The annual Animal Science Meeting co-organised by the Royal Society of Biology and the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) took place on 7 December 2018.

The day was opened by the head of ASRU who reflected on the role of the regulator of the animal science sector whose aim is to bring benefits to society through science and the regulated use of animals in research, which critically requires public trust.  He also considered the major activities carried out by ASRU over the year and the outlook for the future.

Scientific Keynote lecture

This was jointly given by Dr Sonia Bains (MRC Harwell) and Professor Douglas Armstrong (University of Edinburgh and Actual Analytics) on the topic of automatic detection and classification of behaviour in laboratory animals. The talk focused particularly on the impact of these technologies for animal welfare assessment.

Cage-side assessment is a regular husbandry duty but normally limited to a snapshot in time when humans inspect the animals directly, an operation that can potentially induce stress in the animals. Scientists are developing ways to use cameras, sensors and computers to automatically observe, record and classify spontaneous behaviour of laboratory animals in their homecages.  

These methods aim to provide new insight into the effects of genetics and pharmacology, and offer an unprecedented opportunity to monitor the welfare of the animals, particularly in cases where pain, suffering and lasting harm are hard to assess. They also help to investigate causes of injuries and unexplained deaths or to decide about interventions and humane endpoints.

Automated home-cage systems can also facilitate better screening of animal behaviour and improve experimental design. In the case of nocturnal animals such as mice, they allow monitoring in dark phase, which is the most active for the animals.

These methods are particularly useful in: profiling baseline behaviour before testing, phenotyping the animal continuously during a study and monitoring their welfare. An increasing number of groups are using such automated screening methods and a host of different technological solutions have been developed.

The NC3Rs put out a Crack-IT challenge in 2011 for a rat homecage system and in 2012 for a mouse system, which would allow for 24/7 video recording and online monitoring of multiple animals housed together in their original cages with minimal impact on husbandry. In the case of the rat, temperatures of the animals would also need to be recorded. The challenges brought together AstraZeneca, MRC Harwell and the University of Strathclyde, and resulted in the development of the ActualHCA system.

The system records the location and locomotion of individual animals in a group by using sensors in the baseplate of the cage, which record signals emitted by miniature RFID chips implanted in the animals. The cage is also equipped with a side camera for capturing video streams, which will be used to characterise behaviour. Different mouse strains display distinctive patterns of activity in relation to the light/dark cycle.

The speakers presented a series of case studies where they have been able to use the system to gain new insights into the phenotype of genetically modified mice as well as a powerful adjunct to the routine welfare monitoring procedures already in place. Simply based on location and locomotion data, the researchers managed to identify stereotypy and hyperactivity in the behaviour of single mice socially housed.

The impact of these abnormal behaviours on the welfare of the affected animals and their cage mates can be determined and inform the choice of humane end points. They could also characterise a social isolate neurological mutant, which displayed seizures and uncommon behaviours, specifically during the dark phase.

Finally, they showed preliminary evidence that they can start to automatically identify behaviours based on video data streams using a supervised machine learning algorithm. Based on patterns of pixel movement, local features can be extracted and used to define a new behavior such as drinking from a water sprout, which appears to be altered in metabolic mutants. By looking at the dark phase, the time spent by mice drinking could be used to phenotype them and a significant increase in the drinking behavior was associated with a particular genotype.

Another successful application of the automated classification system was the identification of unexpected side-effects of the anti-psychotic drug chlorpromazine during the dark phase, with a marked reduction of animals sampled to confirm the result of the study.

The presenters concluded by showing preliminary phenotypic data of a mouse model of Huntington disease and how the system can be used for live telemetry and to trigger warnings when individual animals deviate from wildtype behaviour.

Animal Research Nexus project

The second talk of the day, jointly given by Dr Beth Greenhough, Dr Alexandra Palmer and Dr Sara Peres introduced the Animal Research Nexus project (AnNex), a Wellcome Trust funded 5-year collaborative award delivering new research and engagement to increase understanding of the social relations around animal research and generate new cultures of communication across them. The project brings together 15 researchers across 5 institutions and with expertise in history, geography, science and technology studies, veterinary, sociology and public engagement. The interdisciplinary programme of work is divided into 6 projects focusing on:

  • the histories and cultures of ASPA,
  • new species and sites in animal research,
  • questions around managing supply chains,
  • the changing nature of professional roles and personal responsibilities,
  • the growing role of patient involvement,
  • and creating new opportunities and platforms for public engagement.

The three researchers presented preliminary findings and engagement work to illustrate how their research is enabling new connections and conversations both within the Animal Research Community and between Animal Research and wider publics.

The first example draws from a project exploring the limits of working under ASPA at places other than licensed establishments (POLEs) and how ASPA has a particular version of animal research in mind, which might not always translate easily into new sites and spaces.

The second example highlights how AnNex researchers are experimenting with new conversations with publics and stakeholders, in which they seek to recognize expertise of the participants and invite them to consider the ethical work and welfare challenges involved in making, maintaining and caring for laboratory mice.

The first talk discussed the experiences of project licence holders at POLEs, such as farms, veterinary clinics and sites where wildlife research is carried out. Dr Palmer examined how researchers at POLEs implement ASPA, apply principles of animal welfare and the 3Rs. She described how the challenges of working with wildlife, farmed animals or pets mean that practices commonly adopted in labs have to be revised and adapted to unique species and sites. The talk also considered the experiences of the researchers who tend to have less support from NACWOs, NVSs or technicians.

Research at POLEs may also lead to a collision of ethical frameworks when the ethics that we usually apply to farm animals, pets, and wildlife suddenly butt against ethics for laboratory animals.

This work stream draws attention to the limits of existing governance practices and invites stakeholders from across the Animal Research community to think through such challenges collectively.

Dr Peres presented two examples of our engagement activities as part of the Markets and Materials project. Her team is experimenting with ways to develop new conversations about the supply and breeding of laboratory animals.

The first engagement involved animal technologists (ATs) and provided them with a space to converse about their interest in animal journeys, meaning the whole arc of the animal’s life, from birth to death. From this, the researchers learned that ATs wanted to have discussions with scientists and licence holders about: how best to manage the journeys of animals, the availability of data and experiences of animals during transport and share more evenly the emotional load experienced when carrying for the animals.

The second project, named Mouse Exchange, involves researchers and participants undertaking craft-work and making felt mice while having a conversation about the origins, husbandry, and supply chains of laboratory mice, shaped by the curiosity of participants. The activity uses crafting and metaphor to invite a shift in the participants’ perspective, from a passive “audience”, to a group involved in creating mice. In so doing, participants gain a voice and a sense of responsibility for decisions about their mouse and its needs, while being introduced to objects and practices of everyday care (e.g. enrichment objects). The open-endedness of the engagement activity is especially important to help bridge different perspectives and also to explore the subtle conditions that may be the difference between acceptable and unacceptable breeding and use of animals for different people.

The AnNex is in its early stages and by the end of the five-year period, the researchers hope to offer critically-engaged academic research on the animal research nexus, outcomes of value to policy-makers and practitioners, and lasting impact on public engagement and wider social benefits.

Replacement for ASPeL

The ASRU leadership team, together with a representative from Marvell Consulting, led the third session of the morning and presented an update about the development of the new e-licensing system, which will replace the current ASPeL.

The replacement for ASPeL will follow Government digital standards and has been designed according to an agile framework with iterative stakeholder feedback (e.g. from Home Office inspectors, the ASRU licensing team, the Holtif group, members of the UK Bioscience Sector Coalition, several PPL holders and named people, with many of the actors involved present at the animal science meeting). The product will be future proof and open for continual development. It should also be intuitive to use and consistent with Government digital services, and the software itself will be owned by ASRU. The development process consists of successive alpha phases – focusing on service design, user research, design prototypes and user testing – followed by beta phases, focusing on test building solution with select users, security testing and digital accessibility testing.

The presenters showed a prototype of the new system, modelled on a fictional establishment at the University of Croydon. The first module to be developed is for establishment licences. It contains reusable patterns for other modules and provides an easily manageable view of scheduled premises, people and licence holders. The first alpha assessment was completed in May 2018 and a second one in October 2018, which included the request to open a new application or amendment and the ability to grant or reject these. Future alpha assessments in 2019 will be dedicated to: project licence applications and assessments, project licence amendments, and legacy licences.

Then the ASRU team presented the type of engagements the developers had to date and how they fed into the design and prototyping process. This allowed them to show how single user’s and team’s task list pages were developed and an ‘approval’ pattern, which will be implemented for all approval stages and different types of licences.

After a number of assessments have been completed, the new system will be rolled out and tested further on increasingly bigger cohorts of establishments. Additional adjustments will be implemented after the new ASPeL goes live in August 2019, such as for publication of inspection reports, the linkage between different licence types, the collection of annual statistics.

The new system will aim to deliver the following benefits: improved efficiency and accessibility, better licence visibility and fewer incidents of accidental non-compliance. It promises to incorporate better working methods and consistency, more secure practices, greater flexibility in IT, to improve licence management and will take the form of an ASRU-owned software IP. These expected benefits will improve operations at establishment and at ASRU alike.

The PPL application will also be redesigned on the new ASPeL with the goal to: drive more consistent language of authorities, elicit high quality information in the applicants’ first draft, promote consistency across establishments, improve and better manage the workload of the inspectorate, enhance the section on 3Rs, and improve language and rapid publication of NTSs. The redesigned application process should favour a positive behavioural change by focusing questions on experimental design and through the embedding of useful guidelines (e.g. EDA, ARRIVE and PREPARE). In time, it should also lead to streamlined protocols and smaller licences.

The ASRU team then gave a demonstration of how the application page will look. Applicants will be able to define broadly the types of projects they are applying for and conditional fields will guide them to more specific sections. Standard protocols for breeding of genetically-altered mice and zebrafish will be published and based on the new design of the application process. In the future, applicants will have access to standard terms for procedures. Finally, during the beta phase and progressive migration of establishments onto the new system a temporary PPL drafting tool will be made available to applicants.

The speakers concluded the talk by giving an overview of the roll-out plan and milestones. The talk was followed by a Q&A session.

Afternoon Workshops (round table discussions with facilitators)


Read reports from previous Animal Science Meetings.


For more information about the Animal Science Meetings, please contact: