Two well-known research funding bodies, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust, are looking to make closures that will reduce the number of genetically modified mice used in their research programmes.
FRAME looks at these recent changes and considers whether the landscape of scientific research is finally shifting to embrace alternative technologies.
The Wellcome Trust animal research facility closure
The Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, one of the world’s leading genetic laboratories, announced earlier this year that it would be closing its animal breeding facility due to a rise in the use of alternative technologies. The Wellcome Trust, which runs the Institute, has decided that the £30m animal laboratory, where mice, rats, zebrafish and frogs are bred for medical experiments, should be shut within the next three years.
Professor Mike Stratton, Director of the Sanger Institute, says the decision has been driven by the Institute’s scientific strategy. In the announcement, he states that “this has been a difficult decision, but we believe it is the best way to continue to deliver the science and make the discoveries that impact on human health and the natural world.”
The Institute is looking at options to accommodate “future mouse research requirements,” which may involve partnering with an external organisation to provide an animal experimentation service.
The Director of The Wellcome Trust, Professor Jeremy Farrar, told The Guardian that the development of new laboratory techniques means the Institute does not need the numbers of animals that were once required for their experiments, and that the development of tissue culture and organoids has opened up the possibility of reducing animal experiments.
Whilst it is reported that some scientists have questioned the decision of the Institute, which is well known for its role in the Human Genome Project, others acknowledge that it reflects the changing landscape of research which is moving towards new technologies that use human-based models.
MRC carries out strategic review into mouse genetics
The Medical Research Council (MRC) has instigated an early strategic review of its Mouse Genetics Programme. This hit the headlines in June as the review recommended the possible closure of the Mammalian Genetics Unit (MGU) at the MRC’s Harwell Institute. The MGU is an international research centre in mouse genetics and studies a range of diseases and their underlying mechanisms. Also on the MGU site is The Mary Lyon Centre, an animal facility that houses genetically modified (GM) mice and offers bespoke services in the development and distribution of strains of GM mice. The Mary Lyon Centre is not, however, currently at risk of closure.
Amy Beale, FRAME Scientific Liaison Officer welcomes the changes, as she explains: “It is good to hear that influential organisations such as the MRC and the Wellcome Trust are making changes which suggest they are reducing the number of GM mouse models and acknowledging the future of human-relevant research.
“Valuable time and funding are spent on breeding and creating GM mouse strains. The Home Office statistics show that in 2018, of the 3.52 million procedures carried out in Great Britain around half (1.72 million) were for the creation and breeding of genetically altered (GA) animals. GM mice are produced that aim to mimic human conditions so that they can be studied. The value of this research is often limited due to physiological and metabolic differences between species, for example, when trying to recreate conditions seen in the ageing human population such as arthritis or dementia.
She adds: “Use of mice, and now GM mice, is viewed by some as an integral part of disease research, so there is a reluctance to move away from them to embrace alternatives. We must continue to educate and encourage scientists to make the change and actively look at available human-based techniques, rather than following the crowd.”