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Northern Ireland scientists carried out 20,000 lab tests on animals in one year

Calls to end ‘cruel’ experiments as universities defend research

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 22/01/2016

Rodents were given a hormone to damage their thyroid gland
Rodents were given a hormone to damage their thyroid gland

Almost 20,000 experiments on animals took place in Northern Ireland labs in a single year.

Dogs, cats, sheep, mice and rats were all used in scientific tests.

In nearly 1,000 cases, the animals were subjected to severe suffering, and just 3% of experiments were required by regulators.

In one disturbing example, researchers made pregnant rats drink a chemical to damage their thyroid glands.

Between them, Queen's University and Ulster University accounted for almost 70% of the experiments, although these were restricted to rats and mice. The majority of these tests took place at Queen's.

The details emerged after an investigation by Cruelty Free International, a campaign group opposed to animal testing.

The revelation has led to calls for an end to "cruel and pointless" animal testing.

Dr Katy Taylor, director of science at the organisation, said: "The number of animals and the proportion of curiosity-driven research still conducted in Northern Irish laboratories, as revealed by these statistics, is unacceptable.

"Instead of continuing with these cruel and pointless experiments, which have dubious potential benefits to human health, we urge researchers to shift their focus to more humane and human-relevant methods, so that Northern Ireland can lead the way in reducing animal testing."

The figures show that a total of 19,857 experiments were completed in Northern Ireland in 2014 - broadly similar to the previous year.

Of these, 2,194 related to the creation or breeding of genetically altered animals who were not used in further procedures.

Among the highlights of the report were:

  • Animals used included mice (10,032 experiments), chickens (2,376), cows (1,661), sheep (781), pigs (690), rats (605), dogs (156), rabbits (88) and cats (72);
  • The majority of experiments (49%) were for basic research, driven mainly by the curiosity of university researchers;
  • Only 3% were reported to have been required by regulators;
  • There was a large increase in experiments carried out on dogs - up 113% on the previous year;
  • A total of 979 animals were subjected to experiments that even the researchers considered had caused them severe suffering;
  • A further 5,513 animals were subjected to "moderate" suffering.

In total 13,625 experiments took place at universities and medical schools.

The other 6,232 took place at various unnamed "commercial organisations" and "non profit-making organisations". In one example, rats were used in an experiment to investigate the timing of treatment for congenital hypothyroidism (CH), a rare condition caused by insufficient thyroid hormone production in newborn babies that can lead to learning disabilities.

Pregnant rats were made to drink a chemical mixed with their water to damage their thyroid glands and their offspring's.

When the pups were born, they were split into groups and injected with thyroid hormone.

The treatment was given to them every day for 90 days, and all of the animals were killed at the end of the experiment and had their brains dissected.

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that babies should be screened immediately for CH and treated.

This is already standard in many countries, so it is not clear why the test was performed.

Queen's and Ulster University said they were not involved in testing of chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs and rabbits.

However, Green Party leader Steven Agnew urged the universities to stop all animal testing.

"I am angered at the appalling cruelty that is being carried out by our publicly-funded universities," Mr Agnew said.

"I am disappointed at the reluctance of my political colleagues to tackle this issue by bringing forward an open and transparent discussion in the Assembly.

"I call on the Alliance Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry to stop the universities, which he funds, from carrying out these deplorable experiments.

"I would encourage the universities to invest in alternatives to animal testing."

A spokesperson for Queen's University said: "As a leading research university, Queen's conducts research on animals only when it is absolutely essential for clinical, biomedical and environmental studies and where there are no alternatives.

"All such work is heavily regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and its subsequent amendments.

"The research is conducted under licences issued by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in accordance with UK legislation and is approved by the University Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body."

A spokesperson for Ulster University added: "In 2014, Ulster University carried out procedures on 1,636 mice and 104 rats as part of a number of research projects that are delivering global breakthroughs and revolutionising new treatment options for a broad range of chronic medical conditions, including Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and blindness.

"Ulster University only carries out such animal testing when absolutely necessary, for example where it is a compulsory requirement of drug licensing laws, and actively supports the development, validation and adoption of appropriate alternatives to the use of animals in order to eliminate the need for animal experimentation.

"Ulster University is fully compliant with all Home Office legal and ethical requirements in relation to the use of mice in research activities and university staff closely monitor the procedures alongside appointed veterinary officers, and officials from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety."

Case study: Ulster University

Researchers wanted to determine whether an existing diabetes drug could be used to improve memory and learning disabilities in obese mice.

In the experiment, male mice were kept in cages on their own and forced to consume a "western-style" high-fat diet for five months.

Once the mice became obese, they were force-fed a drug called sitagliptin through a tube down their throats once a day for 21 days.

The mice were then placed inside an open-topped box for five minutes while researchers examined their behaviour, including whether they displayed any signs of anxiety, how far and fast they walked and how much of the area they explored.

The next day, they were put inside the box again along with a familiar object or an object they had never seen before.

The amount of time they spent exploring each object was recorded.

The animals were also subjected to repeated blood sampling and injections into their abdomens.

At the end of the study, they were then anaesthetised and pickled alive before their brains were removed.

Sitagliptin has been on the market as a diabetes type 2 treatment for nine years. The researchers said the dose given to mice in this experiment was five to six times higher than what humans are exposed to.

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