Using mice in research
In order to offer diagnoses and therapies for disease, we need to understand its causes. This means developing a much stronger grasp of how genes and genomes contribute to disease.
Genetic research has accelerated at a remarkable rate over the last half-century, resulting in not only better diagnoses and treatments of human diseases but also a better understanding of the biological mechanisms that underlie normal and abnormal human physiology. Even with these successes, there are many diseases with a genetic basis that remain undiagnosed and which therefore lack effective treatments.
There are many scientific and medical questions that currently need answers in order to deliver improvements in human health, such as those relating to the incidence of diabetes, diseases of ageing, and developmental disorders. Studies using cellular and computational approaches or alternative non-mammalian species (such as flies and worms) remain important – but some issues can only be addressed and real progress made by studying a mammalian organism.
The mouse is the key for our investigation of diseases at MRC Harwell. Its physiology is very similar to that of a human and it even suffers many of the same diseases, such as deafness, diabetes, and some neurological disorders. We are working to understand these diseases at Harwell so that we can ultimately reduce the burden of human suffering.
Review of research involving mice at MRC Harwell
Mouse research only proceeds when no other options are available and the predicted benefits of the knowledge gained can justify the cost to the individual animals involved. The decision to support and proceed with mouse research at MRC Harwell is taken after extensive consultation and ethical review, which includes opinions from scientific, veterinary, and animal care staff as well as lay people.
In addition to these ethical considerations of the proposed research, the best way for MRC Harwell to deliver high quality scientific data is also debated. This ensures that Harwell is the best place to undertake the proposed studies, both in terms of the available expertise and the quality of its facilities. Much effort is directed to the refinement of procedures involving animals and the reduction of suffering. For example, in recent years we have:
- reduced the volumes of blood collected for biochemical analyses
- abolished the use of tail biopsies for genotyping
- developed ways of characterising and assessing the consequences of genetic mutations that have led to the ability to end studies earlier (which usually involves euthanising the mouse).
Collecting the relevant scientific data in a shorter amount of time minimises any pain or suffering.
Mouse genetics research at Harwell requires breeding and maintaining many different strains of mice, carrying diverse genetic changes. 201,635 animals were bred at MRC Harwell in 2020, 100,395 underwent a scientific procedure as defined by Animal (Scientific Procedure) Act 1986. Breeding mice as part of scientific programmes allows researchers to not only explore the function of single genes but also more complex systems and diseases caused by the interaction of multiple genes. Many human diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are caused by the interplay of hundreds of genes, so such experiments are vital. For every colony of mice there is a frequently-reviewed individual breeding plan which aims to match the number of mice required for each specific experiment with the number produced from the matings in those colonies. This ensures that conclusive data is delivered with the minimum number of animals being bred.
In summary, MRC Harwell is proactively committed to implementing the 3Rs – the refinement, reduction, and replacement of animals in research. Scientists at Harwell are trained to care not just for the animals, but about the animals. Their objective is to deliver knowledge that will hopefully benefit the lives of people in future, but they do so in the knowledge that they have commitments to the animals in their care, and commitments to both minimising their pain and suffering and strive to improve their welfare.