Recognition of Animal Welfare in Biomedical Science Takes Center Stage
A quarter of a century ago, a landmark NIH symposium, “Animal Welfare and Scientific Research,” fostered new laws and policies safeguarding the welfare of animals used in biomedical research. Last week, federal research leaders, scientists, animal rights activists, and others gathered again for a conference near the NIH campus to acknowledge the critical contributions research animals have made to accelerating biomedical discovery over the last 25 years and to improving human and animal health.
The original NIH symposium, held in April 1984, led directly to new federal policies for the use and care of vertebrate animals in testing, research, and training. The event also contributed to the passage of laws that mandated humane care of laboratory animals, including requirements for Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) to provide local oversight for U.S. Public Health Service-supported research that involves animals.
NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Dr. Sally Rockey noted that about 40 percent of NIH-funded grants and contracts currently involve animal research. In 2009, she said, the intramural laboratories at NIH used over 1.3 million animals, representing more than 20 species, for research studies. (Mice are used in 81 percent of NIH intramural animal studies.)
Through its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), NIH requires all grantee institutions to maintain IACUCs and provide training on the humane practice of animal care for people who are involved in animal research projects. Individual research grant applications must also state why animals are needed for the funded research.
“The astonishing conservation of gene function across vast evolutionary distance has made animal models more useful than we could have imagined and probably accelerated biomedical research by decades, if not centuries,” said Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She described her research using zebrafish to study early development and cancer. Her efforts, in collaboration with scientists at Harvard Medical School, “have shown that many of the same oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that cause cancer in mice and humans can also cause cancer when introduced or mutated in fish,” Dr. Hopkins explained. In some instances, zebrafish have advantages over the more common mouse models, she said, because fish tumors contain an abnormal number of chromosomes, which is common in human tumors but not in mice.
Despite the importance of animal research, NIH supports the development of alternatives to animal testing, Dr. Rockey said. For example, the Biological Models and Materials Research Program funds extramural research and development of non-mammalian models for biomedical research. And the National Library of Medicine offers an extensive online bibliography of resources on alternatives to live vertebrates for biomedical research and testing.
“Although for the time being, animal testing is essential to ensure the development of safe drugs, medical devices, food additives, and biological products for humans and animals, FDA and other federal agencies are aggressively moving towards reducing animal use,” explained Dr. David Jacobson-Kram, associate director of pharmacology and toxicology at the FDA. One such effort, he noted, is the International Conference on Harmonization, a collaborative project that involves regulatory officials and pharmaceutical representatives from the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Genomic biomarkers that predict carcinogenicity, Dr. Jacobson-Kram added, will lead to development of assay platforms and test protocols that enable the early prediction and mechanistic assessment of carcinogens. “It is my firm belief that we will ultimately eliminate the need for animal studies,” he said.