Ok, I’ve waited long enough, time to just post my animal research feature here! I sent it to the Vancouver Sun (who said they would publish an 800-word version if I was willing to change it, and not be paid I might add) and The Tyee with no response from over a month, so I concede it won’t be published traditionally. Which I think is a shame, since the tensions between UBC and the protest group SUBCAR keep evolving, the story keeps developing, and I think a deeper view on the issue is warranted. Anyhow, no complaining, I’m laying it out here for your consumption!
EDIT: I know the blog format can make reading long things like this a task, so I’ve made the document into a pdf: Exposing Animal Research
Exposing animal research
At first, Elisabeth Ormandy is hesitant to talk. With a background in neuroscience, using animals was an integral part of her undergraduate degree, and she’s very aware of the stigma that comes along with it. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but instead, her experiences made her interested in the hidden lives of laboratory animals.
Now Ormandy is studying animal welfare for a PhD at the University of British Columbia, a university that has recently taken an interesting step forwards in its open-ness on animal research. In October, UBC became the first institution in Canada to release the number of animals it uses in research: last year that was 211,764 individuals, including fish, mice, pigs and monkeys. That’s 6% of Canada’s total of 3.3 million. Total Canadian numbers are reported annually by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), but no research facility is required to disclose its personal stake. UBC’s voluntary move towards openness is the result of internal debates and external pressures.
“I am pleased that UBC took the first step in releasing animal numbers, hopefully it will mark a shift towards more openness. I’m sure the numbers will prompt a lot more questions,” says Ormandy.
The step is unprecedented, but many say it is not enough. The animal advocacy group STOP UBC Animal Research (SUBCAR) is in a quasi-legal battle with UBC to get them to release more information about research methods, under Freedom of Information law. At the end of January this year, BC’s Office of Information and Privacy Officer ordered UBC to release more information including lab inspection reports. In response, UBC voluntarily released the purposes for which they used animals last year, with the requested information forthcoming.
SUBCAR says Canada has a long way to go match world leaders in research openness as well as animal replacement technologies. Ormandy doesn’t think all animal research can stop, but agrees that public discourse about animal experimentation needs improvement.
“I really think the public should be a major stakeholder; for the most part they pay for animal-based research through government-funded projects. I think that most people in the general public have no idea, and we should make sure we have public dialogue.”
Animal research has been contentious since its first use in Europe over a hundred years ago. The first anti-vivisection (surgery on live animals) pamphlets were distributed in the UK in 1874, after French scientist Eugene Magnan performed a live experiment with dogs. Magnan injected high doses of absinthe into two conscious dogs through incisions, which caused them to have epileptic fits. The British Medical journal at the time reported it as “unlawful ill-treatment, abuse and torture”.
The arguments against animal research have remained remarkably constant, in both ethical and scientific terms. Since the start, animal rights advocates have argued that animal research is misleading, that it does not work as a model for human conditions, and even worse, that it actually does damage human health, either by the approval of drugs that are later shown to be harmful in humans, or by keeping drugs back because they failed animal tests but worked in humans.
The drug thalidomide, for example, caused thousands of birth defects in the early 1960s after being found safe in animal tests. It was not believed at the time that drugs given to the mother could pass the barrier to the infant, so the effects on pregnant animals were never tested. After the tragedy was uncovered, animal tests showed that the same birth defects were inflicted by the drug on species of fish, birds, rodents and primates.
For every example of drug development gone awry, there are many more where it has gone right. Animal research also helps in many other areas of medicine. Vaccines, for everything from whooping cough to rabies would never have been implemented without animal tests. Non-drug therapies have also been developed; delving deep into monkey brains has led to new targets for deep brain stimulation, a technique for alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. These evolving therapies even allow some sufferers to give up their wheelchairs. Parkinson’s research on macaque monkeys is conducted at UBC, and is one of the high-profile experiments SUBCAR is targeting as a clear area where public consultation should be required.
“You can’t have a fair evaluation of whether this is critical research, or whether this benefits human health or whether it’s necessary, if you don’t get the facts out there to objectively look at,” says SUBCAR Director Brian Vincent.
SUBCAR have filed several Freedom of Information requests over the past year, all of which have been denied by UBC. Under BC Privacy laws, universities do not have to disclose animal experiment methods, since research is a protected commodity of universities and individual scientists, a position which UBC defends. SUBCAR filed an appeal with BC’s Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner in October, who, at the end of January, handed down an order for UBC to release details of lab inspection reports, the use and source of non-human primates, and the names of members of UBCs animal welfare oversight body, the Animal Care Committee.
SUBCAR says the already released numbers, aside from being “useless” for public decision-making, are much larger than they expected. Previously, UBC have claimed their annual use is approximately 100,000 animals: this year’s numbers are more than double that figure. In the same year, Canada’s total numbers of animals used in research rose from around to 2.3 million to over 3.3 million.
The rise, however, can be almost entirely attributed to fish, which is so vast that it actually masks a decrease in the use of monkeys and marine mammals. Fish use increased from just under 500,000 individuals in the previous year to well over 1.6 million last year; nearly half the total animals used. Fish are largely replacing mice as quickly reproducing, easily manipulated animals whose genetics can be tightly controlled over many generations.
I don’t particularly see the shift towards using more fish as a victory for animal welfare,” says Ormandy. “ I think care needs to be taken to avoid being ‘speciesist’ and to avoid the assumption that because we understand less about fish welfare, that they somehow matter less.”
Increasingly, many of the animals used are also part of wildlife studies: “catch and release” style experiments where natural ecosystems are monitored.
Disclosing the types of experiments undertaken could conceivably make the public more accepting of animal research, or they might shudder at the details of some of the more extreme procedures. This is a gamble that SUBCAR and others are willing to make, and argue that the only way to know to what the public is willing to accept is to put it all out in the open.
The chair of UBC’s Animal Care Council, Marcel Bally, counters that the oversight bodies working behind the scenes at Canadian research institutions are striving to achieve best practices in animal lab care, and that the public should trust that they are doing a good job. He says they are constantly pushing researchers to consider the latest developments in animal understanding.
“They may have had a protocol that was approved three years ago, and they’re re-submitting that exact same protocol, but we’ve learned something about animals and how they may perceive pain, so now you have to adjust that protocol.” If investigators grumble that the changes could affect their experimental results, they still have to adapt, says Bally. “They really don’t have a choice.”
But groups like SUBCAR would still like to have the opportunity to voice their concerns about research protocols, and see UBC’s lack of openness as an indication they have “something to hide”.
According to UBC’s VP Research John Hepburn, openness requires trust on both sides. Although personal attacks on animal researchers are rare in Canada, he says the international culture of fear is enough to make scientists nervous.
“The difficulty is that every researcher working with large mammals has close colleagues that have been physically attacked, and had their families’ lives threatened,” says Hepburn. “It doesn’t matter that maybe only one person in the world has had this happen to them, it’s a small community.”
He acknowledges perhaps they’re being too cautious, particularly as he says that SUBCAR “are not in the category where they are going to start throwing firebombs”. But the personal privacy of researchers is a primary reason why institutions are worried about full disclosure.
Another factor is intellectual property, which Hepburn laments is wrapped up in the global process of drug development. If a researcher releases what drug they are testing, how, and for what reason, before the tests have been conducted, then it likely won’t be patented.
“The molecule that you’ve discovered that now cures breast cancer will never be used to treat breast cancer. Because it’s not patented, no pharmaceutical company will commercialize it. We can all say that drugs should be developed for the public good and taxpayers should pay for development, but that’s not the system we have in place,” Hepburn says.
While the question of the proper level of disclosure is debated in Canada, there is some proof in Sweden that complete disclosure can work well. There, research protocols can be requested under Freedom of Information legislation by any member of the public. What can be disclosed includes a description of the planned experiment, the number and species of animals to be used and the name of the responsible researcher. None of this is available in Canada. Numbers of animals used in research in Sweden have remained steady over the past twenty years.
For now,Canadians are asked to put their trust in the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC). In 2009, Ormandy joined the CCAC as a research fellow in the guidelines department, helping to develop new ways of looking at what happens to animals in labs.
“I do advocate for the replacement of animals in research ultimately. But I’m also realistic; it’s not going to stop tomorrow, so what can we do to improve the lives of animals in our care?” she says.
Every year, Canada publishes the amount of animals used in each of four “categories of invasiveness”, which describe the severity of experiments. They range from Category B: “experiments which cause little or no discomfort or stress”, including blood sampling and euthanasia by anaesthetic overdose; to Category E: “procedures which cause severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals”, which can include burning live animals.
Ormandy thinks these categories lag behind reality, noting that many animals bred for research purposes are impaired in some way even before they are subject to experimentation.
“My research is focused on the use of genetically-engineered animals. What if you have a genetic alteration that leaves you debilitated in some way? Nothing invasive has happened to you, you’ve just been born,” she says. In Canada, when new genetically-engineered animals are created, they are automatically given a Category D ranking. But once they have been bred for a few generations, their welfare is no longer considered within the category system unless they are used for experiments. Ormandy feels welfare status of breeding animals should considered as extra evidence of harm, and is pushing to make that change happen.
While working at the CCAC, Ormandy tried to encourage others to see lab animals more as the New Zealanders do: as “welfare compromised”. She and others proposed introducing categories of welfare compromise that would be considered before a category of invasiveness is applied to a research protocol. Where an animal’s welfare is deemed to be compromised by genetic modification, an experiment on them that would previously be filed under Category B could be upgraded to a Category C.
Experts and outside researchers have had the opportunity to give their input to the drafting of the new guidelines, which will be discussed by the CCAC in early March. The guidelines still have a way to go to reach consensus, but Ormandy hopes they will soon be implemented in Canada.
The three Rs
The mantra of animal care oversight bodies worldwide is “Reduce, Refine, Replace”, otherwise known as the three Rs.
‘Refinement’ refers to the adjustments that UBC’s ACC most commonly makes to research proposals: suggesting pain relief, enrichment of the animals’ lab environment, and in some cases euthanizing animals earlier so that their suffering is ended sooner.
Although the numbers of animals in research have risen according to official CCAC figures, a reduction the use of “higher” animals is underway.
At present, complete replacement of research animals in Canada is impossible. By law, drug testing requires toxicology research on two different animal species.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Bally acknowledges of drug testing, “but I hope we’d all agree that we don’t want to put a human at needless risk without having as full understanding as possible of the behavior of that product.”
Bally is principally a cancer researcher, and is not shy about his work with animals, defending their necessity. When considering whether the type of animal suggested to UBC’s ACC in a research proposal is appropriate, he and a panel of experts question whether it is the best model for the disease in humans.
For some studies, animals may not be needed at all. In-vitro testing (the growth of cells and tissues outside a body) can be used to study toxicity: how much of a particular substance a system can cope with before it causes damage. Human tissue can be used for those tests, with advantages over animal models. The potential to replace animal models in this sector is huge, says Bally. But it is only one area where animals are useful.
“You can’t study cancer in isolation of the entire animal,” says Bally. Research proposals submitted to the ACC must explain in depth why alternatives such as cell cultures cannot be used, and the answers most commonly relate to the complexity of the biology. A dish of cells is not a liver; they cannot interact with blood cells and mimic essential liver functions.
One of UBC’s most controversial ongoing studies is the use of monkeys in Parkinsons research. Although great leaps forward in understanding this condition have been made using monkeys in the past, Aston University in Birmingham, UK, has pioneered the use of human brain scanning to study Parkinsons. Recent work has shown that magnetoencephalography (MEG) can be used to understand the mechanism of relief through deep brain stimulation. SUBCAR’s Vincent questions why UBC is not similarly developing non-invasive techniques.
“They’re focusing on animal research when other people are moving on. If they want to be a 21st century, cutting edge research institution then they should get ahead of the curve, not stuck in the dark ages.”
Fierce opposition to animal research may always exist. Ormandy wants researchers to engage with the public, the potential benefactors of their work, and be proud to say they are trying to ease suffering. She hopes this will be the focus of the next step of her research.
Unfortunately, she says, researchers are often discouraged from interacting, especially with protestors. At an annual meeting of the CCAC a couple of years ago, a protest group formed outside.
“Instead of saying ‘hey there’s protestors outside, go and talk to them’, it was ‘everyone needs to take their name-badges off, don’t engage with them, we don’t want any trouble’. It’s a stock reaction people have,” Ormandy says of the organizers’ response.
With the focus on UBC and requests both internally and externally for more openness, the time is now, she says, to start asking people “What would make this better for you?” SUBCAR aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and for that, Ormandy is glad.
“It’s good to focus on the common ground because you can make meaningful decisions, but the areas of disagreement are also really important. They shape what happens in the middle ground, and I think having that polarization of views on animal research is very important. Maybe instead of seeking ethical consensus, we should seek open dialogue.”
The tension, she thinks, is constructive.
While advancements in the science of the three Rs are always continuing in the background, UBC’s review of their disclosure policy is bringing the issue of openness in Canada to the forefront. UBC, says Hepburn, has set itself up as a guinea pig.
“There needs to be consensus among the universities as to what is the correct level of disclosure; however they’re not under as much pressure,” he said. “I think they’re waiting to see what happens with us, and that’s fine, we’re happy to take a leadership position.”