Critiques of a recent article arguing that animal researchers face overbearing regulations
By Molly Flynn and James Reynolds | April 5, 2006
To the Editor:
Just as Göran Hellekant?s article ?How regulations hamstring animal research? points out that many members of the Animal Care Unit Committee (ACUC) do not have the scientific expertise to qualify them for protocol review, I must say that, in my experience, many scientists do not have the veterinary knowledge to qualify them to work, unrestrained and untrained, with live animals. Many scientists have been working in the research field since before these regulations were put in place, and would very much like to go back to the days when they could do whatever they wanted as long as they could get funding for it. But the standards of practice for veterinary medicine, as well as human medicine, have changed, too, and researchers have not always done the necessary homework to find out about the species they wish to work with. This can be extremely dangerous to both the scientist and the animal.
It sounds to me as though Hellekant would propose eliminating most institutional oversight of research methods, but I do not believe this is realistic, nor do I think it is a good idea. There is always at least one researcher who was less than ethical in obtaining results. And I know of at least one who would have been arrested for cruelty to animals had he euthanized his pet rabbits in the same manner as his lagomorph research subjects.
I do agree that the ACUCs must be qualified to review research protocols, that researchers should be part of the ACUCs board (at the University of Pittsburgh, we require at least one researcher on the ACUC, they are typically the chair for a year), protocol forms should be uniform across the country if not internationally, and some form of "court" must be in place so all sides can present their cases before punishments are doled out. I do not agree that the laws governing food animals, pets, and research animals should be leveled out, though. There are many differences in the goals, stresses, disease risks, etc. to have this happen.
Molly E. Flynn, BS, CVT
Veterinary Services, DLAR
Hillman Cancer Center
To the Editor:
As a scientist who runs an animal-based NIH-funded laboratory, I tried to empathize with Hellenkant?s position that the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) places undue demands upon researchers; it was hard. As vice-chair of our institution?s Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), it was impossible.
When assessing the merits and limitations of the AWA one must keep in mind the historical context: The act and its associated amendments was created largely in response to public outcry to what was perceived as inhumane treatment of animals in medical research facilities. The scientists conducting the experiments often took the stance that they ?knew what was best?, etc. While such opinions were aired in the 1970s and 1980s it is disconcerting to have them echoed in Hellenkant?s editorial. Researchers who utilize animals may not know what is best. Instead, it is through active collaboration with the IACUC and the attending veterinarians that the scientific merit of a researcher?s experiments is often improved.
Hellenkant also complained about the unreasonable composition of the IACUC (specifically, the lack of members with suitable expertise), and that it is unrealistic to request researchers provide assurance that their proposal does not unnecessarily duplicate previous experiments. If researchers cannot suitably justify their work to a committee whose interests are, in general, aligned with their own, how could they ever convince the general public? And in the end, the general public is a priority since the majority of funds for animal experimentation are provided from tax revenues and it is the public?s general perceptions of biomedical research that is being shaped by the animal rights movement. However, contrary to his statements about public concerns over money wasted on AWA enforcement, last year?s poll by the Foundation for Biomedical research found that the majority of Americans believe there are sufficient federal regulations governing animal research.
I am certainly not naïve enough to claim that IACUCs always function efficiently or logically. When a group of disparate individuals sit down to review a protocol there will always be problems, such as what occurs during the peer review of manuscripts and grant applications. But why argue that sterility in surgery for rats is ?ridiculous?? The fact that the rat has an excellent immune system is immaterial. Using aseptic technique eliminates a variable from the experiment -- why a scientist would want to deliberately include such an uncontrollable variable in the experimental design by conducting an unclean surgery is puzzling. (Point of clarification: it is the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare branch of the NIH and not the AWA that requires sterile surgery for rats and other species; currently the AWA does not cover rats, mice, and birds bred for research purposes.)
One would hope that in addition to spending time constructing this letter he has also taken the time to respond to the NIH?s ?Request for Information on New Standards for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.? Hellenkant and other interested parties had until March 31st, 2006 to make submissions.
James D. Reynolds, PhD
Assistant Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and Surgery
Vice-Chair, Duke IACUC
Duke University Medical Center
Links within this article
G. Hellekant, ?How regulations hamstring animal research,? The Scientist, February 21, 2006.
Request for Information on New Standards for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, NIH, February 23, 2006.