Animals in research

The UBC community examines a tough issue

Like all leading research universities, UBC engages in animal research to investigate and address some of the more challenging issues of our time, including biodiversity loss, human disease, and the ef fects of climate change. And, like all research, it presents serious ethical questions that we must face as a responsible academic community.

When is animal research necessary? When is it not ? How will animal research benefit both human and animal populations? How can we improve upon past research? We asked these and other questions of each of the 982 animal research projects approved at UBC in 2010, which involved a total of 211,604 animals in the field or in laboratories. Of these, 97 per c ent were rodents, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Without their participation, we could not have confidently answered a range of vital scientific questions with implications f or our society and our planet.

We stand by our research, whether it is t o improve medicine, cure diseases, understand basic zoology, or ensure better treatment of animals in societ y. And others stand by it, too: the patients who benefit fr om our medicines, the agencies that fund our r esearch, and the regulators who monitor and enforce the strict codes of ethics and behaviour we adhere to.

A university campus allows us to respectfully debate the more contentious issues of our time. As part of an ongoing academic dialogue to evolve our thinking and practices on the issue of animal research, four scholars share their reflections with UBC Reports.

John Hepburn
Vice President Research and International

Making wise decisions about animals

Since zoology is the branch of biology that studies animal life in its dazzling diversity and richness, zoologists like myself are involved in animal research of one form or another, in sub-disciplines ranging from cell and molecular biology through anatomy and physiology, to behaviour, ecology and evolutionary biology. 

As a zoologist, I need to know how animals “work” before I can understand the potential consequences of climate change and the ways to mitigate its effects; understand the causes and consequences of such outbreaks as avian flu, white nose syndrome in bats and facial tumour disease in Tasmanian devils; or provide medical aid to household pets and injured wildlife.

Always at the back of my mind when I do research in the field or the lab— with methodologies ranging from unobtrusive observation to more invasive procedures—is the code of ethics that guides my work and my absolute commitment to the humane treatment of the animals in my care.

It has always been extremely important to make wise decisions when conducting animal research because research procedures can result in animal deaths.

I know many of us struggle with this responsibility for the life of sentient beings.  After all, we become zoologists because we care deeply about animals. So how can we live with the implications of our work?

For me, it is this deep concern for the health, wellbeing and future of all animals— non-human and human— that anchors my conviction in responsible research involving animals. Perhaps one day we won’t need to use invasive methods for this essential work—but we’re not there yet.

Clear and present purpose

Imagine being imprisoned in a body that no longer responds to your control. Like an evening shadow that creeps across the landscape, Parkinson’s disease insidiously shuts down areas of the brain and body.

Parkinson’s disease afflicts 7-10 million people worldwide and burdens the families who care for them. Without medication, the body rapidly loses motor control—yet the mind remains aware. The best available medications only treat the symptoms, they do not slow the rate of decline, and they produce side effects such as the jerky, involuntary movements we see most famously in Michael J. Fox.

The world’s half-billion baby boomers are moving into the prime stage of life for Parkinson’s. In the coming decades, this disease will become a global epidemic unless solutions are found. For researchers like me, this involves an ethical choice: do we use animal models to develop a cure now, or wait for a technology that will replace the need for animals in research? While I want to minimize suffering in all species, I cannot ignore this human catastrophe.

Before we can test a potential Parkinson’s cure in humans, we are required by law to demonstrate its safety and tolerability in at least two species, and no new drug gets to this stage without a clear demonstration of efficacy in animals.

I do involve mice and rats in my research, but I limit their use by learning from clinical, genetic and pathologic studies in patients and their families. Our drug development effort is informed by gene mutations that trigger late-onset Parkinson’s disease, and is based on molecular genetic design. Drugs targeted to a specific molecular cause for given patient groups are the most promising.

It’s true that animals, unlike people, cannot choose to participate in research. But victims of Parkinson’s disease do not choose their fate either—Parkinson’s chooses us. I’ve spent my career weighing the ethical ramifications of my work and I say unequivocally: animal research is a price that must be paid to prevent Parkinson’s disease.

Do no harm

In the UBC Animal Welfare Program, the approach we use for animal-based research is akin to that of medical researchers to their patients: we work to improve the lives of those we study, and we follow the principle of ‘do no harm.’

What does this mean? Most of our research tries to improve the health and comfort of animals in shelters, farms and laboratories. In some cases, where animals are subjected to painful treatments by others, we test ways of reducing the animals’ pain and distress. But we do not inflict negative treatments for the sake of science.

If our research animals don’t suffer, neither does our research. Our group is extremely productive. It is well integrated with the animal-care professions, and we have hundreds of enquiries each year from would-be graduate students from around the world. We feel that our decision to ‘do no harm’ has not harmed our ability to do good science.

That philosophy may work for us, but what would the health sciences be like were our approach to catch on?

Certainly, invasive animal-based research in fields like physiology, organ function and drug kinetics has allowed astounding advances in drugs, surgery, and other means of treating disease.

But suppose the vast resources and ingenuity that go into this research were to be redirected? What different advances might we have? Would the medical profession be less focused on treating disease, and more focused on how nutrition, life-style, community engagement—even the arts and spirituality—help prevent disease and promote wellbeing?

If this meant foregoing some of our more spectacular (and expensive) disease interventions, might the ultimate result still be a healthier, happier population? Might such an approach do us no harm?

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 2 | Feb. 1, 2012

Nicolas Loran Photograph

Nicolas Loran Photograph

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UBC Animal Research website

UBC Green College Dialogues

Racism, sexism, species-ism?

Jodey Castricano, Associate Professor, Critical Studies, UBC’s Okanagan campus

Mahatma Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Our perception and use of nonhuman animals is the focus of interdisciplinary scholars in the emerging and widely diversified field of critical animal studies where Gandhi’s words have particular resonance in the critique of the treatment of non-human animals in factory farming, rodeos, zoos, the aquarium and in scientific research.

Scholars in my field question the arbitrary distinctions used to separate the “human” subject from the “animal,” critiquing what some have labeled “speciesism,” and calling attention to the disregard for the suffering of nonhuman animals.

As a theorist and scholar, I am often challenged because I extend ethical considerations to non-human animals— a premise some call “irrational.”

Feminism faced similar disavowals in the academy—less than 100 years ago women were not designated as persons. I find students are more willing than some colleagues to ask hard questions about the use of animals in research.

I’ve been told I’m “anti-science” and that courses such as the one I recently taught on our Okanagan campus, Posthumanism and Critical Animal Studies, are akin to teaching“creationism.” Yet emerging discoveries on animal sentience, behaviour and self-awareness underscore the need to analyze thoughtfully the treatment of non-human animals.

In fact, I am pro-inquiry, as should be all members of the academic community. Science is a social phenomenon and a human practice; it cannot be isolated from social morality.

The Green College dialogue series in which I participated aims to foster “meaningful, interdisciplinary, scholarly deliberation about the use of nonhuman animals in university teaching and research” and brings together, at long last, ”scholars from the humanities, social sciences and science who otherwise have scant occasion to interact.” It just might have us all reflecting seriously about Gandhi’s words.

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