Is Brexit An Opportunity For A More Humane And Human-Relevant Life Sciences Sector?

20/09/2017 15:55 BST | Updated 20/09/2017 15:55 BST

Last week the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee accepted submissions for an inquiry into the UK government's Life Sciences and the Industrial Strategy. The purpose of the government's strategy is to make the UK the best place in the world to invest in life sciences and tackle challenges like cancer and dementia. The inquiry will investigate whether the UK has the necessary structures in place to support the government's ambition in the face of numerous obstacles including Brexit and the development of innovative new treatments being introduced to the NHS.

Cruelty Free International joined forces with Humane Society International, Animal Aid, Naturewatch and the UK Centre for Animal Law to submit a paper to the House of Lords making sure the importance of non-animal testing methods and human-relevant science isn't overlooked. This approach is essential if the future of UK life sciences is to be effective and humane.

According to a government commissioned opinion poll on attitudes to animal testing from 2016, the majority of the UK public only accepts the use of animals in research when there are no alternatives available. Almost three quarters of those surveyed agreed that more work is needed to develop alternatives to animal research, while over 50% wanted to know more about what is being done to improve the welfare of animals used. The poll revealed that the public has less and less confidence in the regulation and conduct of animal research. Many do not trust the system governing animal research in the UK or the scientists carrying out the research.

Clearly these concerns need to be addressed. The review of the life sciences strategy must include a plan to further the development of non-animal testing methods and a commitment to meaningfully reduce and replace cruel animal experiments. We are calling on the government to:

  • Set meaningful targets and be held accountable for them. The government has so far failed to reduce the use of animals in tests, as numbers of experiments increased between 2011 and 2016. As many as 358,728 more animal tests took place in 2015 than in 2011. This simply isn't good enough.
  • Significantly increase funds to initiatives such as the 2015 roadmap by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and Innovate UK. The government is looking to increase its science budget to remain internationally competitive. To help reduce, replace and refine animal experiments, a significant part of this growth should involve increasing funds to initiatives that foster replacement research. Unless the country invests on a greater scale, nothing will change.
  • Review Section 24 so there is transparency. Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) effectively places a blanket ban on regulators releasing any information about animal experiments from laboratories. It is also at odds with the government's pledge for increased transparency. Despite the widespread support for a repeal of section 24, successive governments have failed to take any action. We call for this to be urgently addressed.
  • Acknowledge alternatives and human-relevant science as a major growth area and a driver of increased GDP. There are more and more alternatives to animal testing emerging. These include advanced in vitro tools using stem cells and complex in silico modelling - many based on human cells, tissues and data - which provide the opportunity to replace animal experiments with systems that better predict the effects of new drugs and chemicals. These methods often tend to be faster, cheaper and more reliable. We are calling on the government to commit to the development of these methods.
  • Set out a vision for replacing animal research in life science. This is a real opportunity to support high quality science that leads to benefits for animals, humans, the environment and the economy. Non-animal technologies should be at the heart of this. The UK has been a pioneer, but much more needs to be done. We need pro-active government support for scientists, research organisations and regulatory bodies to work together to advance the reduction and replacement of the use of animals in experiments.
  • Use Brexit as an opportunity. Brexit shouldn't mean a lowering in standards but an opportunity to improve. The government should improve the legislation governing the use of animals in research by implementing greater protection measures, and increasing transparency of experiments. And it should support and encourage the advancement of non-animal research technologies that are more relevant to humans and increasingly seen by scientists as important tools to improve the quality of their research.

The UK is looking to be a world leader in the development of non-animal based technologies to replace the use of animals in science and training. A review of the life sciences strategy is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to this objective, make a real change to the lives of millions of animals and improve the human-relevance of the country's science.