Universities focus on animal testing

Animal testing plays an important role in research on serious human diseases and developing medication for humans, as well as in research on developing vaccines and medication for animals. 


To ensure that animal testing is only applied when strictly necessary, universities are working on what is called the ‘3R policy’. Where possible, universities (1) Replace animal testing with alternatives; (2) Reduce the number of laboratory animals, and (3) Refine research in order to keep animal suffering or discomfort to a minimum. In addition, since 2019, Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) has been an official […] partner in the Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals (TPI: Transitie naar Proefdiervrije Innovatie). The programme is a collaboration between UNL, NFU, SGF, Proefdiervrij, ZonMw, Health~Holland and the national government, in which they work together on ‘making the Netherlands a frontrunner in the international transition to innovation without the use of animals’. In 2019, UNL and NFU also began a process to outline a vision for innovations without the use of laboratory animals in academic and post-academic education. 


Development of laboratory animal testing

Since the 1980s, the number of tests involving laboratory animals has fallen significantly (a reduction of some 70% between 1978 and 2017) [1]. In 2020, a total of 406,788 animal tests were conducted, a slight increase compared to 2019. The number of test involving laboratory animals within research universities or academic medical centres was reduces in absolute as well in relative numbers. In 20202 107.814 of the animal testing took place at universities and university medical centres, 26,5% of the total. 

The statistics are taken from the annual laboratory animal testing report entitled "Zo doende 2020", published by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).




Tests involving laboratory animals at universities and university medical centres 

The number of tests involving laboratory animals varies from year to year. For example, in 2017, there were more tests on zebrafish and mice, among others. At the time, zebrafish were primarily used for cancer-related research, as well as in an incidental study into endocrine disruptors (i.e. hormonally active agents) at population level. This required the use of a large number of fish, and no alternative methods were available. The increase in the number of tests involving mice can be attributed to the intensifying research into cancer [2]. In 2019, the universities and university medical centres (UMCs) registered 107,814 tests involving laboratory animals, a slight increase compared to 2018 (118,732 tests).  


Under specific conditions, laboratory animals can be used for multiple studies, so the actual number of laboratory animals used is lower than the number of animal tests. In 2020, some 4,892 animal tests were documented in which laboratory animals were reused, 34.2% fewer than in 2019 (7,432). Reuse primarily occurs with regard to tests with an educational purpose.


As shown in the table below, the vast majority of these animals are mice and rats.

Some areas require research on non-human primates, such as monkeys, since they have many similarities with humans. In the Netherlands (and in the EU), research on non-human primates is subject to very strict conditions. In some research areas, including infectious diseases, the immune system and the brain, studies involving non-human primates cannot be avoided. This research requires that the anatomy and physiology of the laboratory animals resemble those of humans, while alternatives are not yet available. Testing on anthropoids such as chimpanzees and gorillas is prohibited in the Netherlands.


The Dutch universities underline the importance to inform society as transparently as possible about the use of laboratory animals in their research. Therefore, all universities and UMCs have signed the ‘Code for Transparency in Animal Testing’ (gedragscode Openheid dierproeven), which provides insight into the use of laboratory animals, among others through the ‘Animal Testing Annual Report’ (Jaarverslag dierproeven) and through public information, tours and articles.


Strict permits for different test types


The European Union prohibits the use of animals to test cosmetics or their ingredients. The Dutch government also enforces strict regulations for animal testing. Multiple types of permits are required. At the same time, the government also makes animal testing mandatory, as drugs and other products must be deemed safe before becoming available to humans. This type of testing is not common at Dutch universities. However, universities do conduct fundamental and applied research into, for example, drugs and diseases. Laboratory animals are also used in education, in veterinary medicine for example. 


Science invests in alternatives to animal testing


Universities are working to develop alternatives to animal testing. They have opened special institutes, and appointed professors whose goal is to research animal-testing alternatives and instruct researchers on their use. Researchers are also increasing the effectiveness of animal testing by using the tissues of existing laboratory animals for further research, developing computer models, or through the use of synthetic tissues to replace the animals entirely.


Since 2019, UNL has been an official partner of the Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals (TPI: Transitie Proefdiervrije Innovatie). The TPI programme is an initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) and aims to place the Netherlands in the international vanguard of animal-free innovation. In the context of the TPI programme, VSNU is drawing up a vision for animal-free innovation in academic and post-academic education, together with the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU). 


The animal-testing application process


Many steps are required before laboratory animals are released to researchers for testing purposes. First of all an institution must apply for an animal testing permit from the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). Next, a plan and non-technical summary must be submitted to an Animal Welfare Institute (IVD: Instantie voor Dierenwelzijn). A research permit application is also sent to the Central Authority for Scientific Procedures on Animals (CCD), which decides whether to approve the application based on a recommendation by the Animal Experiments Committee (DEC: Dierexperimentencommissie).


Researchers can proceed with the testing once the permit has been issued. The non-technical summary is published by the CCD. A recognised stakeholder (e.g. the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals) can also lodge an objection to the permit issued. The NVWA investigates whether the animal testing regulations are being followed, and the IVD ensures that the research is carried out properly using the right techniques. If any violations are observed, the permit holder is given an official warning and must take steps to resolve the violation.