Friday 22 September 2023 – As a humanist university, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) believes that science and empathy go hand in hand. In research that involves animals, respect and welfare are paramount. VUB recently committed to be part of the regional action plan of Flemish Animal Welfare minister Ben Weyts to reduce animal testing. The plan supports the university in its ambition to promote alternatives to animal testing, with the 3Rs principle – replace, reduce and refine – as an ethical framework.
By participating in the Flemish initiative, 20 Belgian research institutions have committed to investing in alternatives to animal testing by drawing up their own action plans. VUB is also making this commitment, seeing it as an opportunity to promote the application of the 3R principle, in particular the development of animal-free research methods.
“Using animal-free methods can help to ensure that the reduction of animal testing for scientific research becomes a trend around the world,” says Pieter Ballon, VUB vice-rector for Research. “Many VUB researchers already use animal-free or animal-reducing methods, but we can and should do even better. Our ambition is therefore to continue seeking alternatives wherever possible. The 3R principle is our guide: replacing animal testing with other research methods, reducing the number of animals used and refining the tests to ensure less suffering or distress and better animal welfare. We’re adding two further Rs: responsibility and responsible treatment of animals. By drawing up our own action plan, we’re reinforcing our ambition.”
For instance, the university will strengthen the various initiatives of the Innovation Centre 3Rs (IC-3Rs) and the animal testing database RE-Place. It will also set up a working group of experts to identify opportunities and carry out new actions.
IC-3Rs and RE-Place
In 2017, VUB established IC-3Rs, an innovation centre that develops animal-free methods and gives young researchers the chance to carry out their doctoral research without using animals. The centre supports the development of animal-free methods with financial resources from the Mireille Aerens Chair and the Brussels region’s animal welfare department.
VUB also leads the RE-Place project, alongside public health institute Sciensano. This database gathers existing expertise on animal-free methods – known as new approach methodologies – in one central location. IC-3Rs and RE-Place aim to achieve their goals through a series of initiatives including symposia and educational webinars.
“Last week, IC-3Rs, RE-Place and EU-TWINALT organised a symposium at the VUB Health Campus in Jette,” says Vera Rogiers, head of IC-3Rs. “From 19 to 21 September, researchers from around the world shared insights on how they are using animal-free methods. Two educational webinars were held in July and September on the development of animal-free methods and there will be additional webinars in the autumn. These are just some of the initiatives by RE-Place and IC-3Rs to raise awareness and engage scientists, public research institutions, industry and other stakeholders to replace animal testing with alternative methods when scientifically appropriate. Together we will achieve more than we can alone. ”
Joint 3R Symposium
3Rs working group
VUB recently set up a 3Rs working group, consisting of experts from various biomedical disciplines, members of the Animal Experiments Ethics Committee, the Animal Welfare Cell, IC-3Rs and RE-Place. Their task is to develop an action plan that will contribute to a reduction in animal testing. It should strengthen interdisciplinary cooperation on animal-free and animal-reducing research methods and centralise and share knowledge with other researchers and the public. The group has already carried out a number of initiatives, including a workshop on the statistical basis for correctly setting up experiments.
As a humanist university, VUB believes that science and empathy go hand in hand. In research involving animals, respect and welfare are paramount. Encouraging the use and development of animal-free methods can reduce the number of laboratory animals, provided that policymakers adapt to the evolution towards more animal-free research.