RESEARCHERS who perform experiments on live animals are to get access to a European database of alternative techniques, following concerns about the number of animals used.
There were 2.64 million experiments on living animals carried out in the United Kingdom in 1997, according to figures released by the Home Office last week. This compares with 2.72 million in the previous year but is still too high, according to pressure groups.
"A 3 per cent drop indicates that there is still a long way to go," said a spokesperson for the National Anti-vivisection Society.
The Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which regulates animal experiments, requires researchers to obtain a personal licence certifying their competence and a project licence for each experiment. When researchers apply for a project licence, they must sign a declaration that, in their opinion, there are no suitable alternatives to using animals. However, at present there is no central information source on alternative methods.
The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods in Ispra, Italy, is now creating such a resource. Funded by the EU, the searchable database should be freely available to European researchers over the Internet next year, according to Annett Janusch, who is compiling it. The database will be updated continually, she said, and will also contain a glossary. This means that administrators and regulators can use it alongside researchers, to check that there really is no alternative to animal experimentation.
"I think that a database would be very welcome," said Barbara Davies of the Research Defence Society, which represents people who experiment on animals. But she cautioned that, for some basic experiments, there are often no alternatives to using animals.
And she welcomed the efforts made by the Home Office to reduce the time that researchers must wait to receive a licence. Last month, there were 211 people waiting for a personal licence and 258 for project licences.
"We understand that the Home Office is taking very seriously the backlog of licence applications and is making moves to appoint new staff," she said.