Human-specific medical research techniques

Non-animal methods

Medical research may involve the use of animals to develop new treatments and test the safety of pharmaceuticals.

Alternative approaches are sometimes termed ‘new approach methodologies’, ‘non-animal methods’ (NAMs) or ‘non-animal technologies’ (NATs). These include different ways to conduct medical research without involving animals.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States provide a list of  research methods that can help reduce the use of animals in research:

  • Cell cultures and 3D tissue culture (known as ‘organs-on-a-chip’ that mimic human organs) can be used to study biological and disease processes, and how drugs are processed by the human body.
  • Human tissues, including diseased and healthy donated tissues, can be used to study human biology and disease.
  • Computer modelling, including of human tissues, can be used to make predictions about the likely effects of substances in the human body.
  • Human volunteers may also participate in clinical research studies.

UK initiatives and research funding

The UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs),an independent body funded by UK research councils and charitable and commercial organisations, works with scientists to “replace, refine and reduce” the use of animals in research and testing. The NC3Rs strategy 2022 to 2024 says the organisation’s aims include “expanding the focus on replacement technologies” by investing in non-animal methods.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has produced guidance for researchers on the use of animals in research. This sets out researchers’ legal responsibilities and the key principles following the ‘3R’ (replacement, reduction and refinement) framework.

In December 2022, the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) (which is part of the UKRI) and N3RCs announced that they would invest £3.7 million “to develop the next generation of non-animal technologies.”

The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) says it funds research using animals only whenever no viable non-animal alternatives exist and approved by relevant ethics committees. The MRC also requires researchers to consider the “3Rs” and demonstrate that they are using an appropriate animal model and number of animals.

The Animals in Science Committee is an advisory non-departmental public body that provides advice to the Home Office in relation to the use of animals in scientific procedures. For further information about the government’s position, see: Home Office, Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research: delivery report, March 2015.

Stakeholder views

Animal Free Research UK which funds research into alternatives to animal use in medical research has produced a briefing ahead of the debate on the benefits of “human-specific technologies”. The briefing draws attention to the potential for human-specific medical research techniques to provide “results that are directly relevant to humans” without the need to translate research results from animals to people.

Other organisations, including universities, which undertake medical research using animals have drawn attention to the limitations of non-animal methods. The University of Oxford has highlighted the need to use animals to understand the complexity of living bodies. Understanding Animal Research, a non-profit organisation that aims to improve understanding of how and why animals are used in research, has argued that animal research is sometimes necessary to make medical advances.

Library briefings

House of Commons Library, Debate on an e-petition concerning commercial breeding for laboratories, January 2023

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), Human challenge studies in the study of infectious diseases, May 2023

Further reading

Animal Free Research, Animal Replacement, accessed 30 June 2023

Cruelty Free International, Alternatives to Animal Testing, accessed 30 June 2023

Innovate UK, A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK, November 2015

University of Oxford, Research using animals: an overview (Centre for Evidence Based Medicine), accessed 30 June 2023

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