The use of genetically modified animals in scientific procedures increased by 14 per cent last year, according to Home Office figures published this week, writes Caroline Davis.
The annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals in Great Britain for 2000 says that mice accounted for more than 99 per cent of the 582,000 procedures using GM animals.
The use of GM sheep, pigs, fish and rats fell. Most of the GM animals were used only for breeding purposes. A third was used in research programmes.
The report also reveals that an increasing number of projects involving both genetically modified and normal animals had been initiated in universities.
They accounted for just under 40 per cent of procedures, more than are carried out in commercial organisations. In total, 2.71 million procedures were carried out in the United Kingdom last year involving animals, up 2.2 per cent on last year.
Barbara Davies, of the Research Defence Association, said the increasing use of GM animals was set to continue as scientists develop knowledge of genomics and use it to develop therapies. She said much of the work was looking at the effects of inserting and deleting genes to determine their function.
She said: "Technology is well developed to make genetic changes in mice. It is one of the most studied animals."
Dr Davies said that testing using higher primates could increase as scientists seek to test therapies based on genomic techniques.
But Dr Davies believes genetically normal primates would be used. The use of non-human primates has been decreasing over the past few years, down 8 per cent last year with 2,951 macaques, marmosets and tamarins used.
She added that threats from animal rights protesters had not hampered research using animals, because scientists were already conscious of minimising experiments and of using the lowest possible order of animal.
Angela Eagle, the Home Office minister with responsibility for regulating the use of animals in scientific procedures, said: "The use of animals remains key to the development of scientific research that can lead to new medicines or test the safety of new chemicals."
She said the government was committed to the "three R's policy": replacing animal use where possible; reducing the number of animals needed for a particular purpose and refining the procedures to minimise suffering.
UK legislation on animal testing is among the strictest in the world. Even taking blood samples is recorded in the annual statistics.