UBC releases 2014 statistics on animal research use

UBC has published their annual statistics detailing their use of animals for research in the previous year, reigniting yet again the fierce debate around animal research at this university.

182,115 animals were used in 869 research and teaching experiment proposals in 2014 — roughly a 16 per cent drop since the previous year. This marks the fifth consecutive year that UBC has published their animal research statistics, one of only two universities in Canada to do so.

“There’s an interest from the public to have disclosure and there’s a legitimate interest from UBC to be transparent about their research program,” said UBC Veterinarian Ian Welsh.

The majority of animals used in research or teaching were rodents, making up 62.5 per cent. A significant number of fish — 21.5 per cent — and reptiles or amphibians — 13.7 per cent — were used. Less than three per cent of the animals were birds or non-rodent mammals.

The published numbers were submitted to the Canadian Council of Animal Care (CCAC), a national organization dedicated to maintaining high ethics and care standards for the use of animals in science.

UBC uses a set of alphabetical categories set out by the CCAC that measure invasiveness  or the level of discomfort that an animal will be placed under during an experiment. Around 56 per cent of the animals were used in Category B or C experiments, indicating little to minor stress or discomfort. 

Over 42 per cent of the animals were used in Category D experiments, which indicates “moderate to severe distress or discomfort." Examples of Category D experiments include anaesthetized surgery, periods of physical restraint or exposure to stimuli which can cause aggression, distress or deprivation.

Twenty-seven animals were used in Category E experiments, which indicates “severe pain near, at or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals.”  While Category E experiments have decreased by over 57 per cent from the previous year, Category D experiments seem to be on the rise. They increased by 3.8 per cent from 2013, which itself was up by 2.6 per cent from 2012.

According to Welsh, UBC has been making an active effort over the years to greatly emphasize the “Three R’s” of animal research — replacement, reduction and refinement.

“We encourage replacement, which means that we would use a non-animal model [such as] computer modelling,” said Welsh. “If the animals are justified, then we look at reduction and we make sure that the investigator is using only the amount of animals that are required to answer the question that the investigator has. Thirdly, the last “R” is an emphasis on refinement — are we doing everything in our power to make sure that we have minimized any potential for distress in the animal as a part of the refinement?”

Welsh also said that UBC now manages its animals individually rather than in groups to make sure that each one receives proper veterinary care.

Regardless, some critics are concerned about UBC’s long-term efforts to decrease animal research. In an online press release, the anti-vivisection group called Stop UBC Animal Research raised their concerns.

“Stop UBC Animal Research is concerned that, while the estimated 182,115 animals used is lower than in 2013, data gathered over the past five years shows that the numbers fluctuate annually without a significant trend towards a reduction as UBC should be committed to under the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) guidelines," read the release.

“In addition, Category D studies at UBC saw an increase over the 2013 stats — something completely contrary to the principles of the CCAC and UBC’s own commitment.”

An area that has been gaining traction over the past few years is the development of alternatives to animal research. In 2015, the Animals in Science Policy Institute (AiSPI) was founded to promote the use and development of non-animal models in classrooms as well as research experiments.

“Oftentimes [proposals for experiments] tend to either focus on reducing the numbers of animals or refining procedures. But really having that question, ‘Is this animal use necessary in the first place?’ would be a really good start,” said AiSPI Executive Director Elisabeth Ormandy.

She praised various technologies such as computer simulations, body-on-a-chip research — a cell-culture system that simulates the reactions of the human body on a smartphone-sized appliance — as well as 3D printing and various applications which allow students to dissect animals on an iPad.

Welsh does believe that non-animal models will become much more prevalent in the future.

“You will continue to see those things refined and become more sophisticated,” he said. “As they … get closer and closer to mimicking the in-vivo environment of a human, you will see more people using animal models use those alternatives.”

For more information about animal research at UBC, read our feature about it here.