Edinburgh University is top of a table of animal testing laboratories in Britain, a new study has found.
The Scots institution used a staggering 241,865 creatures to experiment on in just one year of testing.
New figures, obtained under freedom of information, show a quarter of the animals used in scientific research in the UK in 2013 were tested in the laboratories of just six universities.
Between them, the six conducted experiments on just over a million animals that year, according to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).
Some of the animals – which included monkeys, sheep and rabbits as well as rats, mice and fish – were subjected to “distressing and disturbing” procedures, it was claimed.
The University of Edinburgh was followed by Oxford University (190,169), University College London (181,295), Cambridge University (169,353), King’s College London (132,885) and Imperial College London (130,358).
In 2013, 4,017,758 animals were used in 4,121,582 experiments in the UK, Home Office statistics show.
Of these animals, 1.8 million were tested in university laboratories, according to the BUAV. The six named universities alone accounted for 1,045,925.
Dr Katy Taylor, head of science at the BUAV, said: “Shockingly, universities account for half of the total number of animals used in experiments carried out in the UK and are responsible for some particularly distressing and disturbing experiments.
“Yet, despite growing concern regarding animal research, much of it is publicly funded. It is ironic that many universities are also leaders in the research to find alternatives to using animals.
“So while one department may be developing cutting edge alternatives, another may be breeding animals to be used in experiments.”
The experiments highlighted by the BUAV involved animals being brain damaged, injected with chemicals that cause severe disabilities, and forced to perform repetitive computer tasks.
In one anxiety experiment at Cambridge University, marmoset monkeys were said to have been blasted with loud noise and frightened with rubber snakes resembling cobras.
Other alleged procedures included subjecting young month-old rats to repeated electric shock (Edinburgh) and creating a glass “window” in the skulls of mice before damaging their brains with a laser (Imperial College).
The BUAV approached 71 universities under the Freedom of Information Act last year and asked how many animals they had used in scientific procedures in the previous 12 months.
Details about the species used and the reasons for the testing were also requested. A total of 67 universities confirmed that they did use animals in experiments and all but three of these – Manchester, Sussex and Bristol – gave the numbers.
The BUAV estimates that 43 per cent of the UK’s 156 registered universities conduct animal research.
A Cambridge University spokesman said: “We are proud of our research, which meets the highest standards of animal welfare and is scrutinised by our Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Board – who strive to reduce the number of animals used.
Number of creatures experimented on in just one year:
- 241,865 – University of Edinburgh
- 190,169 – Oxford University
- 181,295 – University College London
- 169,353 – Cambridge University
- 132,885 – King’s College London
- 130,358 – Imperial College London
“Some of the important and pioneering work carried out in Cambridge that has led to major improvements in people’s lives was only possible with the use of animals – from the development of IVF techniques through to new drugs for multiple sclerosis and cancer.”
A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: “Research using animals has played and continues to play a key role in the advancement of medical, biological and veterinary science. It has made a vital contribution towards the understanding, prevention, treatment and cure of a wide range of major health problems, including cancer, heart disease and psychiatric disorders.
“The University of Edinburgh uses animals in research programmes only when their use is justified on scientific, ethical and legal grounds, and when no alternatives are available. All such work is strictly regulated and carried out under licences, which are reviewed and approved by the Home Office and are issued only if the potential benefits of the work are likely to outweigh the effects on the animals concerned.
“The university is actively involved in the development of alternative approaches that replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research.”
A King’s College London spokesman said: “King’s College London is one of the largest health research institutions in the UK, carrying out cutting-edge medical and biomedical research across many disciplines.
“Our work with animals forms part of the basis for major research breakthroughs in health and medicine, and represents a fundamental step in the search for new treatments for patients with a range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurological conditions.
“Animal research at King’s is ethically reviewed and we only use animal models where there is no other viable alternative. We are dedicated to high standards of animal welfare at King’s and all of our animals are cared for in accordance with strict Home Office regulations.
“Around 127,000 people in the UK are thought to live with Parkinson’s disease. L-Dopa is the main drug used by Parkinson’s sufferers to improve their mobility and symptoms, but can have severe side effects such as involuntary body movements and muscle spasms.
“Research with marmosets has helped us to better understand and manage these complications by lowering the dosage and combining L-Dopa with drugs that prolong the duration of its effect. Non-human primates, including the marmoset, are the only species that show quantifiable symptoms that mimic the human conditions associated with Parkinson’s disease.”
A spokeswoman for University College London said: “UCL is formally committed to a policy of openness about animal research and is a signatory to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK. All figures quoted in the BUAV release are freely available on our dedicated Animal Research website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/animal-research/facts-figures.
“UCL is a large institution with over 5,000 staff in the School of Life and Medical Sciences alone. We have a high research output, with new scientific results being published every day as we strive to increase our knowledge of human and animal health. To achieve valid results, some research projects require the use of animals.
“Our non-human primate (NHP) research is of the highest quality, regulated by the strict provisions of the UK Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and carried out by a highly skilled, responsible and caring team of researchers and animal technologists, with specialist veterinarian support and scrutiny. Non-human primate work is only conducted when there are no alternatives available.
“UCL is particularly strong in neuroscience with a substantial international reputation. The capacity to carry out research on NHPs is essential for developing an understanding of complex brain mechanisms at the level most relevant to man for which no other valid model exists. NHPs represent the best available animal model for human function and are particularly important for research into neurological and psychiatric diseases, diseases which now affect over one billion people worldwide.”
Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of the organisation Understanding Animal Research, said: “The universities named here all rank as the best research universities in the UK, so it is hardly surprising that they carry out the most animal research. We have these universities to thank for numerous medical breakthroughs over the years, from Penicillin to IVF to cancer drugs.
“The Home Office publishes statistics on animal research every year and the 2013 report (published July 2014) clearly states that 49% of that year’s procedures using animals took place in universities (p.22 and Table 19). Several of the universities mentioned already openly publish the number and species of animals they use on their websites.
“The BUAV is correct in saying that UK universities are always looking for ways to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in research, but that work regularly happens in the same departments that carry out the research. The BUAV may want people to think that there is ‘growing concern’ about the use of animals in research but the latest Ipsos MORI opinion polling showed that 68% of the British public accepts the use of animals to develop medicines for humans and animals.”
Frances Rawle, from the Medical Research Council, said: “These universities all receive Medical Research Council funding for their work because we believe the high quality research they do is important and may bring about real benefit to patients in the future. Universities are where most research takes place so it hardly seems surprising that this is where nearly half of animal research takes place. The MRC and all the universities mentioned are looking at ways to reduce, replace or refine animal research but it is still an extremely necessary part of medical research if we are to continue to find new treatments.”
An Oxford University spokesman said: “Oxford University’s medical research is devoted to identifying the causes of diseases, improving diagnosis and prevention and developing effective treatments and cures. Research involving animals remains essential to medical advances which are saving the lives and relieving the suffering of millions of people.
“Oxford is a pioneer in developing alternative research techniques which do not involve animals and the University only uses animals for specific and crucial elements of research which cannot be conducted in any other way.
“All such research is closely monitored and carried out according to the highest standards and conditions as set down by the licensing authority, the Home Office. Only a fractional proportion of the University’s biomedical research involves primates. In 2013, 45 primates were used in scientific studies, 0.02% of the total for all animals.
“Oxford’s contribution to this 2014 study involved further analysis of data from earlier research, conducted under licence and published in 2009. We conducted no new animal tests for the 2014 study, which accords with our principle of reducing the number of animals involved in research as far as possible.
“The study is significant as it shows different regions within the primate prefrontal cortex make distinctly different contributions to cognition. Understanding how different brain areas contribute to cognition helps advance our understanding of neurological dysfunction in humans, for example, after a stroke.”
A spokesman for Imperial College London: “Imperial College London believes that the use of animals in research is vital to improve human and animal health and welfare.
“Our robust ethical review procedures ensure that animals are only used in research programmes where their use is shown to be necessary for developing new treatments and making medical advances, and no alternatives exist.
“Imperial is committed to ensuring that, in cases where this research is deemed essential, all animals in the College’s care are treated with full respect, and that all staff involved with this work show due care and consideration at every level.
“As an integral part of any animal research study, Imperial scientists always consider alternatives to animal research, methods to reduce the number of animals involved, and ways to improve their methods to decrease animal suffering.”