Is it time to replace the 3 R’s?

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More than sixty years have passed since Russell and Burch introduced the “3 R’s” concept—reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use—to advance animal welfare standards and reduce animal use in science. Though the 3 R’s have long been considered to be an important framework for researchers who use animals, the world of biomedical sciences is very different today compared to when the 3 R’s were developed. This is especially true considering the incredible advancements that have been made in human-relevant, non-animal in vitro and in silico models, such as those that NAVS funds through the International Foundation for Ethical Research

That is why, as the scientific community continues its heavy reliance on animal models, some have begun to wonder whether it is time to move on from the 3 R’s concept. “It was an important advance in animal research ethics, but it’s no longer enough,” said Tom Beauchamp, emeritus professor of ethics at Georgetown University. 

To address this, Dr. Beauchamp teamed up with George Washington University bioethicist Dr. David DeGrazia and developed six moral principles for the ethical use of lab animals, intended to replace the 3 Rs. Their framework is divided between moral principles that address both social benefit and animal welfare. 

The ethicists published an article and book on the topic last year and were recently interviewed by the journal Science. In the interview, they discussed their new approach, its improvements over the 3 R’s and whether they think the research community will be receptive to their idea. 

The pair developed the six principles because of existing gaps with the 3 R’s. Dr. DeGrazia noted that the 3 R’s “don’t take the costs and benefits of animal research into account. They don’t ask questions like, ‘Is the experiment worth pursuing in the first place? Is it too expensive? Is it important enough?’ It just assumes the experiment is worth doing…[They] also aren’t comprehensive. They don’t discuss the basic needs of animals, for example, or set limits on how much animals can be harmed.” 

DeGrazia noted that their principles address these gaps because “scientists must not just consider alternatives to using animals, they must prove that there are no viable alternatives.” Beauchamp added that “there should be an upper limit to how much we can harm animals, regardless of the benefits of the science. No animal should be put in a position of experiencing severe suffering for a lengthy period of time.” 

The pair have been encouraged by the general positive feedback they’ve received from the scientific community about their proposal but recognize that the principles will be criticized if they are perceived as imposing additional regulations and slowing down science. 

But as DeGrazia noted, “It won’t slow down science if we’re stopping research that doesn’t provide real benefits.”

Grimm, D. “Is it time to replace one of the cornerstones of animal research?,” Science, June 25, 2020. 
DeGrazia, D. and Beauchamp, T. “Beyond the 3 Rs to a More Comprehensive Framework of Principles for Animal Research Ethics,” ILAR, October 2019.