In 1962, as a pre-veterinary student and employee at the University of Minnesota, I began my career working in laboratory animal care. Many of my Midwestern student colleagues were from rural backgrounds. We shared an understanding of the historical importance and the necessity to use animals for fiber, dairy products, eggs and meat.
Many of us also vividly remembered the polio scourge of the 1950s. Almost everyone had relatives or friends who were permanently paralyzed by this disease. Swimming pools were closed and parents were advised to keep children isolated because of the extremely contagious nature of the poliovirus.
In high school biology class we were told how scientists studied the cause of paralysis by polio. Drs. Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk became universally known as heros for their roles in development of an effective vaccine - in which many essential laboratory methods included the use of animals. Tissues from laboratory mice and rhesus monkeys were used for culturing the virus. Safety testing of polio vaccine prior to use in humans still requires the use of non-human primates.
Then, in 1966, a headline in Life magazine labeled an article "Concen-tration camps for lost and stolen pets." The article included graphic pictures of malnourished dogs in squalid housing conditions and addressed concerns about dealers buying pet dogs and then selling them for use in research laboratories.
This story marked the beginning of an era of increasing public concern about why and how animals are used in research. A sequence of legislative initiatives followed and resulted in the Animal Welfare Act. The first version of the law, which was passed in 1966, focused on the licensing of animal dealers and required routine inspection of premises at which abandoned dogs and cats where housed. The law's regulations have been expanded and modified several times and now include standards for the care and use of all warm-blooded animals in biomedical research.
Regulations and guidelines for animal care and use are considered by some research administrators to be an unnecessary burden. However, demonstration of compliance has added a measure of credibility where public concerns may exist. There has been a perceptible change in how animals are acquired, housed and used in medical schools, research universities, colleges and other laboratories. To qualify for research funding, institutions must assure their commitment to use well-trained animal care personnel and appropriately designed facilities. Scientists must continuously justify the use of animals in research and testing. Research proposals are critically reviewed by attending veterinarians, scientific peers, community representatives, and persons whose primary interests are in areas other than scientific research.
The technology in using laboratory animals has kept pace with the rapid advances in biomedical science. Very specific, genetically standardized strains of disease-free rats, mice and other laboratory animals are commercially produced for research. Repositories of genetic materials from mice are now routinely used to investigate the mechanisms of cancer, birth defects and the causes of aging.
Why, then, do some still have a negative stance on this issue? Perhaps those of us involved with biomedical research have done a poor job of getting out the facts, or perhaps some uninformed persons are responding to the counterculture of the animal rights movement. Highly vocal and well-organized activist groups have emerged from the more long-standing anti-vivisectionist movement. In general, these groups espouse the notion that animals inherently have a "right" not to be used in research for the benefit of humans or other animals. An extreme view is that all uses of animals - for food, clothing or as pets - is inappropriate. Many animal rights proponents believe that the goals of finding cures and treatments of AIDS, cancer, heart disease and other diseases do not justify the humane and responsible use of animals in research.
Some nationally known entertainers and others in highly visible positions may take firm and unqualified stances against the use of animals in research. However, it is rare to find persons who refuse, or suggest to others that they not receive a wide variety of vaccines, antibiotics, anesthetics and agents for cancer therapy even though animals were clearly used in development and safety testing.
The concern for animal welfare is a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, handling and care, nutrition, disease prevention, and veterinary care. Because of our increasingly urban society, it is hard for many people to relate to animals being used for food, fiber and biomedical research. The closest point of reference for some might be illness and mortality involving a companion animal.
However, the use of animals has touched us all. It has played a key role in discoveries that resulted in the award of at least 65 Nobel Prizes in medicine from 1901 to 1998. These discoveries include a serum to prevent diphtheria (1901), revealing the life cycle of malaria (1902), the cause of tuberculosis (1905), insulin and the cause of diabetes (1923), using penicillin and streptomycin for bacterial infections (1945 and 1952), the yellow fever vaccine (1951) and culture of poliovirus (1954).
Contemporary discoveries include the development of organ transplant techniques and the nature of infectious particles associated with "mad-cow disease." Research with retroviruses in mice during the 1950s paved the way for helping to resolve issues more rapidly on the cause of AIDS and viral causes of cancer. It is likely that many more cause-and-effect relationships between viruses and cancer will be discovered in humans. This will result at least in part because of our knowledge of "animal models."
Sophisticated anesthetic agents have been developed and refined along with surgical techniques for organ transplants and joint replacements. The surface is just being scratched regarding effective treatments for cancer and genetically based diseases. Life expectancy in the United States is at an all-time high - and careful biological research is the single greatest reason.
Animals also have been obvious beneficiaries of the many advances in animal science and veterinary medicine. For instance, scientists have developed vaccines, medications and nutritional regimens, which allow for the healthy populations of dogs, cats, horses and other companion animals. These scientific advances were developed through systematic testing in members of these same species. However, less than 2 percent of animals used in biomedical research are considered traditional companion animals such as dogs and cats. The vast majority of animals used in research are rats and mice bred purposely for research.
A basic premise in biomedical research is described in a declaration made by the 18th World Medical Assembly in Helsinki, Finland, in 1964. It states that "Biomedical research involving human subjects must conform to generally accepted scientific principles and should be based on adequately performed laboratory and animal experimentation and on a thorough knowledge of the scientific literature." It is therefore implicit that we continue the testing of vaccines, antibiotics, surgical techniques and medical devices, such as prosthetic heart valves and pacemakers, before use in humans.
Alternatives to animal use are employed whenever they are available and proven to be reliable. For instance, a test tube method for determining the presence of antibodies to the rabies virus has replaced the use of large numbers of mice by diagnostic laboratories. Cell culture systems are now increasingly used for toxicity testing. However, until reliable alternative tests are more widely available, we must continue to use proven animal research methodologies.
Historical documentation and scientific literature provides overwhelming evidence of contributions made through the use of animals. The amount of progress now being made in biomedical research is unprecedented and expectations are unlimited. I would consider it to be irresponsible to hinder important scientific methods that lead to progress in biomedical research - research that will improve the well-being of both humans and animals.
Access http://www.ovpr.uga.edu/acu/ for information about animal care and use.
Roger Broderson, a pathology professor, is the
animal care and use director and research compliance manager for UGA.
He is a former career commissioned officer at the Center for Infectious
Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.
Broderson has a bachelor's degree and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
from the University of Minnesota. He also has a master's degree in
comparative pathology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham
and a Ph.D. in veterinary pathology from UGA.