Type of research and use of animal experiments
Animal testing is used for education, scientific research and statutory research tasks in various departments and research institutes at WUR, and for a wide range of research questions.
It concerns education, scientific research and legal tasks in the field of:
Human and animal health and well-being
Test animals may be used as a model for humans in health and welfare research. Examples are research into nutrition and health, lifestyle, health in old age and metabolic disorders. These all concern humans.
However, the test animal may also be used as a model for the animal itself. In this case, the test animal is called the target animal. For example, chickens are used as test animals in research into improving the health and welfare of chickens. Target animals are also used to research diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans, or ‘zoonoses’.
Research at WUR is also carried out in the field of animal production, including livestock farming, the fisheries sector and fish farming. For example, we investigate how to increase the sustainability of existing animal production systems. We also develop new systems that contribute to more sustainable food production.
Livestock research, for example, concerns the nutrition, behaviour and welfare of animals and greenhouse gas emissions from farms.
Animal health, food safety and environmental pollution
A large part of the research in animal health, food safety and environmental pollution is statutory research that is commissioned by the Dutch government. These are the ‘statutory research tasks’. Examples are the diagnosis and identification of notifiable animal diseases, safety and efficacy tests, the detection of pollutant residues (residue testing) and toxicology research.
WUR also carries out research into the toxicity of substances in the environment. This research therefore contributes directly to a safe environment for humans and animals. We explicitly seek to develop alternatives to animal testing for such research.
Sustainable management of the environment
A very small proportion of the research projects that use animal testing concern plant health. These projects include the development of tests to detect plant diseases. Every year, depending on the crop, between 15 and 50% of the global harvest is lost to disease and plague. If we are to improve food security, it is vitally important to prevent plant disease.
In the Netherlands alone, millions of plant samples are tested every year using tests developed at WUR. These tests are just as important at the global level. Much research is carried out into developing alternative tests that do not require animal experiments.
Development and validation of alternatives to animal testing
Chicken welfare research
Research into the welfare of chickens focuses for example on increasing their resilience. This enables them to cope with stressors such as infections, changes in food or transportation, and improves their welfare.
A research project started in 2018 to examine the effect of the conditions during the early stage of a chick’s development on its behaviour, immunological characteristics and the composition of the intestine microbiome (profile of the intestine bacteria). Chicks were raised in optimum conditions until day 14 by leaving them to hatch in the coop and providing them with a surrogate mother and a warm, dark rest area. These chicks were compared with control chicks that were not raised in such optimum circumstances. For this research project, the researchers used an animal model under experimental conditions. This allowed them to monitor the behaviour in the coop, the composition of the microbiome in different segments of the intestine, immunological characteristics, and the chicks’ response to a mild stressor in a behavioural test, such as removing the chicks from the group for two minutes and noting how often a chick peeped (a sign of stress). This provides insight into underlying mechanisms of resilience and health, as well as possible associations between the microbiome composition, the response to the behaviour tests and the expression of natural behaviour in the coop, such as scratching in the dirt, preening and taking dust baths.
Human health research using mice
Many human diseases are characterised by an excess storage of fat in cells. For example, an accumulation of fat and inflammation in the liver (steatohepatitis) is associated with an increase in fat storage in the liver cells. Researchers at WUR would like to improve their understanding of the relationship between cells and fat. They want to find out why an excess of fat harms most cells, and what people can do to prevent this. To do this, they look for new factors that influence the storage of fat in cells. They have been able to show that a certain protein, HILPDA, increases the accumulation of fat in cultivated liver cells. However, they do not know whether HILPDA has the same role in the human liver.
To find this out, they use mice as an animal model for humans. This is a special type of mouse that is no longer able to produce the HILPDA factor. They examined whether the absence of HILPDA affects the storage of fat in tissues and whether this has consequences for the development of certain diseases, such as steatohepatitis and diabetes. Initial results show that the absence of HILPDA does in fact result in less fat accumulation in the liver. The next step is to examine what effect an absence of HILPDA has on other cells, such as fat cells and white blood cells.
Fish stocks research
Wageningen Marine Research carries out research into fish stocks. This research is largely a statutory research task, which Member States are required to conduct under EU law. These tasks are described in national and international regulations. An important European regulation is the Data Collection Framework (DCF). The DCF consists of a number of orders and decisions that oblige Member States to collect data on the fisheries sector and fish stocks. This includes biological, economic and statistical data on the composition, size and distribution of fish stocks and fishing activities. The research largely focuses on fish from commercial fishing activities and research vessels.
Fish have to be killed to be able to determine the age distribution of the fish. It is possible to determine their age based on various characteristics, such as the inner ear (otoliths), the scales, fin rays and the vertebrae, which form growth rings. For most species, the best way of accurately determining the age of a fish is using the otoliths. Researchers also determine the sex, sexual maturity and fertility of the fish using their sexual organs. Researchers may also examine the stomach contents and the presence of parasites. Tissues may also be taken for DNA and other analyses. The data collected in this way is used to support policy recommendations for the fisheries sector and ecosystem management.
8 WUR guidelines and ambitions for policy on animal testing
All animal testing at Wageningen University & Research complies with the Experiments on Animals Act. In addition, WUR has formulated its own policy on animal testing, which consists of the eight guidelines and ambitions.
- WUR only conducts animal experiments that are consistent with its domain and mission
- WUR continuously invests in the implementation of the three Rs (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement)
- WUR profiles itself as an organisation with specialised expertise in animal testing, in which the laboratory animal is used as a model for the animal species itself (target animal research)
- WUR is committed to increasing acceptance of alternative testing in Europe
- WUR optimally educates its students in the responsible use of laboratory animals
- WUR is transparent about its use of laboratory animals and participates in a societal dialogue on this topic
- WUR ensures compliance with the educational requirements as formulated by the Experiments on Animals Act (abbreviated as Wod in Dutch), including continued education and training (lifelong learning).
- In collaboration with institutions around the world, researchers at WUR follow the Netherlands code of conduct for research integrity