Using animals in biomedical research: why education holds the key


Animal (or in vivo) experiments play an important role in biomedical research. They are essential to support the development of innovative medicines that can ultimately improve human and animal health.

But for these studies to be scientifically valid, laboratory animals must be used appropriately by researchers. Similarly, researchers must be able to meaningfully interpret and critique published data, discriminating between well-designed and flawed in vivo experiments. Improving this knowledge base within the biomedical workforce improves reproducibility of research, which in turn supports biomedical innovation.

Building this broad skill set requires extensive specialist training. To support this, the British Pharmacological Society and partner organisations have just launched a new curriculum for undergraduate and taught master’s education on the use of research animals.

The new curriculum is the culmination of a year-long collaboration between academics, industry scientists and animal welfare experts. It has been designed to:

  • help students understand when research requires the use of animals, and when it does not
  • provide education in the skills needed to interpret and critique reported data obtained from research animals
  • share good practice on how to design animal experiments and to integrate animal welfare as part of that process
  • foster openness about the use of research animals

The curriculum focuses on knowledge and understanding, experimental design and how to interpret the data. It highlights issues around ethics, animal welfare, regulation and the 3Rs, and invites students to consider wider social attitudes towards this type of research. It does not require all students to have hands-on contact with animals, as observation or video simulations may be enough to convey the intended learning outcomes. For those students who do want practical exposure to research animals, the curriculum advises educators on a range of appropriate techniques to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Rebuilding the animal research skills base

In addition to supporting the knowledge and skills of the next generation, in the long term we hope that this new curriculum will help to maintain UK strengths in the life sciences and drive innovation. Today, the UK is a world leader in the appropriate and ethical use of animals in research and is committed to maintaining the highest standards in education and training for in vivo researchers. But this strong position was only achieved thanks to the efforts of educators and funders. Following reports of an acute skills shortage among UK researchers, they worked together to rebuild the animal research skills base.

Public-private partnerships are essential to this process. Indeed, from 2004 to 2015, the government- and industry-backed Integrative Pharmacology Fund successfully helped to increase the capacity and quality (pdf) of in vivo education, training and research in higher education. It also helped to foster improvements in animal welfare, research outcomes, and the 3Rs.

As a result, a lack of technical in vivo skills is no longer a clear and present danger – but we cannot be complacent. There are indications that many skilled scientists are due to retire in the next 10 years. Furthermore, the UK’s ability to continue to easily recruit from the European Union is uncertain. Therefore, the new curriculum is designed to help educators maintain the UK’s hard-earned, world-leading position.

Cross-sector support is crucial

Delivery of the curriculum will be simple for some institutions and more challenging for others. We recognise that resources can be limited and that not every educator has direct experience of working with research animals.

Therefore, the British Pharmacological Society and The Physiological Society are pleased to announce a joint funding commitment to supporting implementation of the curriculum. We will work closely with educators to understand how this funding could achieve the greatest impact for students. The fund will be used to support the development of complementary online resources aimed to help students engage with the curriculum. It will also be used to fund educators’ professional development. We especially want to support those who may be less experienced in teaching these – often challenging – topics.

This new curriculum for animal research is the first to be supported and endorsed by a significant number of organisations. These include research organisations, national and international learned societies (including the Royal Society of Biology), UK universities, the NC3Rs, and industry (including the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry). Its wide adoption should help students to understand the appropriate use of animals in research; interpret and critique data acquired from them; improve the quality, reproducibility and welfare of such studies; and lay the foundations for a highly skilled and well-informed next generation of researchers.

Author Bios: Michael Collis, Dave Lewis, Manasi Nandi and Anna Zecharia are members of the British Pharmacological Society’s curriculum development team.