Project Licences (PPL) are subject to a report every two years and a final report on completion of the project.

National regulation: The Home Office

Under Home Office regulation, the University must have an Establishment Licence for the building where we keep the animals. The Establishment Licence Holder at Durham University is the University Secretary, who is advised in their decisions by the Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB). The conditions of the Establishment Licence are highly specific in that it states exactly which rooms may be used for animal holding or experimentation, and for which purpose. All rooms must conform to the strict environmental rules laid down by the Home Office. The building undergoes a close inspection before the certificate is issued and is re-inspected if there are any changes of use.

Every project that involves carrying out procedures with animals needs a Home Office Project licence. An individual who wishes to apply for a Project licence must in the first instance attend and complete a Home Office approved training course. Project Licences (PPLs) are only awarded after a programme of rigorous scrutiny, which can last up to six months.

Each individual who plans to carry out procedures involving animals needs a personal licence (PIL). He/she must in the first instance attend and complete a Home Office approved training course and must be supervised by a more experienced colleague in the early stages of his or her work until deemed competent by the Named Training and Competency Officer. Both project and personal licences are subject to renewal or review every five years.

A Home Office inspector advises on project licences, and also carries out unannounced inspections.

Work Taking Place Internationally

Any work undertaken by Durham University staff or students or which involves University resources is subject to the University’s ethical standards. Where work is undertaken overseas and therefore not subject to UK law or animal welfare standards, the University will nevertheless try (both by contract and experimental design) to ensure that the activity meets UK standards where these are more robust than their local equivalents. This also applies to professional standards and codes of practice.

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Additional General Information Sources

Understanding Animal Research:

National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research:

Home Office – Animals in Scientific Procedures:

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