Improving animal research

All our researchers follow the 3Rs – principles that are well established 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 are helping to improve animal research using these principles. This includes doing experiments on cells grown in the lab, examining samples of human tumours and using sophisticated computer programmes to understand how cancer behaves.

Scientists are also 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.

Our commitment to the 3Rs

We’re committed to supporting the principles of the 3Rs in our research. Below are some examples of how our scientists are replacing, refining and reducing animals in cancer research.

  • Our PEACE study is shedding light on what happens during the final stages of cancer. Traditionally this type of research has been carried out in animals, but this nationwide project is collecting samples from people who have died from cancer in a bid to understand how tumours spread and stop responding to treatments. In turn, this innovative approach could reveal new ways to tackle the disease.  
  • We’re supporting and are an active member of the international Human Cancer Models Initiative, a collaboration that’s creating miniaturized versions of tumours in a dish – ‘organoids’. Reflecting a range of cancers, these organoids will help scientists across the world to replace animals in some of their research, such as studies into potential new treatments, and will complement research where animals are necessary.   
  • Our Centre for Drug Development (CDD) is working on ways to replace animals in drug safety studies, for example by pooling existing data to show how a potential new treatment is likely to work in people


  • Professor Kevin Brindle from our Cambridge Institute is researching better ways to image cancer. He’s developing highly sensitive techniques that can scan tumours in the same living animal – and in patients – over time. This means far fewer animals need to be used in each experiment.
  • At our Cambridge Institute, a team led by Professor Carlos Caldas is developing new ways to accurately mimic human breast cancers in the lab. They’ve taken breast cancer samples from patients and grown them in mice. They have also pioneered a technique to grow cells in dishes from these tumours in mice to allow testing hundreds of cancer drugs for each patient’s cancer. This could help researchers better predict how individual patients might respond to treatments in clinical trials, while reducing the number of animals needed in pre-clinical studies.
  • Our Centre for Drug Development (CDD) brings much needed new treatments to people with cancer. Here, our scientists are continually working to improve drug safety research and use new techniques that reduce the number of animals involved, without affecting the reliability of these studies.  


  • Scientists from our Manchester Institute’s Biological Resources Unit recently introduced swings for mice housed at the facility, to enhance their environment and improve animal welfare. These award-winning swings are now being made into a commercial product and have been praised for their potential to make a great impact on animal welfare.  
  • At our Manchester Institute, Professor Caroline Dive’s team is developing blood tests – ‘liquid biopsies’ – to track and monitor lung cancer. Mice have been crucial to this research, but the group has been working on ways to refine their techniques. For example they no longer use a surgical operation to study patient tumours in the animals, and they’ve reduced the number of mice needed to test out new drugs.  


Reducing animal testing

Find out more

For further information about involving animals in our research: