Earlier this year, university-based animal research roared into the news. It began in January with Canadian Transportation Agency telling Air Canada it could not refuse to transport non-human primates for research purposes until it went through a full hearing. Then, after two research macaques monkeys were euthanized at the University of Toronto after a seven-year study, some students claimed the animals had been in pain and could have been saved. Separately, the B.C. Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals launched an investigation into Parkinson’s research on macaques at the University of British Columbia, after allegations from activists that the animals were being treated cruelly and were not being overseen by the school’s animal care committee – claims that were quickly disproved.
Ever since British scientists did public animal experiments more than 100 years ago, people have raised ethical concerns about using creatures for research. And the farther up the food chain the animals go – especially using dogs or non-human primates – the more public scrutiny. “It’s a sensitive issue. So I think it’s healthy that we have this debate,” said Martin Paré, an associate professor in the department of biomedical and molecular sciences at Queen’s University who does research involving animals.
According to the Canadian Council on Animal Care, in 2010 about 3.3 million animals were used in this country in university research labs, in observation studies in the wild and for teaching. The largest group of animals, surprisingly to many, is fish, at about 1.4 million, a number that has doubled since the early 1990s. That includes conservation work with wild stocks and fish farming studies, but mainly it’s medical research done on zebra fish, which breed voraciously with external transparent eggs and share many physiological similarities with humans.
Medical research labs also love mice, with 1.1 million studied at Canadian schools. That’s up from about 760,000 in 2002, the year before the mouse genome was first released. Researchers can now knock out a gene and work from extremely focused hypotheses with this animal. “It’s a very exciting time in medical research,” said Helen Burt, associate vice-president of research and international at UBC. “We’re moving towards an era of personalized medicine thanks to genetic animal research.”
While schools may prefer not to highlight their work with non-human primates, there are still 4,600 of them housed at Canadian universities. Research with these animals decreased during the 1990s, hitting a low of 875 in 1998, but has been on the rise. Primates are used to help better understand how diseases and treatments affect their brains, which are very similar to ours (for instance, Dr. Paré studies monkeys and how their brains react to Ritalin). Strict drug-approval rules have led to a rise in regulatory testing with these creatures.
These millions of animals involved in university work across Canada are strictly monitored by the Canadian Council on Animal Care, or CCAC, a non-profit agency funded by government, research groups and private industry. The agency seeks to minimize harm to animals and maximize the impact of animal-based research and teaching. “It adds value to the science when we make sure the quality of animal studies is really high,” said Gilly Griffin, guidelines and director of 3Rs programs for CCAC.
Those 3Rs are replacement, reduction and refinement; they must be integral to any animal-based work before it gets CCAC approval and before any lab, field or classroom work on an animal can begin.
Replacement asks that researchers and teachers prove there is no alternative and that using a lower-order animal, such as a rat instead of a monkey or a cell culture instead of a living creature, could not deliver the same results. Thanks to the rise of technology, some work can be done on computer. For instance, Ms. Griffin recalled one scientist who built a 3D computer model of the heart and was able to simulate how a compound would impact every one of its electrical circuits. (Inevitably, however, a drug or surgery needs to be tested on a living creature as no computer can simulate the complexity of living physiology.)
Reduction asks that researchers use the minimum number of animals. For something like mouse research, that involves using statistics to calculate incident rates to come up with an optimal number. Dr. Paré said he’s currently doing work with just two monkeys and running numerous cognitive tests over several months.
Refinement requires good treatment for animals, with comfortable housing, the ability to satisfy their basic instincts (mice, for instance, need to make nests) and painkillers during surgery. The rules, which are often enforced by on-staff vets, not only satisfy ethical concerns but also ensure that research outcomes are reliable.
Ironically, research innovations in animal care means we know more than ever how to keep creatures happy and healthy during studies. “In the early 1980s, there weren’t a lot of pain relievers for lab animals. Now we have things that are long-acting and very effective,” said George Harapa, a veterinarian at U of T who’s been working with lab animals since the 1970s.
Despite the fact that this field is heavily regulated, and that most researchers and administrators view the rules as a valued and integral part of their jobs, animal activist groups remain doubtful, as do some academics, about the fundamental value of animal work done on university campuses.
Anne Innis Dagg, an animal behaviour researcher in the faculty of independent studies at the University of Waterloo, did a series of studies in the 1990s counting the number of citations animal studies got in subsequent journals. “There was one where a hundred mice were used and not a single person felt it was worth citing,” she said. More recently, a 2011 review study out of the U.K. surveyed 67 papers using non-human primates and concluded that nine percent of those studies could not justify animal use and had little scientific merit.
Such conclusions trigger discussions about how to truly measure the value of scientific research, which in turn leads to tussles over the value of human versus animal life. We may never be able to cage this debate — which is probably a good thing for both animals and us.