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50 years of replacing animal experiments

We have talked to a veteran within the field of replacing animal experiments – Karin Gabrielson Morton from the Swedish Fund for Research Without Animal Experiments. Karin is also member and second vice chair of the Swedish National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes.

There are few people in Sweden who knows more about replacing animal experiments than Karin Gabrielson Morton, senior advisor at the Swedish Fund for Research Without Animal Experiments. Karin shares a retrospective and her reflections on the future.

Karin, you have been active within the field of replacing animals in research for many years. Which are, according to you, the most important changes and milestones?

I think we have come far in Sweden and we adopted the 3Rs long before the EU Directive 2010/63/EU in 2010. But of course, the Directive has meant a lot for the progress in Europe and also in Sweden. It was pioneering when it came, that it actually stated that animal experiments are to be replaced as soon as it is scientifically possible.

And finally, the 3Rs were highlighted as an important factor that finally is mandatory to consider when using animals in research and testing, more than 50 years after the publication of the book on the 3Rs by Russel and Burch.

Do we need to push things forward or is the Directive enough?

The Directive is clear about the responsibility, both of the Commission and all the member states, to find and use new methods that can replace animal models.

But I think this is not enough. There is a lack of sense of urgency, when what we need is a strong commitment from all stakeholders to ensure that everything that could be done to develop new methods to replace the use om animals, is done.

I don’t see that kind of commitment. There’s still a need for more funding, more cooperation, more validation efforts and a commitment to support the solutions needed. Sometimes me and my colleagues are asked: Are you never satisfied? My answer is no. As long as we actually perform experiments on living animals, we are obliged to try to replace them with non-animal models.

You say that Sweden has come far. In what perspective?

Sweden was a pioneer to put the 3Rs foremost in the line. Already in 1979, the Swedish parliament decided to introduce regional ethics committees on animal experiments, but also to finance a dedicated 3Rs research. The main message from the parliament then was that animal experimentation is an ethical dilemma and needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

So, if you ask me – I think that Sweden was ahead of the EU Commission, which decided on these issues in the Directive as late as 2010.

What about today’s progress? Do we still have a leading position?

Well, the funding of projects with focus on the 3Rs hasn’t changed since 2009 – that is of course problematic for the development of new methods and the 3Rs progress. We often claim to be leaders in the field, but I'm not sure that's actually the case anymore. I don’t see that when it comes to investments and research funding.

Is the rest of the Union ahead of us then?

To some extent, yes, as EU itself and some member states seem to increasing their efforts, at the same time as Sweden is cutting down on its effort. The lost dedicated funding for the Swedish 3Rs Center was a big surprise that caught everyone off guard. I frankly cannot understand why the funding was cut off at a time when Sweden should get even more involved and support all the actions taking place on an EU level, and there is a need to step up the national coordination to live up to the new expectations from the EU.

The Commission published a clear message in July this year, where they highlight the leading role of the EU in phasing out the use of animals in testing and improving animal welfare in general. The Commission says it will work together with all relevant parties on a roadmap towards chemical safety assessments that are free from animal testing, but also launch initiatives of actions to accelerate the reduction of animal testing in research, education and training. This is exactly where the Swedish 3Rs Center will be needed.

In mid-December, the Swedish 3Rs Center participated in a workshop organised by the Commission regarding the roadmap to phase out animal testing in chemical safety assessments. Representatives from many different organisations, such as European agencies, EU-funded networks, industry and animal rights organisations, presented their work and ambitions regarding replacement of animal testing. It is obvious that there is a common aim to work hard for the replacement of animal-based methods within the EU.

The Swedish 3Rs Center has been up and running for six years now. What impact has it had when it comes to replacing animal experiments?

The Directive clarified the tasks of the national committees, but an executive organ was needed to ensure that the National Committee could move from just talking to actually getting things done. With the 3Rs Center we got the needed resources to act. And we must remember that the 3Rs Center has a wider mission than the National Committee. A competence centre with a dedicated staff, makes it possible to gather knowledge and the actors needed to disseminate information to be implemented. The Center is a neutral arena, where we can work with dialogue, collaboration and different perspectives to meet.

I also want to raise the importance of activities that are not visible in social media or at conferences. Our work with government agencies for example. The 3Rs Center has a helicopter perspective on the 3Rs questions and can gather different stakeholders thanks to its broad network. This has turned out to be very useful to the other collaborators in our projects and networks. Another example is the collaboration the Center has refined with research funding agencies in Sweden, to put the 3Rs on the agenda. We help and support others to work with the 3Rs!

Has the Swedish work any impact on the European progress?

It truly has. The foundation of a national 3Rs Center made it possible for us to participate in international contexts, meetings and networks. Today, the Swedish 3Rs Center is an established hub in Sweden, but also in the international 3Rs context. The Center meets with great respect and trust from other parties in a global context.

This fall for example, the Center has been involved in putting together a suggestion for a European Research Area (ERA) proposal that focuses on replacing animal experimentation and the upcoming EU political agenda for 2025–2027. The suggestion was initiated by the Commission together with the Netherlands. But thanks to our collaboration within the union, the Swedish 3Rs Center was invited to participate in dialogue that led up to the final proposal. This work can have significant effects on the progress of replacing animal experimentation.

What about the future, is it possible to replace more animal experiments?

In my work at a research funding agency, I meet lots of researchers that have ideas on how to replace animal models, but many of them have trouble to get funding to even get their projects started. Many new models and assays never make it out of the lab where developed, because of lack of funding for the next steps to make it available for others to use.

It is great that the EU is stepping up to increase its actions and make more member states contribute. There is a risk that Sweden will fall behind, much due to the discontinued funding of the 3Rs Center.

What area will be the first to replace animal experiments?

Animal experiments for regulatory use are first in line to accelerate the replacement. Within the toxicology field much has happened that last couple of years and I believe that we can look forward to a future with an impressive reduction of animal experiments, if not a total replacement.

Back to Sweden. Do we grasp the revolution that seems to be going on?

Many Swedish researchers are already on board, but not all. I’m not so sure that all universities are fully aware of the changing attitudes and views of animal experimentation that the future may hold.

It makes me think of a film that the 3Rs Center has produced, with different perspectives from stakeholders. For example, Joëlle Rüegg, Professor at Uppsala University, expresses what she expects from the future:

"I do expect from research funders and scientific journals that they more clearly demand that one needs to argue for one’s choice of model and whether it is well planned, and better request cell models or computer models.”

I do believe that this is where we are heading, to a future where all parties involved will ask more questions about the use of animals in research, and to encourage and support the transition to using non-animal methods. Development and implementation of non-animal methods in research will then speed up as a result.

If you want to see the film that Karin is referring to, you can find it on our website. It is only available in Swedish though.