Animal testing: In search of alternatives


KU Leuven is resuming testing on rhesus monkeys, while UHasselt’s lab animal population has grown. Opponents are demanding an end to testing on primates, and Flemish scientists are looking for alternative methods

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KU Leuven rector in talks with ADC

The recent announcement of new research on rhesus monkeys at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and the increase of the lab animal population at Hasselt University (UHasselt) have reinvigorated the animal testing debate. The Dutch/Flemish Anti Dierproeven Coalitie (Anti Animal Testing Coalition, or ADC) is demanding a rapid ban on all tests on primates and the founding of a Centre for Alternative Methods.

Federal government figures indicate a decreasing use of animals in Belgian labs. In 2012, the 364 labs reported the use of 600,986 test animals, which is 9.6% less than the previous year and the lowest number since 2000. Thirty percent of the recognised labs did not carry out animal tests in 2012 and only 0.00066% of test animals were primates.

Last year, the government enforced EU regulation in a new royal decree, aiming to limit the harm done to animals through common protection standards. The guiding principles are called the Three Rs: replacement, reduction, refinement. Institutions shouldn’t use animals when there is an acceptable alternative, should reduce the number of animals used and should improve the methods to minimise animal suffering.

In contrast with this trend, UHasselt last month received an environmental permit to keep 3,720 test animals, while their previous permit allowed them just 120. The university, however, admitted that its facilities already housed about 1,250 test animals.

The animals will be used for research into multiple sclerosis, rheumatism and heart failure. They will also be used for tests of medication and a small number of educational projects for medical students.

Taking action

Belgium’s animal rights organisation, Gaia, announced that they were investigating possible legal steps, and the Anti Dierproeven Coalitie (ADC) is preparing a protest at the UHasselt rectorate next month. “The UHasselt example shows that the government is insufficiently monitoring the number of test animals in labs,” says Danny Flies, chair of the Flemish branch of ADC.

With a correct risk analysis, this should provide good monitoring of test animals’ welfare

- Katleen Sottiaux

Katleen Sottiaux, spokesperson for federal social affairs minister Laurette Onkelinx, say that last year’s regulation makes sure that 30% of the test animals are checked. “In combination with a correct risk analysis, this should provide good monitoring of test animals’ welfare,” she says.

On 2 February, ADC organised a protest during the Patron Saint’s Day events at KU Leuven. The reason: The Flemish Fund for Scientific Research had allocated €793,500 to experiments using rhesus monkeys, which will be carried out between 2014 and 2017 by the team of neurophysiologist Wim Vanduffel. Vanduffel plans to analyse the working of monkey brains to combat disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

KU Leuven currently houses about 40 rhesus monkeys. Last summer, there was controversy with the news that Vanduffel would inject monkeys with cocaine to examine the addiction process. KU Leuven rector Rik Torfs recently announced a dialogue with the ADC, and Flies confirms that they are talking.

“We are currently focusing on the abolition of tests on all kinds of primates,” says Flies. In 2009, the Belgian government banned tests on apes, such as chimpanzees. “Our final goal is to stop all animal tests, but we believe in a gradual approach,” explains Flies. “We are first targeting primates and then our priority will be to ban experiments on dogs and cats.”

Asked about a future abolition of tests on primates, Sottiaux says that Onkelinx wants to minimise the use of these animals and impose stricter conditions.

Impediment to research

Flies points out a survey by polling bureau Ipsos in 2012 among more than 1,000 Belgians showing that 79% want a ban on experiments with primates, and 81% want a ban on experiments with cats and dogs.

Our final goal is to stop all animal tests, but we believe in a gradual approach

- Danny Flies

Certain researchers, however, fear that animal rights activists are increasingly impeding their research. KU Leuven Alzheimer’s expert Bart De Strooper recently told Flemish newspaper De Standaard that the resistance to experiments on primates in Europe will result in a scientific advantage for Asian labs, where animal testing is less regulated.

De Strooper said he also uses alternative methods, such as experiments with stem cells, but that these only replace animal tests in a first phase. “I will never be able to examine the formation of a memory without using animals,” he said.

He also denounced the increasing bureaucracy, which is making his work more complicated and more expensive. “For every mouse we use, we have to submit an extensive ethical dossier.”

Flies, on the other hand, demands stricter monitoring and asks that researchers with critical opinions on animal testing are represented on the ethical committees at universities. These committees decide whether individual projects involving animal tests should be allowed. Flies also feels that the pressure to publish is a reason for the continued focus on animal testing and that there should be more support for research using innovative, alternative methods, like stem cell experiments.

Stem cells, not animals

One of the Flemish pioneers in alternative methods is Vera Rogiers, toxicology professor at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). Her research group develops ways to test the safety of new substances, like drugs, without using animals. Recently, her team succeeded in transforming stem cells into functional liver cells, making them ideal for testing the toxicity of substances.

In De Standaard, Rogiers declared her belief that progress in stem cell research and computer modelling will in time make animal tests unnecessary. “But I don’t expect this will happen in the next 10 years, and the alternative will still have its limitations,” she said.

Encouraging this kind of research should be the mission of a Centre of Alternative Methods, as promised in a royal decree of 2009. Sottiaux says the centre will be launched as soon as a sufficient budget is available and that it will be housed at the federal Scientific Institute of Public Health.

Flies hopes the centre will soon be established and that it will help Belgium become a leader in the innovative sector of developing and implementing alternative methods of research. “This policy would not just create scientific advantages,” he says, “but also result in economic benefits.”


Photo © Ocean/Corbis

Animal testing: In search of alternatives

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