Working together to reduce severe suffering for laboratory animals in Europe

Joint press release by RSPCA and MDC

Major international event in Berlin generates collaboration between 16 countries: The RSPCA and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) are bringing together experts from 16 countries to reduce the number of lab animals experiencing severe suffering. 

For five years, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), an animal welfare charity based in England and Wales, has led a pioneering initiative helping those involved in the regulation, use and care of laboratory animals to reduce the number of animals experiencing severe suffering in research and testing.

The RSPCA’s approach focuses on successfully bringing people together to share knowledge, discuss new ideas, and promote practical steps to achieve this goal of reducing suffering. Scientists at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) support this ambition and are fully aware of the responsibility they have towards the animals they use in research.

Yesterday and today (October 25-26), around 120 delegates from 16 countries across Europe are participating in a major, two-day event in Berlin, Germany organised by the RSPCA in association with the MDC.

Delegates from different research institutions are looking at how pain, suffering and distress are currently assessed in lab animals. They are also reviewing crucial progress across different areas of research and testing, and in a range of species, which will help to successfully reduce, or ideally avoid, severe suffering.

Topics include the harm-benefit assessment, animal models currently used for cancer, trauma or diseases of the heart, as well as strategies for sharing and implementing good practice.

Barney Reed, Senior Scientific Manager at the RSPCA said: “Severe suffering is a major ethical and animal welfare issue, and is of great concern to the public, animal welfare organisations and the scientific community. We are very grateful for the tremendous support our severe suffering  initiative has received from individuals and organisations within governments, industry and academia.”

“This latest event will directly lead to improvements for lab animals across Europe, and is made possible because of the RSPCA’s ambitious vision to end severe suffering, as well as its ability to bring scientists, regulators, vets and animal technologists together to make progress, with the support of organisations like the MDC. Participants will return to their research institutions with new ways of thinking to help them challenge the status quo, and ideas for improving practice from their colleagues across Europe.”

In 2016, only a small fraction of experiments undertaken using animals at MDC in Berlin (0.8 percent, in comparison to 6 percent in Germany as a whole) were classified as ‘severe’. These were in studies of diseases such as cancer, stroke and progressive muscle weakness. In these cases, the animals are treated with analgesics and other measures are taken to ease their distress.

Martin Lohse, Scientific Director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, said “The MDC is taking the principle of the “3Rs” – replace, refine, reduce – very seriously. Although the percentage of our experiments classified as severe is small, we are continuing our efforts to recognize and reduce unnecessary pain. Therefore, we are very interested to be involved in this discussion and the development of further practical steps to avoid severe suffering with organisations such as the RSPCA.”

Lohse continues: “The MDC believes that we live longer and healthier lives because of animal research and that, 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”.

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) is one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions. Max Delbrück, a Berlin native, was a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of molecular biology. At the MDC’s locations in Berlin-Buch and Mitte, researchers from some 60 countries analyze the human system – investigating the biological foundations of life from its most elementary building blocks to systems-wide mechanisms. By understanding what regulates or disrupts the dynamic equilibrium in a cell, an organ, or the entire body, we can prevent diseases, diagnose them earlier, and stop their progression with tailored therapies. Patients should benefit as soon as possible from basic research discoveries. The MDC therefore supports spin-off creation and participates in collaborative networks. It works in close partnership with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in the jointly run Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité, and the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). Founded in 1992, the MDC today employs 1,600 people and is funded 90 percent by the German federal government and 10 percent by the State of Berlin.