A new reality circumscribes animal-based research. Regulatory agencies and mandates pervade the scientific community, and animal-rights activist groups are becoming increasingly vocal about their objections to animal studies. In addition, the Internet and social media continue to influence public and political perception of such research, spreading unfiltered and/or selectively abridged information around the world in seconds. Life scientists who use animal models must recognize this new political and social climate, and continue to reduce and refine animal usage, while fostering positive public relations about their work.
The number-one priority for animal researchers must be maintaining regulatory compliance. A single instance of noncompliance can lead to fines, funding disruptions, and substantial negative publicity. The best way to ensure compliance is to take advantage of research animal veterinarians and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs), which are well versed in the requirements. Veterinarians and IACUCs are charged with protecting animal well-being, but also function to support scientific advancement. They should be viewed as resources and not merely as regulators.
One thing veterinarians or IACUC members can help with is drafting the animal-use protocol, a contract describing every important aspect of an animal-based research project. The protocol is the protective document for a principal investigator and the institution should any questions about the work arise from a regulatory agency or outside group. All areas of an animal-use protocol are important, but key aspects that require special attention are humane endpoints, anesthesia and analgesia appropriate for the species and situation, justification of species used and number of animals required, and the balance of societal benefit versus potential harm to animals.
Once the project is underway, all activities performed using research animals must be documented. It is not enough to state in a protocol that all animals will receive analgesic medication after surgery; investigators must maintain a log of every time the analgesic is given. A statement of intent in a protocol is a promise; proof of keeping promises must exist in laboratory records.
And it’s important to keep those promises. If an animal-use protocol describes administration of analgesic twice per day for five days, the analgesic must be given in that exact regimen. Methods stated in a protocol are not negotiable by laboratory members on a case-by-case basis. If there is legitimate reason to modify the experiment, a protocol amendment or IACUC-approved veterinary exemption to alter the regimen is required.
Finally, beyond all the logistics of adhering to research regulations, investigators must make an effort to ensure that the importance of their research is made clear to the public. A future may one day exist when it will not be necessary to use animals in biomedical research, but that day is not here yet, regardless of opposing declarations. Animal models are still critical to understanding and treating human disease. All members of the lab must be able to quickly, accurately, and persuasively explain their work to a lay audience, and if the work is basic science, they must be sure to emphasize the translational benefit.
It is difficult enough for scientists to secure funding and produce biologically relevant and reproducible results. Complicating matters by courting trouble with regulatory agencies or public opinion is unwanted and unnecessary. Adhering to regulatory protocols and effectively communicating with the public about one’s research can help an investigator stay focused on achieving scientific, professional, and personal goals while using animal models in the most appropriate and humane way.
Andrew Jefcoat is Senior Program Veterinarian at the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin–Madison.