The concept of reduction in animal research refers to methods that result in the use of fewer animals to obtain scientifically valid information. Reduction also can be achieved by obtaining more information from a given number of animals so that in the long run fewer animals are needed. The goal is to achieve a balance between sound experimental design and minimizing the number of animals used.
When designing experiments, scientists must ensure that their sample population – whether it includes animals, people or something else – is large enough to enable them to draw meaningful conclusions from experiment results. People who conduct scientific surveys encounter a similar situation. To obtain results that accurately represent a certain population, they must survey a scientifically obtained sample that is suitably large. Surveying too small a sample, or one that is not scientifically selected, may lead to results that are not reflective of the larger group.
Researchers today have a greater understanding of good experimental design and statistical methods. They also have a heightened awareness of the moral and ethical reasons for reducing animal use. The high cost of using animals in research is another incentive for minimizing the number of animals used.
The rapidly developing field of bioinformatics offers opportunities for reducing animal use. Bioinformatics is an emerging, interdisciplinary field that draws on math, statistics and computer science to analyze complex biological data. Bioinformatics can be used, for example, to analyze complex experimental results from multiple sources, patient statistics and scientific literature. This fusion of biomedicine and computer technology holds promise for gleaning more information from experiments, including from studies conducted in the past, and thereby contributing to a reduction in animal use.
The CNPRC realizes the value of bioinformatics to its mission and is exploring how best to use this powerful tool in its investigations. For example, bioinformatics has helped researchers mine the Center’s extensive medical records on its monkey colony, as well as those of other primate centers around the country. In a recent study involving the CNPRC, the University of Oxford, the University of Pittsburgh and other primate centers in Wisconsin and New England, researchers demonstrated that this archival information could be used to study the role of genetic and environmental factors in endometriosis in rhesus macaque monkeys. The centers possess a vast archive of information on the animals’ pedigrees and nutritional, experimental, menstrual and reproductive histories, which could be used to investigate the genetic basis of endometriosis. Since the human and monkey forms of the disease are similar, such a study could lead to a better understanding of the pathogenesis of endometriosis and identification of the best method to treat it.
Research strategy can also contribute to a reduction in animal use. For example, a small pilot study, using a small number of animals, may indicate to researchers whether a larger study is appropriate. In some cases, in vitro, or test tube, experiments may indicate the feasibility of a larger study or ways a study could be modified to use fewer animals or less-invasive procedures.
Each year, the CNPRC supports a number of pilot studies, which are smaller and of shorter duration than typical research projects. Pilot projects provide researchers with an opportunity to obtain preliminary data, determine the feasibility of a larger study and refine their research plan in order to pursue funding for a larger research project.