The Medical Research Council (MRC) has announced two new initiatives to improve lab animal welfare. A new grant programme will allow medical researchers to apply for money to conduct research into ways to reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in medical research. And, in a closely related decision, the MRC will also launch a Centre for Standards in Animal Research later this year to ensure that information on best practice in animal welfare is disseminated among biomedical scientists.

The three Rs of reduction, refinement, and replacement are the guiding principles on which all animal research in the UK is based. Researchers are required by law to consider these principles in designing their experiments so that the number of animals used and the suffering of those animals is minimised and that replacement methods, for example cell cultures, are used wherever possible.

Although they must consider the three Rs, few biomedical scientists are actively researching new ways to implement them. "Up to now scientists haven't seen this sort of research as in their interests to pursue or publish," explains the MRC's Tony Peatfield. He hopes that the offer of even relatively small amounts of money will give biomedical scientists the encouragement they need to carry out research into the three Rs in parallel with their fundamental research. The programme does not have a fixed amount of money to spend since it aims to be as inclusive as possible, he explains. As long as researchers can justify the research, grants could be anything from "a few thousand, up to £100,000 or more," he says.

The MRC programme has the potential to make a significant impact in the field. On one hand, public funding for three-R research is scarce. The main public funder of alternatives research is the Home Office Animal Procedures Committee, which spent only £259,000 on three-R research last year--not exactly a fortune in research funding terms. Even the charitable Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Research's (FRAME's) total research budget last year was just £422,000, covering both lab- and office-based research. Private companies, on the other hand, do a lot of three-R research, but they tend to keep their results secret, says Robert Combes, scientific director of FRAME. He describes the MRC's new initiatives as "very welcome indeed, and not before time."

According to Combes, research is particularly needed in the areas of reduction and refinement techniques. And he points out that it is not just a question of animal welfare, but of good science. Many scientists believe that you can get different results from an experiment simply by changing the level of animal stress caused by human handling, he says. "There is some evidence that it's important, but we need more research," he suggests. And Peatfield points out that welfare is just as much of an issue when animals are not being used in experiments.

Of course research is only worthwhile if the results are disseminated and implemented, which is where the MRC's Centre for Standards in Animal Research will come in. Based at the Council's head office in London, the Centre's staff will promote the sharing of best practice. Peatfield explains that the Centre's staff, who have yet to be appointed, will be developing their own work priorities to some extent. One thing is for sure. With "a lot of opportunities arising through developments in mouse genetics," the number of animals used in research is likely to rise, according to Peatfield. The Centre will be in for a busy time.