Biomedical research at Oxford University enters new era

Biomedical research at the University of Oxford has entered a new phase with the transfer of the first mice into the new Biomedical Sciences Building, which will rehouse research animals in one of the most advanced facilities in the UK.

It is the start of a long process of moving animals into the completed facility, which has received full government and regulatory approval. The transfer will take place in phases over the coming months, with the building expected to become fully operational in mid-2009.

The building supports world-leading medical research with the ultimate aim of saving and improving human lives.

Examples of research that the new building will support include work on cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, HIV, muscular dystrophy, motor neurone disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The Biomedical Sciences Building has been in planning since the 1990s and its aim is to rehouse research animals that are currently in older buildings scattered through the University science area. These older facilities, which will close, also meet all the strict Home Office regulations, but the University wished to exceed those regulations and set a gold standard for animal care. Construction work began at the end of 2003.

The building is primarily a rodent facility: 98% of animals to be housed there are rodents, almost all of which are mice. Other species to be housed there are fish, frogs, ferrets and primates. The primates account for less than half of one per cent (0.5%) of all animals to be housed in the building.

The work going on in the building is research work, not pharmaceutical testing.

The ‘gold standard’ approach used in the development of the Biomedical Sciences Building describes how the quality of care and welfare is inextricably linked to the quality of research. Animal research is often the only way of investigating conditions or diseases which require an understanding of what happens within the very complex environment of a living creature. The very best research can only be achieved if the animals are as healthy and content as possible. The high standard of the building will therefore have three important outcomes:

  • World-leading, cutting edge research which could help save and improve the lives of millions of people;
  • Extremely high standards of animal care and welfare, which contribute to the quality of the research;
  • Excellent facilities in which to pursue the aims of reducing, refining and wherever possible replacing the use of animals in research.

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Hood, said: ‘Oxford University is at the forefront of innovative and life-saving medical science, and Oxford researchers study the pressing health problems of the 21st century that affect millions if not billions of people. Where animals are needed in research, we are committed to the highest standards of care. That is why we have built this new facility. The fact that we have completed it in difficult circumstances reflects the depth of our commitment both to life-saving research and to animal care.’

The Head of the Medical Sciences Division, Professor Alastair Buchan, said: ‘The new building represents a significant step forward for biomedical research at Oxford. It will provide an advanced facility for all kinds of ground-breaking work. Animals are only used in our research where no other technique is available, and the University is absolutely committed to replacing animal use wherever possible. Some animal use is still essential for medical progress. The new building will help us deliver on our commitment to animal care while pursuing life-saving medical advances.’

The facility will support the application of the so-called ‘3Rs’: Replacing animal use with other techniques wherever possible; Reducing the number of animals needed; and Refining techniques to maximise animal health and welfare. In terms of replacement, the facility has been designed so that in the long-term future the space can be used flexibly, including for non-animal research. In terms of reduction and refinement, the facility will bring expertise onto one site, allowing for best advice. Oxford’s Veterinary Services team, which exists to advise on the welfare and health of Oxford’s research animals, has expertise in the 3Rs and will be in the building with training rooms and other facilities that represent a huge improvement from the space they had before.

Oxford University is ranked in the top five universities worldwide for biomedical science. Its Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest medical research hubs in Europe, and accounts for around a third of the University’s overall income and expenditure and over two-thirds of its external research income. Historical breakthroughs have included the discovery and development of penicillin, the discovery of the link between smoking and cancer, and the discovery of antibodies. Current research covers all the leading causes of death worldwide, and the University has vaccines in development for HIV, malaria and TB, and treatments in development for cancer, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.