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DFG funding for new research group

German Primate Center is part of a joint project that will evaluate stress on research animals
A lab mouse. Photo: MHH/Kaiser
The logo of the research group. Image: MHH/Bleich
The logo of the research group. Image: MHH/Bleich
A rhesus macaque at the DPZ’s primate husbandry. Photo: Karin Tilch
A rhesus macaque at the DPZ’s primate husbandry. Photo: Karin Tilch

The German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG) will fund a new research group known as "Severity Assessment in Animal-Based Research" with approximately six million euros for the next three years. The association that also includes the German Primate Center (DPZ), consists of eight scientific institutions in Germany and Switzerland. Altogether 15 projects will be funded with the aim to research the strain on the animals during animal experiments and to scientifically quantify stress levels as precisely as possible and to minimize stress.

"There is currently a lack of scientifically based parameters and methods used to measure stress and pain that the animals are exposed to in experiments. This has an effect on ethical questions and the quality of animal test data. We intend to change that," says André Bleich. The head of the Institute for Laboratory Animals and the Central Animal Laboratory of the MHH is also the spokesman for the new research group (FOR) 2591 together with René Tolba, head of the Institute for Laboratory Animals and the Central Laboratory for Laboratory Animals of the University Hospital RWTH Aachen.

Dana Pfefferle will coordinate the research of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (Stefan Treue) and the Sensorimotor Research Group (Alexander Gail) at the DPZ. The study is intended to determine the amount of stress that rhesus macaques deal with. The focus of the study is on the severity of the individual aspects as perceived by the animals. On the basis of preference tests where the monkeys can choose between different conditions, a scientifically based stress scale based on the subjective perception of the monkeys is being developed.

"We are improving various objective methods and techniques, developing new ones and combining them to create a standardized scale," explains Bleich. The results obtained from the new methods should be correlatable with the severity of the stress levels as defined in the European Parliament Directive on the Protection of Experimental Animals. In addition to providing scientists with the results of the stress assessments, the research group intends to share the results with authorities and experts.

In order to determine the well-being of the animals during an experiment, it is for example possible to monitor the activity and body temperature of the animals with the use of infrared cameras. Telemetry is additionally used to determine the heartbeat intervals. Modern imaging methods also help to detect changes in the brain. Many stress assessment methods stem from behavior, pain, stress and depression research. The researchers also intend to investigate strategies that the animals have when they deal with stress.

The researchers apply the "3R principle": "Replace" (avoiding animal experiments by finding alternative methods), "Reduce" (reducing the number of required animals) and "Refine" (reduction of the strain). "This principle is essential for us - not only with regard to its ethical justification but also to generate robust data through standardization. A central aspect of this principle is the assessment of pain and distress of animals during an experiment," says André Bleich.

The Hannover Medical School, the University Hospital of Aachen and the German Primate Center, The University of Zurich, the University of Heidelberg, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the LMU Munich and the University of Rostock are all part of the research project.