Q&A

Why are animals used for research?

With animals, scientists come the closest to assessing the biologic reactions and responses found in people. General functions of cells, blood and tissues are the same in animals. The similarities let scientists observe diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, many different types of cancer and hemophilia in animals. Observing how animals develop and fight disease and respond to potential treatments provides valuable knowledge. In addition, even if an animal’s biology differs from human biology, examining the differences can increase our understanding of the human body. Computer models and cell cultures, as well as other adjunct research methods, are excellent avenues for reducing the number of animals used. These methods are used to screen and determine the toxic potential of a substance in the early stages of investigation, thereby reducing the total number of research animals needed. The final test, however, has to be done in a whole, living system. Even the most sophisticated technology cannot mimic the complicated interactions among cells, tissues and organs that occur in humans and animals. Scientists must understand these interactions before introducing a new treatment or substance or procedure into humans.

Animals get many diseases similar to ones that affect people. By studying these animals, medical researchers can learn what causes diseases and how to prevent, treat, or cure them. These findings help both humans and animals. Researchers also study animals to understand how they adapt to different environments. This can help threatened or endangered species.

Who oversees the use of animals?

For years, an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has ensured the proper care of animals at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. By federal mandate, the committee conducts a strict, regulated review of the use of animals in research and teaching.

The committee must ensure that researchers comply with the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and all other federal requirements governing animal research. All research projects using animals must be approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee before they are initiated. In this review process, an investigator must clearly explain the project’s purpose and potential value, how the animals will be used, the experience of the research team and whether any alternative research methods are options.

Are there guidelines or standards to follow in caring for animals?

Yes. All use and care of animals in research must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, the PHS policy and guidelines formulated by the National Institutes of Health. UNMC’s animal resource facilities are managed by the Office of Comparative Medicine. This office is led by a veterinarian who is board certified in the veterinary specialty of Laboratory Animal Medicine and a certified staff of animal technologists, who are responsible for the proper care of the animals.

The animal care facilities at UNMC, as well as the program that uses and cares for the animals used in research, are inspected at least annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The visits are unannounced. Every three years, the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care  visits UNMC and performs a peer review site visit to ensure that accreditation guidelines are followed. Every six months, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee performs an additional program review and inspects all animal facilities.. The UNMC animal care and use program has been accredited by Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care  since 1966, one of the oldest accreditations on record.

What types of animals are used in research?

Specially bred rats and mice are the mammals used most often in medical research. Because rats and mice have so many biological similarities to humans, they make up 90 to 95 percent of the mammals in biomedical research. Some strains of rats and mice are susceptible to diseases such as cancer or high blood pressure. In addition, rodents develop diseases over a span of days or weeks instead of months or years. In the 1980s, major research discoveries made it possible to create strains of mice whose genetic make-up has been altered so that they carry specific disease-causing genes.

Other mammals commonly found in research are guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, and farm animals such as pigs and sheep. Most of these animals are specifically bred and raised for research. Researchers choose the species that best parallels the biology of what they want to study. For example, sheep provide a model to study osteoarthritis, a breakdown of cartilage that occurs as people age, causing pain and inflammation in the joints. Pigs offer a model for research on skin problems, including what may happen when medicine or a toxic substance is absorbed through the skin. Species such as dogs, cats, and non-human primates account for less than 1 percent of all mammals in research.

Does research involving animals benefit only humans?

Absolutely not. For instance, the use of animals in biomedical research has resulted in many remarkable life-saving and life-extending treatments for cats, dogs, farm animals, wildlife and endangered species. Pacemakers, artificial joints, organ transplants and many vaccines have contributed to longer, happier and healthier lives for animals.

Why do some people say that animal research is wrong?

People have different views about the use of animals for food, fiber, companionship, and research. One widely shared belief is that people may use animals for these purposes if in return they provide them good food, housing, and treatment. To hold that people have an ethical responsibility toward animals in their care is to support animal welfare.

Supporters of animal rights believe it is wrong for people to remove an animal from its natural environment or interfere with its life. Animal rights advocates oppose eating meat, eggs, or milk; wearing leather, fur, or silk; or putting animals in zoos. Some even object to pet ownership. They also oppose animal research as a matter of principle regardless of its potential benefits for people and other animals.

Most of those who believe in animal rights try to end practices they oppose by influencing public opinion, getting laws passed or using the legal system. However, the animal rights movement has also attracted a fringe element willing to use violence to advance their cause. Extremists have harassed researchers; threatened them and their families; vandalized laboratories, homes, and cars; set fires, and planted bombs to intimidate researchers into stopping their work.

People have a duty to treat animals humanely, but we also have a duty to relieve suffering. Research with animals has saved many lives and improved the quality of life for millions of people and animals.

What type of care do animals receive?

Research animals are housed in several different locations at UNMC. The animal facilities occupy approximately 87,000 gross square feet of space. In all facilities, mice are housed in either static or ventilated micro-isolator cages and rats are housed in open topped or in static or ventilated micro isolator cages. A new, "state of the art" animal facility opened early in 2009.

Isn’t animal research quite painful to animals?

The use of animals in research and testing is strictly controlled, particularly regarding potential pain. Federal laws, the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service Policy regulate the alleviation and elimination of pain, as well as such aspects of animal care as caging, feeding, exercise of dogs and the psychological well-being of primates.

Researchers share concerns about pain during the research process. UNMC abides by a basic principle: that no reason exists to believe that an animal’s perception of pain differs from that of people, unless proven otherwise. Previous USDA surveys showed that the majority of experiments (62 percent) involve no pain for the animal. Additionally, in 32 percent, the animals feel no pain because they receive either anesthesia or pain-killing drugs.

When seeking approval for a project, researchers must explain what pain is expected, what analgesics or anesthetics will be used, and whether the animal will be euthanized at the end of the procedure. Any pain considered consistent with the proposal’s goals must be strongly justified.

How do you justify research that, for example, doesn’t seem to have a clear connection with improved treatment?

Basic research builds a foundation of knowledge upon which future medical breakthroughs may occur. Expanding our understanding is a process that requires diligence.

How can research results derived from animal testing be extrapolated to humans?

There are striking similarities between the physiological systems of humans and various species of animals. For example, much of what we know about the immune system has come from studies with mice, and much of what we know about the cardiovascular system has come from studies with dogs. In fact, virtually every major medical advance of the last century is due, in part, to research with animals.

What assurances exist that stolen or lost pets are not used in research?

While some research requires that dogs and cats are used, the vast majority of laboratory animals are rodents specifically bred for research. More than half of the dogs and cats needed for research are also bred for that purpose. Since state laws and local policies prevent many animal pounds and shelters from providing dogs and cats to research facilities, animal dealers are the primary source for the other half of the animals scientists require. These dealers must be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and must adhere to Animal Welfare Act standards of care. Both dealers and research facilities can obtain dogs and cats only from specified sources and must comply with detailed record-keeping and waiting-period requirements. In addition, USDA conducts unannounced inspections of dealers and research facilities for compliance to help ensure research animals are not missing pets.

Why is it important to conduct product safety tests on animals when "cruelty-free" products are available?

The term "cruelty-free" is often misused and misunderstood. Companies that claim they conduct no animal testing either contract testing to an outside laboratory or use compounds known to be safe through previous animal testing. It is important to remember the circumstances that led to safety testing of all new consumer ingredients and products, particularly cosmetics. As recently as several decades ago, consumers were subjected to products that were not adequately tested prior to use, resulting in reports of permanent harm, including blindness.

Product safety testing ensures that products are safe when used as directed and provides scientific data for poison control centers and emergency room physicians in the event a product is misused. Adequate testing of products is both a moral and legal obligation to the public. The use of animals in product safety testing provides a whole, living system that can reflect how certain substances will react in or on the body.

Are increasing numbers of animals used in research?

The number of animals used in research has decreased in the past 20-25 years. Best estimates for the reduction in the overall use of animals in research range from 20 percent to 50 percent. This reduction is more consistent and striking when comparing species. For example, best government estimates report that the number of cats used in research has dropped 66 percent since 1967. Due to a variety of factors, including the increase in non-animal adjunct testing and the refinement of laboratory animal medicine, there are fewer animals used for many research projects.

Do we really have the right to experiment on animals? What about their rights?

The use of animals in research is a privilege that must be carefully guarded to ensure human and animal relief from the specter of disease and suffering. To ignore human and animal suffering is irresponsible and unethical. Nearly every major medical advance of the 20th century has depended largely on research with animals. Our best hope for developing preventions, treatments and cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancer will also involve biomedical research using animals.

In fact, research on animals is in many cases an obligation. According to the Nuremburg Code, developed after World War II as a result of Nazi atrocities, any experiments on humans "should be designed and based on the results of animal experimentation." The Nazis had outlawed animal experimentation but allowed experiments on Jews and "asocial persons." The Declaration of Helsinki, adopted in 1964 by the 18th World Medical Assembly and revised in 1975, also states that medical research on human subjects "should be based on adequately performed laboratory and animal experimentation."

It is crucial to distinguish between animal rights and animal welfare. The scientific community supports animal welfare, which means guaranteeing the health and well-being of these animals.

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