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Safer research in new animal testing facility

There are plans to build a new animal testing facility at Brunnshög in north-east Lund. It is a strategic decision by the Faculty of Medicine based on the need to replace the present animal facility, which is no longer optimal for breeding, and the desire aim to offer international researchers a safer research environment. LUM spoke to three of LU’s experts on animal testing matters.

The animal facility at the Faculty of Medicine has been in operation for almost 20 years and a lot has happened in that time regarding the handling of test laboratory animals. As research with genetically modified animals has increased dramatically in the past two decades, breeding is now  considered to be a facet of engineering and there are now currently close to 10 000 unique strains of mice in the world. In the current present premises it is not possible to keep the breeding strains apart from the test animals in a way that prevents cross-contamination infection, which means a high infection risk for the animals. The mouse strains need to be protected and this can only be achieved by keeping them strictly separated from the rest of the animals as well as from the researchers.

“The planned building, the Comparative Medicine Unit (CMU), will only be accessible to those dealing with breeding animalsIn the planned building, the Comparative Medicine Unit (CMU), only those dealing with breeding animals will have access. The CMU will consist of two units – a breeding unit and a n laboratory animal testing unit that also has a holding facility for imported and potentially infected animals. If an infection is detected, the research that is being carried out is not validated and animals may need to be put down due to disease”, says head veterinarian Anders Forslid.

The idea of a new animal facility with a quarantine option has been under consideration for a number of years, but it was only when MAX IV became a reality that the idea was hatched to locate the facility adjacent to the research centre. The quarantine option means that the international researchers who come to Sweden can bring their specific animal strains.

This may entail a certain impact on animals that are transported, so having the animal facility close to the researchers at MAX IV avoids unnecessary stress on the animals, explains Lars Dahlin, chair of the Animal Welfare Committee at LU.
The new building will not mean an increase in test  laboratory  animals. It is quite the opposite, as the animals’ hygiene status will be higher, which means a lower risk of infection and thus a lower risk that the animals will become ill. Everything that enters the breeding unit must be sterile – air is filtered, and food, water, cages and environmental enrichment are sterile. There is a strict quarantine system for the staff.

However, the planned building has been called into question internally by those who do not use animal testing in their research and therefore do not want to pay for it.
“Besides the fact that we need better premises for the animals’ wellbeing, this is a strategic initiative by the faculty in order to attract international researchers. The reservations that have been expressed in certain quarters do not relate to the facility as such, but rather who is going to pay for it”, says Eva Ekblad, chair of the animal facility organisation at the Faculty of Medicine.

She emphasises that most activities are funded by the whole of LU and considers that this type of infrastructure matter is important for the University and Faculty of Medicine centrally. Perhaps it is also necessary to factor in who brings money into the faculty. Just under 30 per cent of the faculty’s researchers use animals in their research, but in pure funding terms this group generates around half of the grants.
Many animal trials have disappeared over the years to be replaced by new alternatives such as data models, tissue samples from patients and cell cultivations in test tubes. There is continuous development of the process to find replacement models to reduce the number of animals. The animal rights movement has also, together with public opinion in Sweden, pursued many issues that have improved conditions for both test laboratory animals and farm animals.
“The 1970s and 80s were perhaps the most active, as it was then that we got ethics committees with the task of evaluating  animal tests experiments according to their purpose and the suffering they imposed, as well as a new Animal Welfare Act. One of the results of this, for example, was the ban on testing cosmetics on animals”, says Eva Ekblad.

Today, there is strict legislation at different levels to regulate the use of animals in research. The researchers must write a very detailed application in order to be granted ethical approval and also need approved qualifications to handle animals. They are also not allowed to have a tougher design for the research project than necessary. The Ethical Review Board has a continuous discussion on the purpose of a testthe experiment and the degree of stress to which animals are may be subjected. Everything is based on the important 3R principle – Reduce, Refine and Replace. This means there are to be efforts to reduce the number of animals, improve the experimental methodology and replace animal testing with other methods where possible. Animal testing is also a very expensive activity and it is in everyone’s interest to reduce the number of animals and that they have good conditionssafeguard their welfare.

“Filling in an research ethics application requires meticulous planning in terms of experimental design and execution and that is how it should be. That is the price for a humanitarian society”, says Eva Ekblad.
There are expectations placed on the researchers by society to develop better drugs and other treatment methods, which also  includes being able to offer good animal healthcare. But there are also demands on them to handle the animals well. Lars Dahlin considers that it isit essential that it is not up to the individual researcher to balance the two demands, but rather that the legislation reflects thesethem.
“It feels very secure for me as a researcher that it is so well regulated,” he says.

The organisation that surrounds animal welfare is very extensive and it reflects the public’spublic opinion that these are important issues. Studies show that 80 per cent of Sweden’s population think that animal testing is acceptable, if it conducted according to existing laws and regulations.

“Of course there are tough animal tests experiments in which the animal must be sick so that it is possible to study the underlying disease’s mechanisms and find new treatment alternatives. One example is diabetes, which is a system diseasemetabolic disorder in which different parts of the body affect each other”, says Anders Forslid.
Researchers must be able to investigate whether how a potential drug interacts with the entire organism in order to understand the complex biological connections. It is difficult not to test on live animals at some stage in the process. Besides diabetes, this applies to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and global threats in the form of  different  infectious diseases. There are also regulations in Sweden that stipulate that a drug must be tested on two species of animal before it can be approved for use.
“We would not have insulin today, for example, if it was not for animal testing. It is no coincidence that nine out of ten Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine have gone to discoveries made thanks to animal testing”, concludes Eva Ekblad.

Animal testing at LU

Four faculties use animals in their research: the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Engineering (LTH) and the Faculties of Humanities and Theology.
Around 50 000 animals per year are used in tests experiments – 90 per cent by the Faculty of Medicine.
Animals are used in: basic research, applied research with a clinical focus, field studies and cognitive research.

Comparative Medicine Unit (CMU)

Capacity for between 20 000 to 35 000 animals, primarily mice, but possibly a small percentage of rats.
Construction is planned to start in 2019 and is expected to take about two years.
Construction costs will be SEK 255 million.

Photo of woman
Eva Ekblad is professor of histology, spokesperson on animal testing issues and chair of the  animal facility organisation at the Faculty of Medicine.

Man with glasses
Anders Forslid is head veterinarian at LU.

Lars Dahlin

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Lars Dahlin is professor and consultant in hand surgery as well as chair of the Animal Welfare Committee at LU.