As Chair of the APPG on Human Relevant Science, I made the case for a transition from animal testing to human relevant methods in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate.
The APPG is a discussion forum for politicians, the human relevant life sciences sector, third sector groups, scientists and stakeholders to promote new approach methodologies that provide unique insights into human biology, transform our ability to understand human disease and can develop effective new medicines more quickly and without the use of animals.
Whilst the latest animal testing statistics for 2020 show a larger than usual reduction in animal tests, the Home Office itself has attributed this to lockdowns and, as a result, less lab work having taken place.
We don’t want to see a return to the status quo next year.
In the 10 years up to 2019, the average annual decrease in animal testing was about 1%. On that trajectory, animal testing would continue for another 90 years.
The case for a transition to human relevant science is compelling.
There is a growing range of cutting-edge techniques which provide results that are directly relevant to people and can replace, or at the very least immediately significantly reduce the use of animals. These New Approach Methodologies (NAMs) include the use of human cells and tissues, artificial intelligence and organ-on-a-chip technology.
Significant differences in our genetic makeup mean that data from animal experiments cannot be reliably translated to people.
In fact, the current reliance on animal experiments may well be holding back the progress that patients so urgently need.
Greater than 92% of drugs that show promise in animal tests fail to reach the clinic and benefit patients, mostly for reasons of poor efficacy and safety that were not predicted by animal testing.
Most animal tests have not been validated to modern standards to prove that they do predict effects in humans and there is reluctance on the part of government and regulators to do this.
In disease research, the picture is similar. For example, decades of efforts towards understanding neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and to find effective therapies for them, have been huge failures due to the poor human relevance of animal experiments.
The APPG has held several meetings this year, examining two main areas; funding barriers and regulatory barriers.
As is stands, the funding made available via the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research – or the NC3Rs – is not sufficient to support the transition to human relevant research.
The NC3Rs’ annual budget only amounts to around £10 million. For comparison, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) estimated that in 2019 the Medical Research Council (MRC) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) provided a combined total of £1.8 billion in funding for UK medical research, while medical research charities provided £1.9 billion.
It is also important to note that the NC3Rs does not focus exclusively on the replacement of animals. Since 2004, 16% of grants have been provided for ‘refinement’ work, while 20% focused on reduction.
The economic potential of animal free methods is huge. By providing results that are directly relevant to people, NAMs can accelerate the development of effective treatments that will transform patients’ lives and reduce the economic cost of ill health.
The current regulatory situation is also problematic.
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 makes it clear that animal experiments should only be carried out when no non-animal method is available. However, in practice, we do not believe that this legal requirement is being taken seriously.
In 2020, for example, 452 skin sensitisation tests were carried out on mice, even though validated non-animal tests are available.
Throughout 2020, no applications for licences to conduct experiments on animals were refused permission.
The APPG will publish a report next month on its findings over the last year.
There is major public support for replacing animals testing with human relevant techniques. The petitions that form the basis for this debate today attest to that. A YouGov poll commissioned by Animal Free Research UK and carried out in February 2021 found that 68% of respondents would support a transition to non-animal alternatives.
The Government must take decisive and ambitious action to phase out animal experiments and phase in the use of cutting-edge, human relevant techniques. Modernising medical research in this way will deliver major benefits for people, animals and the economy.