Concern for lab animals at Imperial
Sweeping changes are needed to improve the treatment of laboratory animals at one of Britain's leading centres of medical research, a panel of experts has said.
Their report follows allegations of "appalling animal suffering and wrongdoing" at Imperial College London made by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).
A peer group of independent scientists was called in to conduct the inquiry by Imperial College itself.
It identified a lack of "adequate operational, leadership, management, training, supervisory and ethical review systems" at Imperial, where more than 1,000 people are involved in animal research on four separate sites.
The work carried out by the College's Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (Awerb), which has overall responsibility for ensuring the adequate welfare of animals used in experiments, was described as "not fit for purpose".
Findings from the report are expected to influence the management of animal testing at other universities and institutions.
In April the BUAV released details of an undercover investigation which it said exposed cases of animals suffering and dying needlessly at Imperial College.
It highlighted poor surgical procedures, a failure to provide adequate pain control, and unsupervised researchers with little experience carrying out invasive surgery on animals.
Loud pop music played throughout the facility was said to add to the distress of animals, and a guillotine was allegedly used to carry out live decapitations.
The independent experts stressed that their remit was not to investigate the specific claims made by the BUAV, but the general systems employed at Imperial College.
A key area of criticism was an "us and them" culture dividing animal care staff and scientists, who failed to communicate and work together efficiently.
The report praised the commitment of Central Biomedical Services staff at Imperial, who look after the day-to-day care of animals, and the quality of animal housekeeping at the College.
Yet Imperial failed when it came to ensuring the highest standards in the "3Rs" - the replacement, reduction and refinement of animal testing, it said.
Professor Steve Brown, from the Medical Research Council's Mammalian Genetics Unit, who chaired the expert committee, said: "Our investigation identified a number of serious concerns on the conduct, management and oversight of animal research at Imperial College. The college now has the opportunity to take our findings and recommendations forward.
"Imperial College is internationally recognised as one of the world's best research institutes and it is important that this is matched by its standards of animal use and welfare.
"While our focus has been on Imperial College, the committee's recommendations should serve as a useful framework for other institutions to review their policies and practises."
The panel recommended "wholesale reform" of the Awerb process to ensure better communication between animal care staff and scientists, and a continual programme of 3Rs development and improvement.
It called for the appointment of a new senior Awerb director to oversee both local and central monitoring of animal welfare at Imperial College.
Lack of staff was also identified as a major problem. Agency workers made up 5% to 10% of the animal care staff, but were not engaged out-of-hours or at weekends, putting pressure on full-time employees.
In total, 33 recommendations were made.
A separate inquiry into the allegations of animal mistreatment at Imperial College is being undertaken by the Home Office, which regulates animal research in the UK.
At a press briefing, the panel scientists avoided directly addressing the question of whether animals were suffering needlessly at Imperial College.
They admitted that none of them had witnessed any animal experiments being carried out.
Prof Brown said: "The highest standards of oversight, of training, of competency are going to minimise, under our current legislation, the suffering to animals that might occur.
"Our remit was to look right across the piece at how Imperial carried out these operational systems, management systems, ethical systems, to ask the question 'were they best configured to make sure that day-to-day, you minimise pain and suffering of animals'."
Imperial College said it accepted the findings of the report and would "move quickly" to implement the recommendations. Staffing and leadership were both being prioritised, and an annual report on animal research at the College was promised.
The BUAV said the report's conclusions were a "devastating indictment". In a statement, it added: "If such criticisms can be levelled at one of the world's leading universities, then it is inevitable that similar issues arise in research establishments all over the country..
"It should not take an undercover investigation to expose what is happening in UK laboratories. The system overseeing animal experiments is broken and needs a drastic review."
The panel experts said it would be wrong to ignore the welfare of laboratory animals just because most of them are mice and rats.
Neil Yates, director of the Biosupport Unit at the University of Nottingham, said: "Mice are the most wonderful delightful little creatures you could wish to come across. Our rats are really friendly and very engaging. They are all sentient animals."
Prof Brown pointed out that high animal welfare standards delivered the best science.
"It's important that we treat these sentient animals with care and respect, but it also has implications for the science we do," he added.
Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said: "This report has highlighted a number of areas of concern. The Home Office is carrying out its own investigation into this case and action will be taken against anyone who falls short of our required standards.
"I will be referring today's report and the Home Office's findings to the Animals in Science Committee, the government's independent advisory body, for consideration and to see if lessons can be learned for the research community more widely."