The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is Australia’s major funding body for health and medical research. The NHMRC provides grants “from basic science through to clinical, public health and health services research”. Between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014 the NHMRC awarded $811,901,796 in new grants. We do not know what proportion of this funding is used to conduct animal experimentation, but out of a total 4,312 active grants in 2014, 1,600 involved animal research*. This is 37%, or more than one in three grants. Summary details of grants are available on the NHMRC website.
Devoting 37% of public medical research grants to research that involves the use of animals is very high, considering that animals are inadequate models for human health and illness.
Currently, nine out of ten experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies (Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, 2006).
Alternatives to animal research are available, for example in vitro models (cells, tissues, organs), computer modelling, biokinetic modelling, human studies, epidemiological studies, and organs-on-chips. The Abstracts of the 9th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, Prague, 2014 (24-28 August) provide an overview of recent developments.
So what about government-funded research on alternatives to animal experiments? Unlike other developed countries, Australia does not have government-sponsored programs to develop and/or validate non-animal research methods. Australia is lagging behind, again.
Here in Australia we have a non-government organisation that funds (mostly small grants) the development and utilisation of non-animal based experimental methods to replace the use of animals in medical research, the MAWA Trust.
Alternatives to Animal Research through Bioinformatics – This group at the John Curtain School of Medical Research, Australian National University, has the mission
to develop and support alternative methods and strategies that have the potential to replace animals or animal products in fundamental biomedical research. As required by alternatives, the nature of our research is focused entirely on human experimental biology as an avenue to understanding disease; this focus introduces a primary challenge of how to embrace human variation and diversity while understanding complex medical biology.
Replace Animals in Australian Testing – This group of researchers at the University of Wollongong aims to:
create a network of researchers and other individuals or groups interested in advocating non-animal based research and in strengthening the Australian Government/NHMRC guidelines and their enforcement.
Below are examples of countries whose governments are more proactive in supporting the development and validation of non-animal methods:
Europe – The European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing (EURL – ECVAM) was established in 2011. But the European Commission’s support of activities targeted to the validation of alternative approaches to animal testing started in 1991, with the launch of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM). EURL – ECVAM’s aims are:
to promote the scientific and regulatory acceptance of non-animal tests which are of importance to biomedical sciences, through research, test development and validation and the establishment of a specialised database service
to co-ordinate at the European level the independent evaluation of the relevance and reliability of tests for specific purposes, so that chemicals and products of various kinds, including medicines, vaccines, medical devices, cosmetics, household products and agricultural products, can be manufactured, transported and used more economically and more safely, whilst the current reliance on animal test procedures is progressively reduced.
United Kingdom – The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) with an annual budget of around £7 million, is funded by government, the charitable and commercial sectors, and co-funding from other research funders. It funds research and early career development, supporting open innovation and the commercialisation of 3Rs technologies, and stimulating changes in policy, regulations and practice.
United States – National Toxicology Program (NTP) Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM), and Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM)
ICCVAM’s mission is to facilitate development, validation, and regulatory acceptance of new and revised regulatory test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while maintaining and promoting scientific quality and the protection of human health, animal health, and the environment.
NICEATM supports ICCVAM by facilitating the development, validation, and regulatory acceptance of new and revised regulatory test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while maintaining and promoting scientific quality and the protection of human and animal health and the environment.
Germany – The Centre for the Documentation and Evaluation of Alternatives to Animal Experiments (ZEBET), part of Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), reports to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. ZEBET develops alternatives in its own laboratory, and funds innovative approaches on alternatives to animal experiments at universities and research institutes.
Netherlands – The National Knowledge Centre on Alternatives to Animal Experiments (NKCA) was set up in 2009 by the Netherlands Government and is based on collaboration between the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and Utrecht University (3R Centre Utrecht Life Sciences). NKCA aims to advance the application of 3R alternatives through knowledge coordination and to facilitate knowledge exchange and communication between researchers, policy makers and the wider society.
NKCA has an advisory role in programming 3R research, which is coordinated by the Netherlands organisation for health research and development (ZonMw,) and the dissemination of knowledge and application of research results. Further, NCKA undertakes education and postgraduate training on 3R alternatives, and particularly the legally required training for researchers conducting animal experiments.
Canada – Health Canada’s Environmental Health Science and Research Bureau coordinates the evaluation of alternative test methods in Canada. Health Canada is a permanent member of the Canadian Council on Animal Care, which oversees the ethical use of animals in science in Canada.
Japan – Japanese Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods (JaCVAM). It is part of the National Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS). JaCVAM’s policy and mission is to promote the 3Rs in animal experiments for the evaluation of chemical substance safety in Japan and establish guidelines for new alternative experimental methods through international collaboration.
South Korea – The Korean Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods (KoCVAM) coordinates the evaluation of alternative test methods in South Korea. KoCVAM is part of the National Institute of Food and Drug Safety Evaluation of the South Korean Food and Drug Administration.
Brazil – BRA: Brazilian Center for Validation of Alternative Methods (BraCVAM), established in 2011. BraCVAM
was created in order to identify laboratories and the need of validation, as well as organize and make feasible the execution of validation process.
Other relevant links
AltTox.org – National or regional centres and professional, industrial, academic, and non-governmental organisations involved with developing, using, and/or promoting non-animal alternative methods for toxicity testing.
* Source: Correspondence between NHMRC and HRA.