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Stronger Statistics are Needed for Animal Research

In a move that could lead to major changes in the way pre-clinical research is conducted in the UK, government funding bodies have announced changes to their application criteria. Applicants are now required to show that their work will produce “statistically robust results” or face rejection, according to this piece in Nature magazine.

To be specific, the Medical Research Council (MRC), states that from now on all proposals involving animal testing should not only outline the need for animals and the ethical implications, but also have to “clearly describe how the planned experimental design is appropriate to give robust results”. This includes stating how many animals are to be used.

In an attempt to use fewer rodents, some scientists have produced studies that are seriously underpowered. When you add factors like attrition, studies are being undertaken that prove little to nothing and waste rodents in the process. The importance of the 3Rs cannot be overstated, obviously, but misinterpretation of the guidelines can do more harm than good.

In addition to concerns about the 3Rs, it is not uncommon for there to be a lack of clarity and a failure to properly use statistical data when determining how many rodents are required for a study. Many researchers use historical precedent as a guide instead, and tend to err towards keeping the figure as small as possible. The new guidelines require that scientists give details on “statistical aspects of the study, including statistical power and appropriate statistical analysis”. The aim is to rule out any tendency towards using fewer animals than the statistics suggest, and encourage rigorous statistical analysis from the beginning.

In addition to the new application requirements put in place by Research Councils UK and its related bodies, there are options that allow for more rodents to be used humanely. Research institutions can implement technology like the ActualHCA that allows for more consistent monitoring, so signs of health issues in rodents are revealed earlier. Reduced attrition and more data mean more robust figures and results that are easier to reproduce.

As time goes on, the need for large numbers of rodents will be gradually brought down by new innovations in technology and advancements in the pre-clinical trial field. However, for the moment, it is clear that better 3Rs compliance often means making better use of rodents; it isn’t just a blanket prescription to cut down numbers.

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