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Encouraging transparency in animal research

In this blog, Education and Outreach Manager Amy explains why FRAME is supporting Be Open about Animal Research Day (#BOARD21) and why transparency and open communications around animal research today are key to helping us replace it.

Today, 1 July 2021, is the first ever Be Open about Animal Research Day organised by the EARA (European Animal Research Organisation). On this day, the EARA will be sharing examples of openness and transparency across social media and celebrating proactive communication around animal research with the slogan Get on #BOARD21.

The EARA is an organisation set up to work with the life sciences sector, particularly those carrying out animal research, to share the importance and benefits of research involving animals across Europe with the aim of allowing a more constructive dialogue around animal research.

Why is FRAME supporting a day linked to animal research?

It might seem strange that an organisation set up to end the need for animal testing, is highlighting a day launched by an organisation promoting animal research. Whilst FRAME challenges current animal research methods where we feel they are unnecessary or of little scientific value, we also try to be pragmatic about what the road to a complete end to animal testing might look like. In the first instance, it certainly involves engaging with researchers about the pros and cons of different methodologies, and understanding the barriers to adopting non-animal approaches. At the end of the day, we are all trying to answer important questions about how the world works and how to improve human health and combat disease. We differ in how we think that can be done, but it is important to remember what unites us in order to have constructive debate, encourage collaboration and innovation and eventually, change.

Transparency and clear communication in animal research are vital in facilitating the transition from existing methods to alternatives.

We need to understand why and where animal research is still considered necessary, to enable work on developing alternatives to be targeted, and inform approaches to support the adoption of new approach methods.

FRAME has always believed that the most effective way to eliminate the need to use laboratory animals in drug development and biomedical research involves working with academics, industry and regulators to support both the development and uptake of non-animal methods, and to increase understanding of areas where animal research is still required and how this can be addressed. This was the ethos of the charity when it was set up over 50 years ago, and still is today.

FRAME founder Dorothy Hegarty believed that the arguments used by anti-vivisection societies at the time were too simplistic and unlikely to achieve their aim. So, whilst our core purpose relates to replacement, and the development and promotion of non-animal techniques, we accept that animal testing is still required in some areas due to a lack of alternatives. Encouraging openness will help flag these areas up so that funding and innovative science can be targeted to help progress the development of alternative methods.

Is transparency an issue in animal research?

Animal research is an emotive subject, and rightly a concern for many people, including many of our loyal supporters who donate money towards our work to replace it. The system, regulations and procedures for animal research are complex, and justifications for it can be subjective, and are often dependant on an individual’s personal knowledge and experience. Many researchers do not want to use animals and are very aware of the ethical dilemma they must weigh up when choosing to do so. The strict legal requirements when applying for a license for an animal research project require this ethical judgement to be considered and justified in terms of the potential benefits of the research, harm to the animals, and the availability of non-animal methods.

The most common reason for having to use laboratory animals to answer a research question is that alternative methods do not yet exist or cannot be used to study the complex interactions of a whole organism. The breadth of in vitro (cell culture) and in silico (computer modelling) methods and tools that are being developed and used continues to increase; it can be difficult to identify non-animal research avenues, particularly where a mix of these methods could be utilised to provide the same data rather than a single ‘replacement.’ Despite a legal requirement to find alternative methods before resorting to animal studies, evaluating whether someone has thoroughly and accurately searched for non-animal methods is difficult to evaluate without transparency. Good communication by researchers around the processes, decisions and scientific, as well as ethical justification for using animals will make this easier and must be fostered.

Yet the stigma attached to animal research makes this openness challenging for some establishments and scientists, who lack confidence in sharing their research more openly, or fear a backlash. This was highlighted by a recent correspondence between FRAME and an ethics committee at a leading academic institution who would not approve a FRAME funded project which involved an anonymous survey on 3Rs training at UK universities, due to it being a ‘contentious’ issue.

Apparently, Mother Teresa is quoted as saying:

‘Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.’

Thank you to those institutions and scientists who are out there doing just that.

What do we mean by transparency in animal research?

Not all animal research project outcomes are in the public domain. Animal research is generally only published if there are significant positive results shown. If projects are not published in journals, they often do not see the light of day – this hampers scientific progress. There are various ways that animal research can be made more transparent.

  • Signing up to transparency agreements such as the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research here in the UK. The organisations that have signed this agreement have committed to be more open about their animal research in communications with the public and agree to share information annually.
  • Ensuring that the UK continues to lead the way in openness following its departure from the EU, by making clear that the data submissions required and resultant statistics collected will be in line with previous years and with ongoing EU practice as a minimum, to enable trend analysis and benchmarking. The Animals (Scientific Procedures Act) 1986 (ASPA) requires the publication of annual statistics on regulated procedures carried out on protected species. These are published in the UK each year by the Home Office and are publicly available.
  • Ensuring the legally required, publicly available non-technical summary (NTS) written by every applicant for an animal research project licence is communicated clearly, in simple language, with adequate detail to inform public understanding of the choices made to use animals in research.  The project licence is assessed and awarded by ASRU (the Animals in Science Regulatory Unit in the Home Office) ASRU has responsibility for regulating ASPA and ensuring it is implemented correctly. The NTS is is published on the Home Office website, and includes an outline of the project, the aim, importance, species and number of animal required, predicted outcomes, predicted harms to the animals involved and  how the 3Rs will be implemented including why animals must be used and strategies used to search for alternatives.
  • Making it mandatory for projects using animals to be registered on a publicly available database to ensure that all results are available, including those with null findings and those that remain unpublished. There are several open registers to encourage researchers to register animal studies and preclinical research. Such registration is already a legal requirement for all clinical studies. This would provide a full picture of where animal research is still happening and how successful it is, as well as allowing more reliable systematic reviews and meta-analyses (analysis across multiple studies looking at the same question) by reducing publication bias. This would help to reduce the risk of repetition of unsuccessful studies and provide a more comprehensive scientific picture. 

Wherever you sit on this spectrum, transparency around animal research can only be a good thing for progress. This is why we are supporting the movement towards transparency and are, today, recognising and raising awareness of the first ever Be Open about Animal Research Day (#BOARD21).

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