New database saves lab animals’ lives

Researchers work with left-over tissue to prevent excess animal testing

Lab animals’ tissue is often stored away for good after a study is completed. An initiative in the UK is now working with institutions worldwide to make use of it. Instead of running their own animal tests, researchers can look up whether they can work with tissue from a completed study. An estimated 400 mice have been spared so far, but the initiative is still in its early days, says Valerie Speirs, Principle Investigator of Sharing Experimental Animal Recourses, Coordinating Holdings (SEARCH). We spoke with her about her latest article in which she outlines the many benefits of fewer animal tests.

ResearchGate: What role do animals play in biomedical research?

Valerie Speirs: There are many examples which demonstrate how use of animal models have benefitted human health. In breast cancer, a key example is the development of tamoxifen, a drug that has saved the lives of countless women. The development for insulin for diabetes is another. These breakthroughs were made possible from pre-clinical studies conducted in animals.

RG: What is your goal with the SEARCH project?

Speirs: There are several goals. The first is to reduce the number of animals used across all types of biomedical research, not just breast cancer. We also want to increase the quality and impact of research by providing scientists who may not have the finances or skills to conduct animal research with a mechanism of doing this using existing material. This adds value to research which has already been funded, often by the public. We want to encourage scientists to think about how they do animal research, and even if this is absolutely necessary. Part of the SEARCH concept, pioneered by SEARCHBreast, is to make scientists aware of the various types of 3D cell culture models which can be used to complement and even replace animal models in research, using patient tissue donated to biobanks.

 

“We want to encourage scientists to think about how they do animal research, and even if this is absolutely necessary.”


RG: What is SEARCHBreast?

Speirs: SEARCHBreast is a UK initiative supported by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs). It was established in 2014 with the ultimate goal of connecting breast cancer researchers whose expertise covered in vivo, in vitro and in silico models of breast cancer, and to create a portal to facilitate the sharing of archival material derived from breast cancer studies conducted in animals.

RG: How will it reduce the number of animals used in research?

Speirs: We know that at the conclusion of an experiment which has involved animals, often there is material left over which a scientist may never use again. Usually this is filed away and forgotten about, never to see the light of day again. But these materials could be of use to other scientists. Making excess material which has already been archived more visible and available to share collaboratively with other scientists can prevent new models being created, leading to fewer animals being used.

Percentages of animals in animal testing in the European Union. Overall, member states reported 11.5 million lab animals for the year 2011, according to a European Comission report.
Percentages of animals in animal testing in the European Union. Overall, member states reported 11.5 million lab animals for the year 2011, according to a European Comission report.

RG: Are there other benefits beyond the animal welfare component?

Speirs: Absolutely. Many journals, especially the ones of high impact, now expect an animal component and often scientists do not have the finances –working with animals is expensive – or knowledge to conduct these types of experiments. By collaborating with those who already have these materials can increase their research quality. It can also benefit the scientist who generated the material in the first place as they see this put to good use by others. This is also positive for research funding bodies who see added value to their investment in the original project.

 

“Data sharing is now encouraged to add value to research so it is logical to apply the same thinking to animal tissues.”


RG: Are there any challenges or drawbacks to sharing animal tissue?

Speirs: There will always be a minority who are reluctant to engage – this is just human nature. Key to getting scientists on board is engagement and consultation at a very early stage and to promote inclusivity – which we have done successfully with SEARCHBreast. As with any type of sharing mechanism it’s crucial that the expectations of both parties are considered at the very early stages and we recommend drawing up material transfer agreements before materials are exchanged.  Data sharing is now encouraged to add value to research so it is logical to apply the same thinking to animal tissues.

RG: What has the response from researchers and the public been?

Speirs: We surveyed scientists from a range of biomedical disciplines in the UK and there was overwhelming support for the SEARCH concept with 95 percent happy to share materials they had left over. Is has also resonated with the public, particular patient advocates who view this very positively.

Feature image: Elizabeth via flickr