Biomedical researchers across Australia are reeling in shock from the sudden news that the biggest supplier of laboratory mice and rats in the country—the Animal Resources Centre—will close its doors in around a year, with no plans in place to ensure a continued supply of animals to researchers.
Malcolm France, a veterinarian and the director of animal services at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, says the first anyone heard of the impending closure was at the end of June. The news leaked from within the Animal Resources Centre (ARC), which is based in Murdoch in Western Australia, shortly after staff were informed that it was scheduled to close.
In the first week of July, an email went out to the ARC’s customers from its acting CEO Kirsty Moynihan, stating that the facility would be winding down its operations over the next 12–18 months. The email explained that the decision was made because the ARC was not able to operate in a financially self-sustaining manner, and was also required to vacate its premises at Murdoch University.
“The vast majority of medical research institutions running medical research programs would get some, if not most or even all, [of] their animals from the ARC,” says France. “So the impact is huge and at the moment the medical research community is facing huge uncertainty.”
A facility in peril
In 2019, the ARC supplied more than 220,000 laboratory animals to biomedical researchers. Just over 90 percent of those were supplied to Australian research institutes and universities, but the facility also exported animals to laboratories in Indonesia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States, and China.
The ARC referred The Scientist’s questions about the closure to the Western Australia (WA) government, which paid around half of the initial construction costs of the facility in the early 1980s and created legislation specifically to establish and govern the center’s operations.
It’s the jewel in Australia’s research infrastructure crown, and it shouldn’t be treated this way.
—Michael Dobbie, Phenomics Australia
A spokesperson for WA Deputy Premier Roger Cook, who is also the state minister for health, medical research and science, says in a statement that the center had not been financially viable for some time, and “the WA government has repeatedly been required to step-in and make financial contributions to the ARC in order to cover costs.” He also notes that the expiring lease for the land on which the ARC is located, which is owned by Murdoch University, was a catalyst for the decision to wind down the ARC.
The ARC’s annual reports going back to 2014 suggest long-running and unresolved issues with the lease agreement with Murdoch. The 2020 annual report described the lease issue as a “significant obstacle impeding approval of various emergency and critical capital improvements.”
Murdoch University declined to respond to questions regarding the lease agreement and instead says in an email to The Scientist that the decision to cease operations was made by the ARC and the WA government.
“Significant disruption” to the research community
Cook’s spokesperson says his office expects that the ARC will close completely by December 2022. The news appears to have caught not just the medical research community but also research organizations, universities, industry bodies, and even the Australian federal government by surprise. The biggest question on everyone’s minds is what will happen to the ARC’s highly specialized facilities, the animals that are currently bred and housed there, and the supply of mice and rats for medical research.
There appear to be frantic discussions taking place among the many stakeholders likely to be affected by the closure, but nothing concrete has even been foreshadowed, let alone announced.
Both the Australian federal Minister for Health and Aged Care and the federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources declined to comment on the issue, and instead referred enquiries to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, which in turn noted that Phenomics Australia—a government-funded network of specialist centers offering infrastructure, research services, and technical expertise in functional genomics—was “engaging with other interested stakeholders.”
Phenomics Australia director and biomedical researcher Michael Dobbie says there didn’t appear to have been any consultation with the federal government or the scientific community ahead of the decision about what effects the closure would have on biomedical research in Australia.
“It’s the jewel in Australia’s research infrastructure crown, and it shouldn’t be treated this way,” he tells The Scientist. “It certainly shouldn’t be closed on the premise of financial viability without proper national discussion.”
Peter Thomas, the executive director of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, writes in an email to The Scientist that the organization was aware of the closure and was working with stakeholders to find a solution, but none have been established yet. “Without action, the loss of such a high-quality research infrastructure could potentially cause significant disruption to Australia’s medical research,” Thomas says.
The looming loss of the ARC comes at a bad time for the Australian scientific community, and particularly the university sector.
One of the many research groups likely to be badly affected is the Children’s Cancer Institute in Melbourne, which runs several major national projects aimed at developing personalized treatments for childhood cancers. It was recently awarded nearly $55 million AU in funding from the Australian government’s Medical Research Future Fund for its Zero Childhood Cancer Personalized Medicine Program, which is heavily reliant on research using animal models.
Around 80 percent of the mice used at the institute come from the ARC. “Because you need to do preclinical testing before you can go into the clinic, we have a large reliance on mice,” says Michelle Haber, the institute’s executive director and a cancer researcher.
One of the institute’s research programs uses mice grafted with tumor samples taken from patients with advanced or treatment-resistant cancers to help identify biomarkers that could guide treatment and test personalized interventions. The institute is considered a world leader in the field.
“It’s really a very key platform for identifying the best treatment for patients who are otherwise destined to die,” Haber says. “We’re absolutely changing the model of care for how children with cancer are treated.”
Alternative options for sourcing rodents
As news of the center’s closure broke in early July, there were some calls for a reduction or phasing out of the use of animals in medical research. Dobbie says that animal experiments are only conducted where there is no alternative, and “we’re all working towards alternatives.” Some areas of biomedical research are moving to cell lines, so-called organs on a chip, and computer modeling in lieu of animals. But, Dobbie says, not all animal experiments can make use of these alternatives.
Anand Gururajan, a neuroscientist and research fellow at the University of Sydney, studies the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and says rodents are vital to his work.
“We can’t model behavior in a petri dish. We can’t model social behavior on a computer,” Gururajan says. Since in many ways researchers still lack a strong understanding of how the organ works, “to try and simplify whatever is going on in the brain to an equation or a model in a cell culture in petri dishes, it’s not [accurate],” he says. And, he points out, drug regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration require preclinical evidence from animal studies to support applications for new medicines.
The mice Gururajan has been using for his work come from the ARC, and he doesn’t know what will happen to that supply when the center closes. Researchers in Australia occasionally purchase animals from facilities abroad, such as the US-based Jackson Laboratory, but Gururajan says the transportation costs would also add substantially to the cost of doing the research. Overseas supply is also vulnerable to interruptions in international trade, such as has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. One option will be to source animals from Australian BioResources, a supplier of laboratory mice and rats based in Moss Vale in New South Wales that is run by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. This is a smaller operation than the ARC, and not as specialized. Gururajan says he is concerned it will be swamped with orders once the ARC closes.
“Option two—and this is really the worst-case scenario—is that we run the risk of having to abandon all animal research, and we end up having to outsource it to our collaborators overseas,” he says. “It would be absolutely, majorly devastating.”
The looming loss of the ARC comes at a bad time for the Australian scientific community, and particularly the university sector. Universities were denied financial support from the federal government during the pandemic to help offset the loss of income from international students no longer able to come to Australia due to its border closures, and there have been successive rounds of staff layoffs in the past 18 months.
“This intended closure is further evidence of the broken research funding model in Australia where only a fraction of the total costs of animals is covered by granting agencies and where Commonwealth funding mechanisms such as the Research Support Program fall well short of providing for the indirect costs of research,” says Duncan Ivison, the deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney in a statement to The Scientist.
Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, which represents eight of Australia’s leading universities, says they are seeking meetings at the highest levels of state and federal governments to address the issue. “Given the current environment, our medical research capability has never been more important,” Thomson says in a statement to The Scientist.
Dobbie says the hope is that the existing ARC facility could be preserved, perhaps funded under the federal National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which also funds Phenomics Australia. However, if the ARC is forced to close completely, it would take tens of millions of dollars to build an entirely new facility elsewhere in Australia, and that may not be achieved fast enough to avoid interruption to the supply of this critical resource, he says.
“We should already be having that discussion before decisions are pronounced, particularly when decisions are being seemingly implemented on such a short term that we can’t respond fast enough to be able to secure services elsewhere,” Dobbie says. There are some smaller facilities like Australian BioResources that could potentially scale up production, but that would also require investment and time to upgrade these to meet demand, he says.
There is also a risk that a gap in the breeding and supply of rodents may mean other small-scale suppliers and individual institutions will increase their own breeding efforts. The National Health and Medical Research Council, which is the leading government funding agency for medical research in Australia, expressed concern in a statement to The Scientist that this could result in duplication of breeding efforts, “which does not accord with the principles in the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, including the principle of reduction of animal use.”
While there is some hope for good news, the mood among biomedical researchers who rely on the ARC’s supply of high-quality mice and rats is grim. “If we don’t have access to that, then biomedical research Australia may as well . . . pull down the shutters and turn off the lights,” Dobbie says.