At the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), a total of 52,078 animals – primarily mice – were used in studies in 2018. That is 2,882 more than in the previous year. The MDC has now submitted these figures to the regulatory authority, the Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo). A total of 37,678 animals were genetically modified, some 5,000 more than in 2017.
Germany has some of the toughest animal welfare laws in the world. The protection of animal welfare has been enshrined in the German Constitution since 2002. The anticipated scientific and medical benefits of each study must be weighed against the suffering and distress caused to the laboratory animals. In order determine the degree of suffering and distress, the Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament sets forth different severity categories. These range from “non-recovery” to “severe.” The largest number of laboratory animals at the MDC (25,183) were used in scientific procedures classified as “mild,” while 21,292 were used in procedures classified as “non-recovery.” A total of 348 laboratory animals – or just under 0.7 percent – were used in ‟severe” procedures.
Severe procedures are those in which the animals are likely to experience severe pain, suffering, or distress, as well as those that are likely to cause severe impairment of the well-being or general condition of the animals. Procedures in which animals are likely to experience moderate but long-lasting pain, suffering, or distress are also classified as “severe.”
“We live longer and healthier lives because of animal research,” says Martin Lohse, Scientific Director of the MDC. “At this point in time, many key questions can only be answered with animal studies. But it is our responsibility to constantly improve our experiments, to use minimally-invasive procedures such as imaging whenever possible, to look for alternative testing methods, and to challenge our thinking.”
In most cases, MDC researchers conduct studies on cell or tissue cultures or with computer models. They are also constantly developing new methods to analyze medical problems, for example, with mini-organs (organoids) and other stem cell technologies.
When animal studies are required, modern omics technologies allow enormous amounts of data to be collected from very few experiments. What’s more, methods such as CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing create animal models that more closely resemble human diseases than ever before. The MDC is also expanding its facilities for non-invasive imaging techniques.