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9 March 2015, 05:00
A quarter of the animals used in scientific research in the UK in 2013 were tested in the laboratories of just six universities, new figures have shown.
Between them, the six conducted experiments on just over a million animals that year, according to information obtained by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).
Some of the animals - which included monkeys, sheep and rabbits as well as rats, mice and fish - were subjected to "distressing and disturbing'' procedures, it was claimed.
At the top of the animal testing league was the University of Edinburgh, which used 241,865 animals in experiments.
It was followed by Oxford University (190,169), University College London (181,295), Cambridge University (169,353), King's College London (132,885) and Imperial College London (130,358).
The figures were produced in response to a Freedom of Information request made by the BUAV.
In 2013, 4,017,758 animals were used in 4,121,582 experiments in the UK, Home Office statistics show.
Of these animals, 1.8 million were tested in university laboratories, according to the BUAV. The six named universities alone accounted for 1,045,925.
Dr Katy Taylor, head of science at the BUAV, said: "Shockingly, universities account for half of the total number of animals used in experiments carried out in the UK and are responsible for some particularly distressing and disturbing experiments.
"Yet, despite growing concern regarding animal research, much of it is publicly funded. It is ironic that many universities are also leaders in the research to find alternatives to using animals.
"So while one department may be developing cutting edge alternatives, another may be breeding animals to be used in experiments.''
The experiments highlighted by the BUAV involved animals being brain damaged, injected with chemicals that cause severe disabilities, and forced to perform repetitive computer tasks.
In one anxiety experiment at Cambridge University, marmoset monkeys were said to have been blasted with loud noise and frightened with rubber snakes resembling cobras.
Other alleged procedures included subjecting young month-old rats to repeated electric shocks (Edinburgh) and creating a glass "window'' in the skulls of mice before damaging their brains with a laser (Imperial College).
The BUAV approached 71 universities under the Freedom of Information Act last year and asked how many animals they had used in scientific procedures in the previous 12 months.
Details about the species used and the reasons for the testing were also requested. A total of 67 universities confirmed that they did use animals in experiments and all but three of these - Manchester, Sussex and Bristol - gave the numbers.
The BUAV estimates that 43% of the UK's 156 registered universities conduct animal research.
A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: "Research using animals has played and continues to play a key role in the advancement of medical, biological and veterinary science. It has made a vital contribution towards the understanding, prevention, treatment and cure of a wide range of major health problems, including cancer, heart disease and psychiatric disorders.
"The University of Edinburgh uses animals in research programmes only when their use is justified on scientific, ethical and legal grounds, and when no alternatives are available. All such work is strictly regulated and carried out under licences, which are reviewed and approved by the Home Office and are issued only if the potential benefits of the work are likely to outweigh the effects on the animals concerned.
"The university is actively involved in the development of alternative approaches that replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research.''
Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of the organisation Understanding Animal Research, said: "The universities named here all rank as the best research universities in the UK, so it is hardly surprising that they carry out the most animal research. We have these universities to thank for numerous medical breakthroughs over the years, from Penicillin to IVF to cancer drugs.
"The Home Office publishes statistics on animal research every year and the 2013 report (published July 2014) clearly states that 49% of that year's procedures using animals took place in universities. Several of the universities mentioned already openly publish the number and species of animals they use on their websites.
"The BUAV is correct in saying that UK universities are always looking for ways to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in research, but that work regularly happens in the same departments that carry out the research. The BUAV may want people to think that there is 'growing concern' about the use of animals in research but the latest Ipsos MORI opinion polling showed that 68% of the British public accepts the use of animals to develop medicines for humans and animals.''
Frances Rawle, from the Medical Research Council, said: "These universities all receive Medical Research Council funding for their work because we believe the high quality research they do is important and may bring about real benefit to patients in the future. Universities are where most research takes place so it hardly seems surprising that this is where nearly half of animal research takes place. The MRC and all the universities mentioned are looking at ways to reduce, replace or refine animal research but it is still an extremely necessary part of medical research if we are to continue to find new treatments.''