US Charities Explaining Animal Research

In June 2012 we reviewed five large American health charities which conducted animal research to see how well they communicated this use. The results were not encouraging: three charities got 0/4 stars for their animal research statements, and two charities for 1/4. So has anything changed?

In this post I will look at those charities conducting or funding animal experiments in the US who are on Forbes’ list of top 50 charities (2014). There were nine charities I found that fit the bill:

Ratings Criteria:

I believe the most important thing is that information exists if people need it. It is one reason why we created a searchable list of organisations with a statement on why they conduct or fund animal research. Preferably people need to be able to find this information online rather than have to call up for it. Each of the following five criteria will give a charity one star.

  • There is a statement available
  • It provides a good overall explanation of why they fund animal research
  • It is available on their website
  • It provides an explanation on how they determine when to fund animal research
  • Does the website make any mention of the use of animals, for example, in the summaries of research they fund

American Cancer Society

Four out of five stars 4/5There is no information available on the website but by using their webchat I was given the following statement:

The American Cancer Society advocates the use of non-animal systems in research whenever possible; however, there are times when scientific research using animals remains essential for developing treatments and cures for people with cancer.  When that is the case, the American Cancer Society insists that such research complies with the highest ethical standards to protect the health and welfare of animal subjects.

After talking a little longer I was also provided with the following:

The American Cancer Society supports animal research when:

  • The use of animals is appropriate, and no non-animal alternatives exist.
  • Animals are only used when the answers to scientific questions cannot be obtained in any other way.
  • Computer models do not adequately present how individual molecules, cells, or tissues of the body work when healthy or when disease strikes.
  • The researchers guarantee the highest ethical and compassionate standards to protect the health and welfare of animal subjects and comply with federal and institutional guidelines.

Animal research is important to the American Cancer Society because:

  • New cancer drugs must be tested on living systems.
  • Proper doses and possible side effects in human bodies must be identified and evaluated.
  • Research with animals has led to significant advances in medicine, including the discovery of insulin injections for treating diabetes.
  • Research with animal models has produced successful cancer treatments for childhood leukemia.
  • Animal research is crucial for understanding many causes of cancer.

For future research, the American Cancer Society believes:

  • Test tube experiments are often effective in early phases of research.
  • The continued use of stem cell and organ tissue cultures offer hope for non-animal research.
  • The continued use of computer models offers hope for future studies.
  • It shall serve both humans and animals in diseases and prevention.
  • The Society will show continued support of stringent guidelines and regulations for the well-being of all animal subjects.

In all truth this is a fairly good response – it explains when and why they conduct animal experiments. If only they put this up on their website *sigh*.  The research news section of the website does mention the animal models used, for example a recent ACS-funded researcher used mice to assess the best timing for taking anti-cancer drugs – which it turns out is immediately after traditional chemotherapy.

American Cancer Society – 4/5 stars

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Three out of five stars 3/5St Jude does not have any position or policy statement on their website. When I phoned them up the operator wasn’t sure if they conducted research on animals. They passed me to someone else who also didn’t know, and then passed to someone who wasn’t there. After emailing them I did receive a reply:

As a research institution, St. Jude has a unique mission to generate the knowledge that will save the lives of children stricken with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. In the course of our research to find cures for these deadly diseases, we do use laboratory animal models, mostly rats and mice bred specifically for that purpose.

There is no substitute for animal testing when evaluating the effects of diseases and proposed treatments to fight those diseases. Most biological systems do not behave in a predictable manner and cannot be replicated by computer simulations. St. Jude is usually legally required, and always ethically obligated, to test treatments on laboratory models to ensure safety and efficacy before those treatments are studied in children. Without this research, St. Jude would not be able to provide hope for cures to our patients and their families.

Please be assured that St. Jude does not conduct useless laboratory research. We are very careful to abide by the laws, statutes, and ethical guidelines for animal research. Our procedures comply with the government’s Animal Welfare Act, and we are accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International to ensure the best care for the animals used in our research. Our labs are inspected regularly by the Department of Agriculture.

So there is a statement that attempts to explain when animals are used. Get it up on the website and relate it to many neonatal and pediatric treatments than exist thanks to animal studies. There are already many mentions of animals used by St. Jude researchers in the medicine and science news section of the website, such as using specially bred mice to identify a potential target for drugs to combat leishmaniasis.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – 3/5 stars

American Heart Association

Two out of five stars 2/5Despite searching their website I was unable to find a position statement (through the menus or the search bar) on their animal research, however after phoning them up I was guided to a page with position statements on animal research, cloning, gene therapy and stem cell research. The statement is good, but could certainly be expanded to provide more information on animal research.

The American Heart Association supports using animals in biomedical research — because it helps us improve heart health and save lives. In fact, the decline in U.S. death rates from heart disease and stroke since the 1960s is due in part to discoveries from research using animals.

So, when animals are needed for experiments we fund, researchers must handle them responsibly and humanely.

  • Before receiving our funding, we require researchers to show that:
  • They have considered alternative methods to using animals.
  • Their research can’t be successfully done without using animals.
  • Their experiments are designed to produce needed results and information.

So there is a statement, thought its explanation for animal research is a little week. It is online, though not that easy to find.

While a search for “mice” does come up with some search results, most link to the names of scientific papers or presentations rather than explaining the use of animal models in research.

American Heart Association – 2/5 stars

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

One out of five stars 1/5There was no information available on their website – something which was confirmed over the phone. The operator seemed very nervous about giving me information, asking repeatedly what I wanted the information for.

A second phone call to the public affairs department didn’t get me any closer. Despite repeatedly being put on hold no one seemed to have any idea about their position on animal research. No statement at all!

This is made more frustrating when you know that there are many mentions of animal research in their Recent Discoveries & Advances section, such as developing a rat model to “study the neurological side effects of radiation to the brain”.

Memorial Sloan Ketering Cancer Center – 1/5 stars

Mayo Clinic

One out of five stars 1/5Nothing on the website. After a phone call I received the following by email:

Mayo Clinic believes in the vital role that animals have in advancing medical knowledge and developing new treatment options. Researchers would not have discovered new ways to treat heart disease, found cures for childhood cancers or advanced knowledge in many neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s without animals as part of the research process. Animals used to help advance science are treated with the utmost respect and care and in accordance with Mayo’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Mayo Clinic adheres to or exceeds all federal and state laws and regulations regarding animal use in research and makes every effort to ensure the safety and well being of animals. Mayo uses animals in research only when necessary and always with the goal of providing improved treatment or therapies for patients.

A short statement that didn’t quite say enough to gain stars for why and when its research is done. Better than nothing though.

While searches for “mice”, “rat” and “dog” on the Mayo Clinic website did bring up search results, few of them appeared to give pages meant for public consumption.

Mayo Clinic – 1/5 stars

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

Three out of five stars 3/5Unfortunately the Leukemia and Lymphoma society does not have a statement on their website. After chatting with someone in their communications department I was sent the following statement:

Our work depends on broad and open-ended scientific inquiry. In this context, LLS supports the appropriate use of animals in conducting research to find potential cures for blood cancer patients.

Much of what we know about the diagnosis and treatment of diseases that afflict humans, including cancers and specifically the blood cancers, is the result of scientific studies conducted in animals. Moreover, lymphoma and leukemia are major killers of domestic and companion animals, and so there are potential benefits not only for humans but also for animals when research yields successful new cancer therapies and vaccines.

LLS requires that research using animals must adhere to federal and state laws, and follow the guidelines put forth by the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. Research supported at foreign institutions must also abide by NIH’s policy on animal use. All researchers receiving LLS funding work with their institutional animal care and use committee to review and approve any protocol related to animal use. The purpose of these committees is to ensure that research strictly adheres to all federal and state guidelines regarding the care and use of animals.

We recognize the importance of the development and use of non-animal alternatives such as cell lines and cell cultures, computer simulations and mathematical modeling, and encourage their use when scientifically sound; i.e. accurately representing cancers in patients. However, in many instances the humane and appropriate use of living animals is both critical and ethically valid.

The absence of a suitable non-animal alternative and the explicit justification to use a given species and number of animals are required to qualify an applicant for any research support from LLS, as is the explicit documentation of steps taken to eliminate or minimize any potentially painful procedure. These humane considerations must be developed with the assistance and under the supervision of a qualified veterinarian and fully approved by an applicant’s research institution.

This is a strong statement and it is a pity, like many other charities, that they do not choose to put this up on their website for the public or media to find. It explains why they use animals and the conditions under which animal research is done. It also discusses why alternatives cannot replace all animal studies. Good statement, but they need to get it on their website.

There appeared to be no mentions of animal models in the news releases (or anywhere else) on the website.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – 3/5 stars

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

One out of five stars 1/5The DFCI did not have any information on their website. When I phoned up they confirmed that they conducted such research but had no statement available on their website. When I asked where I could get more information they replied that they “try to stay away from making any public statements on the matter”. Concerning.

This “no comment” approach seemed to contradict a more open attitude to mentioning the use of animal models in their research news. When I checked, one of the top stories in their “Featured Research” was an article entitled “Mouse Models Play Pivotal Role in Testing Combination Therapies” – excellent!

Dana-Farb Cancer institute – 1/5 stars

Alzheimer’s Association

Four out of five stars 4/5The Alzheimer’s Association do have a two page document on their website on the “Use of Animals in Research”. It starts by clearly explaining why they feel animal research is necessary:

Currently, the complexity and intricacy of the human brain is beyond the capacity of even the most sophisticated science to simulate in man-made models (for example, with computers) or through the use of cells grown in the laboratory or lower organisms.

The Alzheimer’s Association believes that the use of animals in research is essential to the success of research into the causes, treatment, prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

It is too long to reproduce in full, but it then goes on to explain the conditions under which they will fund animal research and provides information about knowledge gained through animal research.

A quick search of “mice” on the website brought up just shy of 600 results, though most were abstracts from research grants rather than information oriented for public consumption. The most recent blog entry mentioning mice was in 2013, suggesting that mentioning animal research was not common.

Nonetheless, well done to Alzheimer’s Association – this is probably the best statement. I found it without too much issue and it was fairly comprehensive for a policy statement (certainly compared to other charities). Four stars.

Alzheimer’s Association – 4/5 stars

National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Three out of five stars 3/5Having asked the question by email, I received a link to an obscure policy document. A policy statement on “Research involving human subjects or animals” could be found on Page 6.

For research involving animals, written approval from the grantee’s Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee (IACUC) must be received by the Society prior to the release of any funds. This approval must be signed by the Chairperson of the Committee, and a copy of the letter must be received by the Society on an annual basis during the funding term of the research award.

All biomedical research which involves the use of animals must adhere to the following principles:

  1. Animals shall be used in biomedical research only when no other means of obtaining scientifically sound, valid and useful results are available.
  2. The minimum number of appropriate animals required to obtain and validate results shall be used.
  3. The acquisition, care and use of animals must be in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.
  4. Certifications must be received from research facilities prior to being approved for a research grant that the facility(ies), its researchers and employees adhere to the Animal Welfare Act, National Research Council Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and any appropriate U.S. Department of Agriculture or National Institutes of Health regulations and standards.
  5. In cases requiring the death of an animal, only the most appropriate and humane form of euthanasia shall be used consistent with the purpose of the research

The statement is sound, but doesn’t seem to be written with the public in mind. It would benefit from a simple and open explanation of when and why animal models can play a key role in developing an understanding of MS.

Despite the relatively weak statement, the NMSS was much stronger in mentioning and explaining the use of animal models in their research news. For example, stories like, “Researchers Funded by National MS Society Report Early Success Testing a Novel Strategy for Protecting the Nervous System in Mice with MS-like Disease“.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society – 3/5 stars

Summary of the Scores:
US Charities doing Animal Research and Animal Testing

Well done to the American Cancer Society and the Alzheimer’s Association for coming top of the list of organisations being open and honest about their animal research. The Alzheimer’s Association is particularly strong in its animal research statement.

On the other end of the scale, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute need to look at ways of being more open on this issue. Most of the cancer treatments we have today have come about thanks to a huge number of studies on animals. Herceptin, a recent drug for breast cancer, is a humanised mouse antibody which could not have been created except for the use of mice in its development and testing.

So why should charities bother to be open about their animal research? I believe there are three reasons.

Firstly, they are taking public donations, and the public have a right to know how this money is spent. If they believe animal research is an important part of what they fund, then they should be prepared to explain this frankly and openly.

Secondly, regardless of whether they put a statement up on their website, animal rights groups will find out. It took me a few days to ascertain which US charities did, or did not, conduct or fund animal research – others could follow the same process. Putting information openly on the website helps create resilience on the issue – members of the public can no longer be “shocked to discover” that a charity they support funds animal experiments, and animal rights groups cannot go to the paper announcing a charity’s “dirty secret they try desperately to hide”. Any member of the public of journalist can be told straight away by the charity that “Yes, we conduct and fund animal research. We say so openly on our website, and you can find out more information on the reasons why there – we have nothing to hide”.

Lastly, it is important that we foster an environment where both the public, and policy makers, understand the importance of animal research. The former demands the laws and regulations, and the latter put them in place. If the scientific community want to make sure their research environment is secure then they must encourage openness on the issue.

In a second post, we will have a look at British charities which conduct animal research

Speaking of Research

Comments are closed.