Ghent University closely monitors animal research and testing

Animal research and testing at Ghent University is only conducted in laboratories that have government approval to carry out such research. There are over 30 such recognised labs at Ghent University, although not each of these labs regularly conducts animal research or tests.

Within Ghent University, a number of bodies monitoring whether animal research and testing is conducted properly, and ensure that all legal obligations are met. Two of these bodies are required by law: the animal welfare bodies, and the Ethics Committees. The non-statutory bodies such as the task forces, working groups and the Adoption Committee, have grown from within the institution.

In addition to these internal bodies there are also external checks. For example, an independent veterinarian performs quarterly checks, and the Flemish Animal Welfare Service also conducts inspections.

The figure below shows the structures at Ghent University that are involved in animal testing.

Animal welfare bodies

Animal welfare bodies are local, bottom-up teams, comprising animal caretakers and researchers who are responsible for laboratory animals and their use. Each such body focuses on monitoring animal welfare within its own laboratory. They try to prevent or address any problems, as well as acquiring expertise in animal welfare and sharing this with the other people working in the laboratory.

Every laboratory that uses animals is legally obliged to establish an animal welfare body. The composition of these is also stipulated by law: they should include at least one representative who is responsible for the special care of the laboratory animals, and one representative of the lead investigators. An animal welfare body will typically include an animal caretaker, a researcher and a lab worker or technician. The work of the animal welfare bodies is supervised by a veterinarian.

Within the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, where animal research takes place in different laboratories, but often on the same animal species, one overarching cell is responsible for promoting dialogue between the different animal welfare bodies and exchanging expertise and best practices. For example, this has already led to the collective development of standard operating procedures.

Task forces

In order to pool and share expertise on animal species which are used by multiple research groups, various task forces were established within the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine to bring together members from different animal welfare bodies (and thus different laboratories).

Task forces are interdisciplinary, bottom-up groups, composed of technicians, animal caretakers and researchers. These groups also draw on the expertise of a consultant animal welfare expert. The task forces provide an accessible way of sharing experiences and good practices, and also determine common standards and procedures for safeguarding the welfare of the laboratory animals. The first task force, established in 2018, focused on dogs. Shortly afterwards, task forces were also established for cats and horses.

Operational working group on animal research and tests

This working group brings together members of different faculties – alongside the three Ethics Committees on Animal Research and Testing. Together they develop practical, concrete solutions for competence management and continuous development, amongst other things, while also monitoring whether the administrative and operational procedures still conform to legislation at all times.

Ethics Committees on Animal Research and Testing

Ethics Committees are committees of internal experts, and one of their tasks is to evaluate project applications for research involving laboratory animals. Any research using animals can only start after being approved by the relevant Ethics Committee. The committees also have an advisory role, setting ethical criteria for animal testing, and requesting an retrospective analysis of past projects.

Within Ghent University, there are three active, legally recognised Ethics Committees, and each is responsible for one or more faculties. Each of these committees is composed according to the legal requirements, and each has the necessary expertise in the field of ethics, alternatives to the use of animals, animal health, animal welfare, research methods, experiment design, and statistical analysis. The committees include experts from Ghent University alongside external experts. When evaluating research projects, attention is paid to any possible conflicts of interest. Each application is assessed by at least seven experts.

The faculty of Veterinary Medicine has an additional working group within its Ethics Committee: the Adoption Committee. The Committee has a range of members (from professors to students) and decides on the match between the animals and their prospective adopters, as proposed by the lab’s animal welfare body. This procedure, based on Belgian legislation (RD 29 May 2013) was developed in 2014, and has been approved both by the faculty and university administrations. The procedure started in 2015. You can find more information about adopting laboratory animals on the website of the Ethics Committee on Animal Research and Testing for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Working group on animal research and testing policy

This is a multidisciplinary working group that follows national and international legislation and trends. Through its members, it has contact with other universities and organisations active in animal research and testing, and after consulting with the other internal structures, it determines the direction of the animal research and testing policy at Ghent University. Members within this working group have expertise on animal research and education, animal welfare, animal behaviour, and animal ethics. The composition of this group makes it the most appropriate body for the general supervision and reflection on animal research and testing policy.

Working group on communication about animal research and testing

This group works closely with the working group on policy. It was founded in 2019 with the aim of coordinating and optimising communication about animal research and testing, both internally within the institution as well as externally in relation to the wider public. It also monitors transparency in the field of animal testing.

In 2020, posters were distributed to all laboratories using animals including contact details of the individuals and bodies that staff and students can reach out to if they have questions or want to signal problems regarding animal research and animal welfare. Ghent University thus specifically seeks to involve all those who work with laboratory animals in the monitoring process.

In cooperation with the working group on animal research and testing policy, a crisis communication plan was drawn up in 2021.