Australia's leading breeder and supplier of lab mice and rats is preparing to close its doors, leaving researchers scrambling for alternatives.
"I wish to inform you that the Animal Resources Center (ARC) will be winding up its operations over the next 12-18 months," acting CEO Kirsty Moynihan wrote in an email to customers on 2 July. She explained that ARC, located near Perth in the state of Western Australia, "is not able to operate in a financially self-sustaining manner," which is required by the state legislation that created the center.
The closure "would have major implications for Australia’s medical research effort," says Malcolm France, a Sydney-based veterinarian who advises institutions on the care and management of animals used in research. He says ARC has been Australia's leading breeder and supplier of specialized strains of lab mice and rats for more than 30 years, supplying universities and medical research institutes in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore.
Under its authorizing law, ARC is supposed to be financially self-supporting. But the Western Australia government has been providing annual subsidies of about AU$1.3 million ($975,000), France says. A further complication is that Murdoch University wants to reclaim land it currently leases to ARC, according to Moynihan's letter.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Western Australia government explained that ARC was originally intended to supply animals to Western Australia research institutions, yet in recent years more than 80% of the center's rats and mice have gone to laboratories in other Australian states and overseas. With ARC losing money, those out-of-state sales are "effectively being subsidized by [Western Australia] taxpayers."
The spokesperson added that a 2019 external review concluded that ARC "was not financially viable." That finding led to the decision to close the center.
Alternative breeders could replace ARC's current offerings only "to a very limited extent," France says. The country's other major supplier of lab animals concentrates on breeding specific lines for particular research projects; ARC handles well-established strains that are used worldwide. France worries that ARC’s closure could result in the loss of rodent breeding infrastructure, as well as the technical expertise in quality and infection control accumulated by ARC’s 60 or so staff members.
"It's a shame to be losing [ARC], but it looks like the research community will have no choice but to come up with another solution," France says. It could be an opportunity to create a new, more efficient facility located in eastern Australia, where most medical research is concentrated, he says.
*Update, 8 July, 10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to include comments from the government of Western Australia.