A panel of UK experts said using animals in pain research has limited value and they should be replaced by neuroimaging techniques based on fMRI, PET and other scanning technologies combined with new approaches such as genome-wide association and tissue research.

The panel members, who come from London, Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford, attended a workshop called “Focus on Alternatives”, which was arranged by organizations funding alternatives to animal experiments, such as the RSPCA and the UK Human Tissues Bank. The results, conclusions and recommendations of the workshop are reported in the 15 August issue of the journal Neuroimage.

UK scientists are required by law to consider non-animal approaches when designing new experiments. Animal experiments in pain research sometimes use animals while they are conscious, and sometimes while under anaesthesia.

Although there have been a lot of studies on human pain disorder, safe and effective treatments are still hard to find; yet animal models, some of which have limited value, because they don’t replicate the processes of human pain, still dominate research and they raise ethical questions.

This is despite the opportunities offered by new technologies, particularly in the field of neuroimaging. According to the authors, the workshop explored in a creative way, “the tools, strategies and challenges of replacing some animal experiments in pain research with ethically conducted studies of human patients and healthy volunteers, in combination with in vitro methods”.

The panel members looked at how new neuroimaging techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography and positron emission tomography (PET), on their own or in combination, could be used to investigate human pain conditions.

They concluded there were lots of opportunities also to combine these methods with other techniques such as microdialysis (a small probe that detects chemicals in the spaces between cells in tissue), genome-wide association research (looking at genetic differences between people), studies on twins, and tissue research.

One of the co-authors, Professor Qasim Aziz, who is based at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry told the BBC that he used neuroimaging techniques to explore the brains of patients with a range of pain disorders such as irritable bowel and unexplained chest pain to work out how the brain uses pain signals.

Aziz said that “new and highly sophisticated brain-imaging technology is providing vital insights that animal research has failed to produce”. He wants to see more scientists using these methods, although he does still see a need for animals in a limited sense, for instance in drug dose experiments.

“Volunteer studies in pain research — Opportunities and challenges to replace animal experiments: The report and recommendations of a Focus on Alternatives workshop.”
C.K. Langley, Q. Aziz, C. Bountra, N. Gordon, P. Hawkins, A. Jones, G. Langley, T. Nurmikko, I. Tracey.
NeuroImage, Volume 42, Issue 2, 15 August 2008, Pages 467-473.
DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.05.030.

Click here for Abstract.

Sources: Journal abstract, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD