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Investigating New Zealand animal research statistics

Speaking of Research has prided itself on being the most comprehensive source of information on animal research statistics. We recently got in touch with the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC), who furnished us with their annual report for 2013.

The National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC) is a statutory body which provides advice to the Minister for Primary Industries and to Animal Ethics Committees (AECs) on the ethical and animal welfare issues arising from the use of live animals in research, testing and teaching (RTT).

In 2013, the number of animals used in research was 224,048.

Species of animals used in New Zealand research in 2013. Click to Enlarge

Species of animals used in New Zealand research in 2013. Click to Enlarge

While the total number of animals fell by 26% from 2012, it should be noted that the numbers of animals used each appears to fluctuate wildly between around 200,00 and 350,000, as we can see below. The main falls in 2013 were in cattle and mice, whereas there were large rises in birds and sheep.

Trends in New Zealand animal experiments 1999-2013. Note 2014 is in a different color to reflect the different reporting requirements. Click to Enlarge.

Trends in New Zealand animal experiments 1999-2013

Whereas in most countries mice, rats, fish and birds account for over 90% of animals in research, in New Zealand it is under 50%. Instead 44% of animals are cattle and sheep, reflecting the huge amount of agricultural research being done. Interesting only 2% (cattle) and 3% (sheep) of these species die or are euthanized (compared with 98% of the mice).

Animal Experiments in New Zealand in 2013. Click to Enlarge

Animal Experiments in New Zealand in 2013. Click to Enlarge

Other information provided by the annual statistics are:

  • Around half the research is done by universities (24%) and crown research institutes (23%) , the other half is done by commercial organisations (46%).
  • Only 36% of animals die or are euthanised. This tends to polarise between high rates for mice and rats, and a very low proportion for sheep and cattle.
  • 27.3% of animals were involved in research with no, or virtually no negative impact on the animal. 47.9% had little impact on the animal, 17.8% had moderate impact, and 2.0% were considered high impact.
  • The main purpose of research was basic biological research (23.4%), then veterinary research (19.5%), then animal testing (13.7%). The rest is illustrated below.

Use of animals in research in New Zealand 2013

The 2014 statistics should be coming out soon and we will report on them when they come out.

Can animal research be applied to humans?

Animal rights proponents defend the idea the we do not have the right to use animals for anything, including food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research. However, they seem to be having a hard time convincing people to stop eating meat, wearing leather and having pets, so they have disproportionately targeted animal research, where the link between animal use and the benefit that we derive from it seems less obvious [1]. Still, once they start thinking about it, people soon realize that using animals to find new cures is far more ethically justifiable than eating a steak or wearing a leather jacket [2]. For that reason, animal rights proponents have found it necessary to put forward an additional argument: that in fact animal research does not accomplish its stated goals. Lately, we have seen this idea repeated over and over again as a key argument against animal research. In this article I will argue against it. To be absolutely clear what I’m arguing against, I am spelling out that claim as follows:

“Animal research is useless because disease mechanisms are very different between animals and humans, so drugs that work on animals do not work on humans.”

The first part of the claim implies that there are fundamental differences in physiology between animals and humans. Is that true? Quite the opposite: the great many discoveries made in biochemistry and molecular biology show that all the basic mechanisms of life are common to all living beings. Perhaps one day we will discover extraterrestrial life that is radically different for ours, but all living beings on Earth work pretty much the same way. All use DNA to store genetic information and RNA and ribosomes to translate that information to proteins. That translation is based on the genetic code, which is common to all living beings. All living beings have proteins made with the same 20 amino acids, and only with the L stereoisomers of these amino acids. All living beings use glycolysis, the Krebs’s cycle and the respiratory chain to generate ATP for energy. All living beings have a double-layer of lipids as a cell membrane. And these are just a few examples. It seems that the basic functioning of cells was set by chemical evolution billions of years ago, even before multicellular systems started to evolve, and has not changed ever since. There are more similarities than differences even between the mayor kingdoms of bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. If we focus just on animals, we find that their nervous systems are formed by neurons of similar characteristics, with similar neurotransmitters and receptors. Mammals have a majority of genes in common and their organs are very similar.

animal research, knockout mouse

“Mammals have a majority of genes in common and their organs are very similar”

Moving on to the second part of the claim, is it true that some drugs work on animals but not on humans, and vice versa? Yes, this is true for a few drugs. For example, take catnip: cats can get high on catnip but this doesn’t happen to humans or to most other mammals. Nevertheless, many other psychoactive drugs, like morphine and barbiturates, have similar effects in all mammals. The important thing, however, is that even if some drugs do not have the same effect in animals and humans, this does not represent a major problem for animal research. To understand why, we need to go into the details of why there are differences in the action of drugs between species. The key lies in the structure of proteins. Proteins are like nanomachines that carry all the essential functions in life: catalyzing chemical reactions, moving chemicals in and out of the cell, processing signals inside the cell, generating action potentials in neurons, contracting muscle, copying DNA, making other proteins by translating DNA, etc. They are made of 20 amino acids linked to each other in long chains. The amino acid sequence is what determines what a protein does, just like the sequence of the 26 letters of the alphabet determines what this article says. The amino acid sequence of all the proteins in the body is encoded in the sequence of the DNA, so that each gene in the DNA is translated to a particular protein. This long string of amino acids folds itself into a blob whose shape determines what the protein does. In particular, there are nooks and crannies in these blobs where different chemicals (a neurotransmitter, a hormone, a metabolite, etc.) can attach themselves like a key to its lock, subtly changing the shape of the protein and its function. Drugs works by binding to the protein instead of its natural ligand, acting like a key to turn the protein on or off. The shape of the binding site is determined by the few amino acids that configure it, whose sequence is encoded in the DNA. Now, here is the catch: a small mutation in the DNA can change one of the amino acids that configure the binding site and this would cause a drug that before fitted into it, like a key into a lock, to not fit any more. So small changes in DNA from one species to another can cause a drug that worked in one species to not work on another species.

A protein binding site

A protein binding site

Then, doesn’t this problem prevent us from developing drugs in animals? Not at all! There are many ways to work around this problem. First, nowadays it is very easy to sequence a protein, so that we know the amino acids that form its binding sites in every species. Then we can select a particular species whose protein has a binding site similar to a human protein. That is why we need a wide choice of animals in which to perform research, not just mice and rats. Recently, the perfect solution was found: we can take the human gene for a given protein and swap it for the original protein in a mouse, so the mouse now has a protein identical to humans. Hence, differences in protein binding sites are no longer a problem. In fact, today this represents only a minor inconvenience in animal research. We have much bigger problems to tackle. Contrary to the view presented by animal rights organizations, drug testing is just a very minor part of the animal research enterprise. We use animals in scientific research to accomplish four different goals.

Goal 1: describing physiological mechanisms

The human body is the most complex thing that we know. We have many different organs regulated by a multitude of signals from the endocrine, the immune and the nervous system. Each organ is formed by different types of cells that interact which each other. Inside each cell, specialized signal transduction pathways ensure that the cell perform its particular function. Before we can alter this enormously complicated system with medications, we need to know how it works. Fortunately, organs and cells work in the same ways in all mammals, so we can use a variety of mammal species to investigate these phenomena. The human brain is quite different from the rodent brain, but similar enough to the monkey brain to study some higher brain functions in it. We have at our disposal a vast collection of experimental techniques that can be used to study the organization of the body (anatomy), the functioning of every organ (physiology) and the behavior of the animal as a whole. Advanced technologies include electrophysiology (patch-clamp, multiple neurons, single nerve fiber, etc.); optogenetics to stimulate or inhibit neurons using light; DREADD to change the behavior of an specific population of cells with a harmless drug; functional imaging (PET, fMRI); immunohistochemistry; confocal microscopy; electron microscopy; behavioral tests to study pain, anxiety, drug abuse, etc. These methodologies are incredibly sophisticated and took decades to develop. Yet, they all have in common that they used animals in their development. Thanks to the application of these methodologies in experimental animals, we are discovering how the mammalian body works. However, given its enormous complexity, much work still remains to be done.

Optogenetics involved using light to control genetically modified cells inside the body

Optogenetics involved using light to control genetically modified cells inside the body

Goal 2: create animal models of disease

Understanding physiology in the healthy condition is not enough, to cure a disease we also need to know how it is changed by the disease. In fact, many of the most challenging diseases that we face nowadays, like Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, chronic pain and cancer, are alterations of physiological mechanisms. Since there are obvious ethical limits to do invasive procedures in human patients, we need to study diseases in animals. In the best case scenario, the disease that we are investigating also occurs in the animals, so we just need to get some animals that have it. However, there are diseases that are unique to humans, like Alzheimer’s, or that rarely occur in animals, like heart disease and some forms of chronic pain. In these cases we need to create a condition in the animal that resembles as much as possible the human disease. We call that an “animal model” of the disease. For example, mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease have been created by changing some of their genes [3, 4]. In another example, models of chronic pain can be generated by injecting chemicals in the paw of mice and rats [5]. The problem here is that the animal model is based on a hypothesis on how the disease works; if the hypothesis is wrong, so is the animal model. Therefore, much work has to be devoted to the validation of an animal model before it can be used to study the disease. Inevitably, some animal models turn out to be invalid. Instances of this have been taken as a proof that the whole concept of animal models of disease is wrong [6]. It is actually the opposite: the creation of the models is already an investigation of the disease. Discarding a model is progress, the same way that discarding a hypothesis is part of the scientific method.

Goal 3: finding targets for drug development

Unraveling a physiological mechanism leads to the identification of the proteins that are involved in it, working together like machines in an assembly line. This way we can find key proteins whose function we can tweak to adjust that physiological mechanism the way we want. These are what we call “target” proteins, because that is where the drugs that we want to develop will act. Once we know which ones they are, we can compare their amino acid sequence across species to identify differences from the same protein in humans. Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that, because entire signal pathways may differ between species, but once we know them in one species we can explore what these variations are. Again, this is why we need to use species other than rodents for biomedical research to be successful.

Goal 4: Drug screening

This is, indeed, the “animal testing” that is often presented as the sole endeavor of animal research. In fact, a lot of drug screening is not done in animals at all! If we have found the physiological mechanism (goal 1) involved in a particular disease (goal 2), and identified a target protein (goal 3), we can simply express that protein in a cell culture and use it to test thousands of drugs very quickly to find the ones that have the best effect. The drugs that are validated this way are then tested in animals. For that we will choose an species in which the protein is similar to its human version. Most likely, a drug will be tested in several species and animal models of the disease before moving it to clinical trials in human patients.

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When a target protein is identified it is possible to test thousands of drugs very quickly to find the most effective ones. These drugs are then candidates to move on to animal tests. Credit: ECVAM

Therefore, both parts of the claim made by animal rights proponents are false. Physiology is similar enough between humans and the rest of mammals to make it possible to translate discoveries from animals to humans. Furthermore, science has developed the right strategies to investigate human diseases in animals and use the findings to develop medications that work in humans (and in animals as well, in the case of veterinary medicine). Of course, I can only provide here a very general overview of tremendously difficult problems that are trying to be solved by some of the best minds in the world. Not everything is smooth sailing, there are some big obstacles in translating discoveries made in animals to humans. Nobody said that science was easy. However, giving up animal research following the advice of animal rights ideologues would the most foolhardy thing to do. The ultimate proof that animal research is able to produce cures for human diseases is that it has done so on countless occasions in the past.

Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.

References

  1. Morrison, A.R., Perverting medical history in the service of “animal rights”. Perspect Biol Med, 2002. 45(4): p. 606-19.
  2. Ringach, D.L., The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research. American Journal of Medical Sciences, 2011. 342(4): p. 305-313.
  3. Van Dam, D. and P.P. De Deyn, Animal models in the drug discovery pipeline for Alzheimer’s disease. British Journal of Pharmacology, 2011. 164(4): p. 1285-1300.
  4. Sturchler-Pierrat, C., et al., Two amyloid precursor protein transgenic mouse models with Alzheimer disease-like pathology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1997. 94(24): p. 13287-13292.
  5. Marvizon, J.C., et al., Latent sensitization: a model for stress-sensitive chronic pain. Curr Protoc Neurosci, 2015. 71: p. 9 50 1-9 50 14.
  6. Shanks, N., R. Greek, and J. Greek, Are animal models predictive for humans? Philos Ethics Humanit Med, 2009. 4: p. 2.

A successful year for Speaking of Research in the media

2015 was another successful year for Speaking of Research in the media.

In February, Speaking of Research Director, Tom Holder, was invited to speak to BBC Look East (from 1:36 in video below) about the construction of a new medical research facility in Cambridge, UK. In the interview, Holder reminded viewers that “animal research plays a small but vital role in the development of nearly all of the medical and veterinary treatments that we know today“.

In March, as the UK parliamentary elections loomed, we  found that many election candidates had signed animal rights pledges which would effectively ban 88.6% of research – including all basic research. SR was quoted by BuzzFeed saying  that banning basic research was “akin to asking a child to solve a difficult crossword without first teaching them to read” and in in-Pharma Technologist saying that “the reality is that without the fundamental research and the breeding of GM animals, the Applied research could not happen“.

This story was picked up again in April by a Wall Street Journal blog, which further noted the dangers of banning basic research. Among a number of quotes by SR, we noted that “All veterinary research would end. And it would cripple our ability to make advances in cancer, heart disease and many other conditions, all of which rely on studies on genetically modified animals”.

June marked the first of many stories in 2015 where Speaking of Research weighed in on the building of a new and improved beagle breeding facility in Hull, UK. There has been an ongoing battle over planning permission for the extended facility. SR mentioned the potential medical benefits in an interview (from 1:40 below) with ITV, saying, “There are thousands and thousands of medical breakthroughs which have come about, in part, because of studies using animals, and hopefully we will be able to develop the next generation of cancer treatments, and the next generation of heart treatments“.

In July, Speaking of Research put out their first press release, to cover the publication of the 2014 US animal research statistics. The release was picked up by Science, a better result that if the story had only been sent out from the animal rights lobby in America. Later in the month the beagle breeding facility story was again picked up in Inquisitr and Huffington Post with SR quotes; Holder told HuffPost, “Dogs have played a crucial role in medical advances including the development of ECG, insulin, heart transplant surgery and treatments for prostate cancer. They continue to be used for research into stem cell treatments and spinal injury, as well as to ensure the safety of new medicines and treatments“.

The HuffPost story also led to a blog on Huffpost entitled “Why people are wrong to oppose the new beagle breeding facility” by Tom Holder. The article was shared over 650 times, and garnered well over 4,000 Facebook likes. July also resulted in two radio interviews. Firstly, Holder spoke to Radio Spintalk Ireland about the general subject of animal research – covering common misconceptions, the regulations in Ireland, and the possible effects of banning animal studies. You can listen to this below.

Secondly, Speaking of Research spoke to BBC Radio West Midlands after an investigation looked at the number of animals being used in research in several British universities.

Laboratory Dogs

“Animal research may not be something we want to think about when we take our medicines – but it is something necessary for those medicines to exist. Instead of trying to ban animal research, let’s instead make sure that if we do it, we do it to world-class standards.”, writes Tom Holder in Huffington Post

 

October gave Speaking of Research the chance to say something about the animal rights group PETA. US News, the Daily Mail and New Zealand Herald all picked up on an article by AP about AP’s 35th birthday. Speaking of Research were quoted saying:

“By campaigning against animal research, PETA presents a threat to the development of human and veterinary medicine. Only days ago we saw the Nobel Prize awarded to Tu Youyou, whose work in monkeys and mice paved the way for the use of artemisinin to protect against malaria, saving over 100,000 lives every year. If PETA had got their way 30 years ago, we would not have vaccines for HPV, hepatitis B or meningitis, nor would we have treatments for leprosy, modern asthma treatments and life support for premature babies,”

In November Science Insider discussed PETA’s targeting of the NIH director’s home in a bid to fight primate research in the US. Tom Holder described the tactic of sending out letters with personal details of a researcher as “irresponsible and dangerous”

Finally, in December, Science Insider followed the story after the NIH decided not to continue to the primate research of Dr Suomi. Speaking of Research commented on this, saying that the NIH needed to become more vocal in explaining research. We have also been writing about this on the website.

We hope to have another successful year in 2016. Until then have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Speaking of Research

Guest Post: The Importance of Animals in Neuroscience Research

Our guest post today is from Dr. Stacey A Bedwell, a postdoctoral researcher at Nottingham Trent University, whose work focuses in the prefrontal cortex of the mammalian brain. In this post she discusses her work with rats, and why it is important for neuroscience. If you are interested in writing a guest post for us, please contact us today.

My research interests are in brain connectivity, studying how the billions of neurons in the human brain are connected and how their complex organisation allows us to carry out high order functions such as forward planning and decision making. I am specifically interested in the most frontal part of the mammalian brain, the prefrontal cortex. This region is known to be involved in complex processes such as decision making, forward planning and social inhibition – the behavioral restraint a person has in social situations.

Why study the prefrontal cortex?

It is not always clear to people outside of the area why basic research like mine is important for medical science in the long term and how it will indirectly benefit us as humans (and also often benefit animals). A lot of people don’t realise that a lot of work needs to be done to provide the knowledge that is required before exciting new drugs and treatments are developed. For instance, the development of treatment for spinal cord injury has been built upon an increased knowledge the underlying structure. In my area of neuroscience research it is really important to develop a clear picture of the underlying anatomy and organisation before we can improve our understanding of how the prefrontal cortex as a region functions, and ultimately lead to a better understanding of prefrontal associated neurological deficits that will help us to develop improved treatments and prevention strategies.

animal testing, animal research, vivisection, animal experiment

The prefrontal region has been associated with a range of neurological deficits including schizophrenia, depression and autism. Autism in particular is thought to involve abnormalities in prefrontal connectivity. We cannot begin to fully understand how these functions work and how deficits come about until we gain a clearer understanding of the structure and organisation of the neuro-typical prefrontal cortex, beginning with the underlying anatomical circuitry. My research for the past few years has focussed on revealing the complex neuronal circuitry that comprises this fascinating brain region.

Why do I use rats in my research?

People often ask me why I used animals in my research, whether it was necessary and why I couldn’t use another non-invasive approach in human subjects such as MRI. My most frequent observation, particularly from non-scientists, is that it is hard to see the importance of research using animals, if like mine, it doesn’t focus on a specific disease or produce findings that will lead immediately to the development of a new drug or therapy..

The optimum method for investigating brain connections is to physically visualise them, and the best method for visualising brain connections is the use of neuroanatomical tract tracers, fluorescent molecules, taken up by neuronal cells, that enable us to map pathways and the connections between brain regions. There are several different tract-tracing methods available, but I use fluorescent tracers injected into the prefrontal cortex in rats. With the use of a fluorescent microscope it is possible to visualise neuronal connections down to individual cells, something which we are far from being able to do with non-invasive imaging in humans. Being able to visualise and analyse the 3 dimensional location of connections on such a systematic and fine scale has allowed us to reveal properties of prefrontal cortex connectivity which had previously been undescribed (Bedwell et al 2015 & 2014). Our most prominent and surprising finding is that of non-reciprocal connections in PFC pathways, which is inconsistent with our knowledge of cortical organisation from other complex brain regions – cortical connections have long been assumed to be largely reciprocal in nature. This shows that PFC is organised very differently to other brain regions. These novel organisational properties provide an important basis on which to build a clearer understanding of how this complex region of the brain is organised and offer an insight into how and why the prefrontal cortex is able to carry out complex processes.

What happens to the rats?

I used rats in all of my experiments. The rats were all obtained from a Home Office licensedbreeding facility in the UK and were acclimatised to their new environment for a couple of weeks before they were used in any experiments to reduce their stress. Our rats were housed in groups of at least two and were kept in climate controlled specialist cages – they were very comfortable. There are strict Home Office guidelines in the UK as to how rats used in experiments are kept and cared for to ensure their welfare needs are met, this applies to before, during and after experiments and they are followed to the letter. A lot of effort goes into ensuring no animal suffers as part of an experiment.

Image from Understanding Animal Research

Image from Understanding Animal Research

My experiments required the rats to undergo surgery so that the tracers could be injected directly into the brain at a very precise location. This was always carried out to a very high standard. We received advice from a vet, who also sat in on the first few surgeries to ensure we were performing the procedure in accordance with regulations. The surgery always involved a team of at least three people and the welfare of the rat was the greatest priority. This included the correct use of anaesthesia, analgesics pre and post operatively, as well as continued behavioural observation in order to identify any post-operative complications before they could cause suffering to the rat. At the end of the experiment each rat was euthanised and the brain removed for microscopic analysis of the labelled connections.

What next?

I am now developing studies of cortical function and functional connectivity, that can be carried out on human participants with non-invasive methodologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroencephalography (EEG), and will complement the earlier studies undertaken in rats. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet available to investigate fine scale anatomy in such a non-invasive manor, so both animal and human studies are required in order to understand how the underlying brain structure relates to function. Until such techniques are developed, animal experiments will continue to be vital for the continued progress in neuroscience, as it is in so many areas of medical science.

Dr Stacey A. Bedwell

Guest Post: What it means for me to be a veterinary technician in biomedical research

James Champion is a registered veterinary technician that is the Director of Operations of Morehouse School of Medicine’s Center for Laboratory Animal Resources.  He has worked in animal research for over twelve years.  He was also awarded the AAALAC International Fellowship Award in 2015.

Since I was a young child, I have gravitated towards all animals.  For most of my life, they seemed to be kindred spirits of mine.   This passion for animals led me to veterinary technology.  Although, I admit, I started as a veterinary technician so I could get experience that would eventually lead me to veterinary school; it turned into a fulfilling and exciting career.  As life often demonstrates to us; our plans are meaningless.

I had been working as a veterinary technician since I was sixteen, following that path until 2002.  That is when a friend, after seeing a job posting at Emory University, asked me if I wanted to work with monkeys.  Of course, my response was an immediate ‘yes’.  That was when my career in biomedical research began.  I was a veterinary technician for a research breeding facility where I helped to ensure all the animals were healthy and happy.  No one warned me of the backlash I would experience when I spoke of my new career.  I learned real quickly how hot of a topic biomedical research was.  It was also, then, that my undesired shame for what I did was starting to manifest.  I started to fear being targeted by animal rights groups, having a debate every time I discussed my career, as well as, fear that I was blindly supporting the use of animals to better human life.  It soon became clear to me; we don’t talk about what we do.  A great example of this was during a Christmas holiday, my cousin, who happens to be diabetic and has scoliosis, asked me, “How can you do that to those cute monkeys.”  The ridiculousness of this question coming from someone who can directly observe the benefits of animal research was not lost on me.  After the initial shock of being accused of doing something nefarious, I truly understood her motivation for her question.  She had little to no understanding of how research actually works and how it is heavily regulated.

James Champion Veterinary Technician

Although my opinions of research are different than those that lack the understanding of the system, my drive within my field is not different from others.  I have personally seen the positive results from research.  From the longevity of my pets to the treatment that allowed my grandmother to live, reducing the debilitating effects of the stroke she had.  In addition to that, I would not have been able to travel to England and Africa this past year without contracting any diseases without the vaccines and medications I was provided.  I wouldn’t have been able to travel if I had not had back pain injections last year, allowing me to stand upright and be able to sit for the length of time that was required for my international travel.  For me, I feel like I am contributing the improved welfare of the world around me by participating in the industry that trains our future doctors as well as contributes to the medical advances in our understanding and treatments of diseases.  Unfortunately, this was not quite enough for me to be at ease working in this field.

After much soul searching, I found my purpose.  I was able to reconcile my doubts and put all of my energy in doing what I feel I was meant to do.  I became the advocate for our research animals.  This change was not a result of a promotion or specific instruction.  It was clear to me, if I was not in my position, putting the animal welfare as the utmost importance, who would?    If you asked anyone in research, you would find a high percentage of people that would gladly give up their careers if it meant not needing to use animals.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a suitable alternative, at least, not yet.  Until that day comes, we in the research industry will continue to provide care for these animals, to which we owe much gratitude.  All current medical advances (vaccines, antibiotics, treatments, etc.) are all due to the animal heroes that have provided the data needed to combat diseases in both humans and animals.

Vervet Monkeys

“That is when a friend asked me if I wanted to work with monkeys. Of course, my response was an immediate ‘yes’.”

Despite the differences we humans have in our opinions, it isn’t our duty to change someone’s views. That is an internal and personal process and journey upon which we must embark alone.  Our duty as bastions of animal welfare is to proudly discuss our jobs as animal care givers.  Most people do not understand the process for applying, planning and initiating any animal studies.  If more information is provided and more openness is observed, less people may have as strong of negative impression of biomedical research as they do.  At this stage in my life, it has become clear that I must be a part of the ‘coming out of the research closet’.  I began to speak at conferences for research staff as well as veterinary technician conferences, speaking of the great work we do in research.  By inspiring our colleagues and openly talking about what I do, I feel the path is set.

Why do I think veterinary technicians are needed in research?  I may be biased since I am a veterinary technician that has become the Director of Operations of an animal research program, but I feel veterinary technicians are needed in research.  Most veterinary technicians have big hearts, making them compassionate care givers with an innate ability to recognize pain and suffering.  In addition to that critical quality, veterinary technicians are able to triage cases to ensure intervention is provided only when necessary.  Lastly, most veterinary technicians are able to handle euthanasia (although the worse part of the job), understand the balance between costs versus care.  They do this daily; taking care of others’ animals while their own are home waiting for them.

Being an animal lover, I am often confronted with consternation that I am able to work in this field.  Although the inquiry can be offensive because it implies that I condone hurting animals in some way and that I do not care that we use animals for our needs.  If you know someone that is an animal lover (as are most of us that work in this field), ask yourself:  “Is this job easy for someone that loves animals?”  If they love animals, this career must not be easy for them.  Instead of asking them how they can participate in this work, try thanking them.  Thank them for being there 365 days a year to ensure these animals do not suffer and the best care possible is being provided.  Thank them, also, for combating emotional fatigue to ensure we are steadily studying disease and its treatments.  Lastly, the animals that make this sacrifice should be thanked.  This gratitude can be shown by providing these animals with the best care possible.  As a result, our scientists get the best data possible.

Biomedical research is a difficult, yet rewarding career.  It requires high standards of care and compliance with regulations.  It also requires compassion that is tested every day.  For those that work in this field, they must understand the value of animal welfare and how that affects high quality data.  Without the care of qualified and compassionate staff, this data would not exist and the research community would not be able to provide the world with medications, treatments and vaccines.  The only way to bring the debate to the forefront is to talk about it.  Be proud.  Talk about what you do.  Get involved and share your experiences.

James Champion, CMAR, LATG

FASEB Hosts Briefing on Canine Research

On November 17, 2015, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) sponsored a congressional briefing highlighting the role that canines play in advancing both human and dog health.  Attended by Congressional staffers and other stakeholder, the briefing highlighted three panelists who described how studying naturally occurring diseases in dogs improves our understanding of corresponding human diseases.

Timothy Nichols, MD, Director of the Francis Owen Blood Research Laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill opened the briefing by discussing his research on hemophilia, a rare blood disorder where sufferers lack clotting factors and have uncontrollable bleeding.  Some dogs, like humans, are genetically prone to hemophilia and have been instrumental in learning more about the disease and  in  identifying new treatments of hemophilia for dogs and humans.  Many of the therapies available to humans have been developed in susceptible dog breeds, and more therapies are currently being tested. For example, Dr. Nichols explained that dogs treated with gene therapy have been disease free for over seven years.  He hopes that this treatment can soon be applied to humans.

Beagle in research

Following Dr. Nichols was Amy LeBlanc, DVM, DACVIM, Director of the National Cancer Institute’s Comparative Oncology Program.  Dr. LeBlanc oversees clinical trials where pet dogs with naturally occurring cancers are enrolled in studies through the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium to test new treatment paradigms.  Results from treating dog patients are used to help inform trials with analogous human cancers.  Dr. LeBlanc noted that dogs are a great model for studying cancer relevant to humans because dogs are outbred, exposed to the same environment and stresses, and have genetic profiles similar to humans.  Additionally, dogs are immune-competent and cancer metastasis occurs in a comparable manner to humans.

Elaine Ostrander, PhD, Chief of the Cancer Genetics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health, discussed her research studying the canine genome.  Using DNA samples of pure-bred dogs supplied by pet owners, breeders, and veterinarians, Ostrander’s laboratory identifies the genetic basis for specific traits.  For example, studying the genetic profile of dogs with short legs (e.g., corgis, dachshunds) led to the understanding that a specific gene is responsible for an excess of a specific growth factor resulting in an inhibition of cartilage forming cells, slowed bone growth, and shortened legs.  Identifying of this gene may help researchers address growth conditions in humans.

During the question and answer period, the panelists were asked a number of questions by audience members. The importance of using the correct animal model for the scientific question being asked was highlighted and emphasized by Dr. Nichols’ response, “hemophiliac mice don’t bleed, dogs do.” When the panelists questioned whether animal models of disease were becoming more important in studying human disease, there was an emphatic “absolutely” by all speakers.

FASEB Briefing - Animal Research Saves Lives - Facts on Dogs

To coincide with the briefing, the Federation also released a new canine research factsheet (partially pictured above) detailing the ways in which research with dogs has improved human and canine health and the many ways in which it is regulated. The factsheet and other educational materials were distributed to attendees—including congressional staffers—and can be found on FASEB’s website.

Often, congressional offices hear about animal research only from those who are against it.  These briefings allow for researchers to speak directly to the staff of influential lawmakers and explain the importance of animal models in biomedical and biological research. These types of outreach events are crucial in helping to dispel the myths perpetuated by those opposed to animal research.

Speaking of Research

Germany publishes 2014 animal research statistics

Germany has published in statistics that show the number of animals used for research and testing in 2014. Germany carried out 2,798,463 procedures on animals in 2014, 6.6% fewer than in 2013.

Species of animals used in German Research in 2014. Click to Enlarge

Species of animals used in German Research in 2014. Click to Enlarge

The fall in the number of experiments is mainly due to a reduction in the numbers of mice used. There was a significant rise in the number of fish (+35%) and birds (+29%) used. As well as rises in dogs (up 82% to 4,636 procedures) and primates (+31% to 2,842 procedures).

Animal Experiments in Germany in 2014. Click to Enlarge

Animal Experiments in Germany in 2014. Click to Enlarge

Mice continue to be the most commonly used species at 68%. Mice, rats and fish account for 91% of all animal procedures, rising to 95% if you include rabbits. This last point is interesting when compared to most other European countries where birds are the fourth most common species. Of countries we have assessed in Europe, only Spain uses a similar proportion of rabbits. Dogs, cats and primates accounted for less than 0.4% of all animals used despite the rises in number of procedures for these species.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

This year was also the first year where there was retrospective assessment and reporting of severity (i.e. reporting how much an animal actually suffered rather than how much it was predicted to suffer prior to the study). The report showed that 60% of procedures were classed as mild, 21% as moderate, 6% as severe, and 13% as non-recovery, where an animal is anaesthetised for surgery, and then not woken up afterwards.

From historical statistics we can see that, like several other EU countries, the number of animal experiments rose steadily between 2000-12, before slowing and reversing in 2013-4. It is likely that some of this reflects the drop in science funding during the recession and economic turmoil of the past seven years. Such cuts to funding can often take some years to take effect as research projects often have agreed funding for several years.

Trends in German animal experiments 2000-14. Note 2014 is in a different color to reflect the different reporting requirements. Click to Enlarge.

Trends in German animal experiments 2000-14. Note 2014 is in a different color to reflect the different reporting requirements. Click to Enlarge.

This final number should be treated with some caution as it is the first year under the new EU reporting guidelines which requires retrospective reporting on severity, and now asks for numbers of procedures of studies ending in the reporting year (rather than starting). The UK statistical release (which follows the same EU guidelines) came with the following notes and word of caution:

As a result of the change to counting procedures completed as opposed to procedures started, all procedures started before 2014 but completed in 2014 should be in both the pre-2014 and 2014 figures. Any procedures started in 2014 but completed after 2014 will not be included in the 2014 figures. It is expected that these opposing effects will partly cancel each other out. Any impact of the change from counting procedures started to counting procedures completed will be temporary and will disappear from future years’ data collections.

Finally noting:

As a result, the 2014 data and comparisons with previous years’ data should be interpreted with some caution.

We will continue to report on national statistics as they are published.