PZ Myers, evolutionary biologist and writer of the blog Pharyngula, recently created a post showing his support for the pro-animal research group Pro-Test (show your support for Pro-Test by signing the petition here). The post included comments on an LA Times online poll asking readers whether or not they believed animal research could be conducted humanely. In response to this pole, one of the blog readers (Comment #4, by Matt H) stated:
“Research on tissue then, PZ. Don’t research on live animals, these protesters are right; it’s inhumane.”
This comment brings up a number of interesting points.
If more researchers were capable of reliably answering their questions using tissues instead of animals, then a lot more of us would do so. Unfortunately, we often don’t know enough about artificial tissue maintenance to be sure that the tissues respond exactly the same in an artificial lab setting as they would inside of a human being (or other organisms). Additionally, many questions simply are not amenable to tissue studies. For example, it’s important that drug tests be conducted on organisms and not just tissues in case the drug has unexpected effects on parts of the body other than the particular tissue in question. We simply do not know enough yet about how entire organisms work to be sure that conducting experiments on tissues alone won’t leave out an important part of the story.
Most importantly, I think this comment illustrates how little the general public knows about the hoops researchers are required to jump through before we are granted permission to begin an experiment using animals. Before any experiment on animals begins, researchers must submit a proposal to their institution’s IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) chapter.
In my experiences with IACUC, I’ve had to convince the committee (comprised of researchers and veterinarians) of the following points in the proposal:
1) The particular scientific question at hand can ONLY be answered using animals. You have to clearly explain to the committee why the question that you’re exploring simply cannot be asked through the use of models, simulations or experiments conducted on cells or tissues.
2) The number of animals that you’re proposing to use in the study is the smallest number necessary to achieve convincing, significant results.
3) All methods used in the experiments will be conducted as humanely as possible. Any procedure that causes an animal harm needs to be justified and every step that you’ll take to minimize the animal’s pain must be clearly outlined.
4) All animals are frequently monitored to check for signs of disease or stress. You must convince the committee that you know what signs to look for and that you know how to address these issues immediately.
The committee reviews the proposal, often asks many questions and levels their decision. If your proposal is accepted, then your interactions with IACUC have only just begun. Surprise checks are frequently conducted with a veterinarian in tow to check on the health of your study animals and to ensure that you’ve been filling out daily log sheets. These daily logs show that you’ve been regularly feeding your animals, monitoring their health and ensuring that abiotic factors important to your study organism (for example, temperature, dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels for aquatic organisms) are within appropriate levels.
If an individual is found to be violating the proposal that they submitted to IACUC in any way, then IACUC can shut down their experiment right then and there. They also will notify the agency funding the project in question that the experimenters were not being honest about their work, which often results in funding being pulled.
Putting IACUC aside for a moment, it is also in the best interest of good researchers to ensure that their lab animals are as healthy and “happy” as possible. If animals are sick or stressed, then the tests that we run on them are highly likely to give inaccurate results (unless, of course, you’re studying disease or stress). For example, as a behavioral ecologist, I want the fish that I study to be as healthy and comfortable in a lab setting as possible because I can’t possibly claim to be observing trends in natural behaviors if my animals are sick or stressed out. This means that you’ll find researchers going to great pains to ensure that their study organisms are housed in the best conditions possible.
My point here is that it’s in the researcher’s best interest to make sure that their research animals are as comfortable and well-maintained as possible. If the researcher’s conscience and desire to do good work aren’t enough to ensure that they treat their animals well, then IACUC is there is keep them in line.