This article is part of our special report Alternatives to animal testing.
All initiatives to promote alternatives to animal testing are welcome, but lawmakers should be bolder and impose some mandatory measures as well, Luxembourgish MEP Tilly Metz has said.
According to the Green MEP, policymakers must not give up their ambition of making the “3 Rs” approach to animal testing mandatory.
The “3 Rs” concept – on Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal testing – was introduced 60 years ago by scientists W.M.S. Russel and R.L. Burch in their seminal work on “The Principles of Human Experimental Technique”.
Since then, the scientific community, NGOs, politicians, and even the general public have espoused the concept and developed it further.
“It’s not a luxury, it should be an obligation,” said Metz, who spoke last month at the annual conference of the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA) in Brussels.
In order to encourage alternative approaches to animal testing, Metz suggested a strategic action plan, including new product labelling rules and changing the mission of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) as part of a broader review of EU legislation on the matter.
“We’ve been working on such a shift for a long time and it is not going to happen if we don’t propose a package of actions that we can really do,” Metz argued.
Society’s reliance on animal testing is no longer a cultural issue, she continued, but more about mentality and habits.
“We do a lot of animal testing because we are used to. We should assess how really efficient animal testing is,” she said, citing figures showing that 80% of animal testing is currently not efficient.
In this sense, education plays a central role in spreading the message of the 3R’s, Metz said. But programmes should not be limited to researchers or university students, she added, saying primary schools should be included as well.
Asked what the European Commission could do, the Luxembourgish MEP listed products labelling rules, EU research programs and financial aid to SMEs developing alternative techniques to animal testing.
Alternatives should also be promoted abroad, Metz pointed out. In this respect, the EPAA supports training for Chinese scientists, helping the Asian giant develop alternative tests for its booming cosmetics industry.
But promoting the 3 Rs approach beyond Europe also poses challenges. In China for instance, regulatory authorities and policymakers are reluctant to change legislation until the scientific infrastructure is ready.
“Compared to other countries like Brasil, the Chinese don’t do the shift to alternatives if they’re not prepared or if their laboratories aren’t ready,” a speaker from the private sector pointed out.
An official from the Commission’s environment directorate (DG ENV) mentioned a pilot project providing e-learning modules aimed at helping researchers become more knowledgeable on alternative methods. Efforts are also supported in the context of implementing Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, the official pointed out.
Dr Julia Fentem, head of Unilever’s Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC), said that leadership in this field comes from different places and different sectors also thanks to passionate individuals who have committed themselves to search for alternative methods.
And this years’ Refinement Prize goes to…
The EPAA platform, which brings together the EU executive and the private sector in promoting the development of alternative approaches to animal testing, is now entering the final year of its action programme (2015-2020).
In order to spread the use of alternatives to animal testing, EPAA also awards grants and prizes for researchers and students, such as the Refinement Prize.
Probably not the most intuitive or obvious of the 3Rs, Refinement nevertheless plays an equally important role.
Simply put, the refinement method is the modification of procedures, husbandry or care practices aimed at minimising animal pain and distress, enhancing their well-being.
A jury made up of 6 members, 2 each from the Commission, the industry and the mirror groups, is tasked to award a scientific project implementing refinement approaches in a day-to-day application.
Jury members give a score assessing the project’s creativity and innovation, but also whether the new method proposed has a potential for wider applications.
This year, the prize was assigned to Dr. Yvonne Armbrecht from the University of Veterinary Medicine of Hannover, who presented an effective approach to train animals to cooperate in routine procedures like weighing and blood sampling.
Her case study focuses on the effect of positive conditioning that can reduce stress in sheep during routine handling situations by “communicating” with them through a clicker or a target bar.
Target bar is used to direct sheep into a certain direction and distance, while each “click” of the clicker means something that the animal is trained to understand. For instance, the sound of one click means “you performed well” or “I want you to show this behaviour more often,” the researcher explained.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]