Involving animals in research

"Thousands of people are alive today thanks to research. Animal studies have played an important part in this progress."

Professor Karen Vousden, Chief Scientist, Cancer Research UK

"Thanks to the doctors giving me tamoxifen, I'm still alive and spending time with my family."

Sarah from London

"I was diagnosed with cancer 12 years ago. Without cancer research, including animal studies, I wouldn't have been able to take the drugs that helped me beat it, and continue living life to the full."

Nicki from London

A great deal of cancer research is carried out without involving animals. In certain areas, however, animal research remains essential if we are to understand, prevent and cure cancer.

Cancer Research UK only carries out research involving animals when there is no alternative.

Thanks to the work of Cancer Research UK and other organisations, cancer survival has doubled over the past 40 years. This achievement would not have been possible without animal research, which has furthered our understanding of the disease, and helped us to discover, develop and test life-saving treatments.

Cancer patients and their families are at the heart of everything we do. Cancer will affect 1 in 2 people during their lives and our ambition is to accelerate progress so that by 2034, more than 3 in 4 people diagnosed will survive. We believe that all our research is vital if we are to achieve this goal and save more lives.

Research involving animals is essential for us to save lives. Most cancer treatments used today wouldn’t exist without this type of work.

Much of our research doesn't involve animals, but sometimes scientists need to study the biology of cancer in a whole body, rather than individual cells or tissues. Researchers study cancer in animals because they are good models for how cancer behaves in people, helping us understand the disease so we can find better ways to detect and treat it. This includes discovering the faulty genes that cause cancer, investigating how the disease grows and spreads, and exploring how our bodies can help fight tumours.

We also need animal research to improve treatments. It’s an important way to develop and test new drugs, radiotherapy and surgical techniques.

It’s the law in the UK that all new treatments are tested in animals before they can be tested in people. This minimises the risk to cancer patients during the development of new treatments.

Science involving animals has been vital for the discovery of drugs like tamoxifen for breast cancer, which has saved thousands of women’s lives. And scientists first spotted the potential of Glivec in research involving mice – a drug that cures people with chronic myeloid leukaemia.

Antibody treatments were also developed thanks to animal studies, leading to treatments like cetuximab for bowel cancer, and drugs that harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Understanding how faulty genes cause cancer couldn’t be done without animal research because researchers need to look at the whole body, rather than individual cells or tissues. By making genetically engineered mice – something that can’t legally be done in people – scientists helped prove that faulty versions of genes like BRCA1 and APC are behind many cancers. And this knowledge has led to ways for people who inherit these faulty genes to reduce their cancer risk.

Animal research has been crucial for improving radiotherapy and surgery. For example keyhole surgery was first tested in animals.

And developing ways to prevent cancer, such as the HPV vaccine to stop cervical cancer developing, also relies on animal research.

Animal research is crucial to beating cancer, so it’s important we take every step to protect animals’ welfare.

Research involving animals is not undertaken lightly; it’s governed by strict laws in the UK. These laws ensure that research involving animals is only used when there is no alternative. Researchers are also legally required to make every effort to minimise the number of animals involved.

All animals involved in our research are under the supervision of vets and trained animal technicians who are responsible for the animals’ welfare. The research must be carried out by licensed people at licensed premises, which are regularly checked without notice by government inspectors.

And all animal research has to be approved by an ethics panel that includes members of the public. They must agree that the work is necessary, that the animals are being cared for correctly and that the potential benefits are worthwhile.

There are strict guidelines about the conditions that animals are kept in. For example, the temperature must keep the animals comfortable and the lighting set to give them normal day and night periods. Animals must not be overcrowded in their housing and must have ample food and fresh water. And they are given toys to keep them mentally stimulated.  

All our researchers follow the 3Rs – guidelines that were developed over 50 years ago to improve research involving animals.

Replacement – looking for approaches that don't involve animals

Reduction – reducing the number of animals involved

Refinement – introducing ways to reduce any pain or stress experienced by animals

Our researchers do experiments on cells grown in the lab, examine samples of human tumours and use sophisticated computer programmes to understand how cancer behaves instead of studying animals.

Scientists are developing cutting edge ways to grow miniature 3D tumours in the lab. This will help to uncover how tumour cells communicate with the healthy cells around them and test new drugs in a more realistic way without involving animals. 

Researchers are designing tests that could predict side effects of new cancer treatments that boost our immune system. Using small samples of human blood might mean fewer animals are needed to check a drug’s safety. 

We've funded research into a technique that reduces the number of mice needed for drug testing by using more sensitive equipment to measure levels of a drug in the mice's bloodstream. The diagram below explains more.

Completely replacing all animals in research is not yet possible. For now we will continue funding the highest quality research – including research involving animals – to help beat cancer sooner.


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