Originally appearing in ShowSight Magazine, June 2016 Issue. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.
Biomedical research is a difficult subject these days; even more difficult than explaining that your purebred Chinese Crested is not responsible for the pit mix that is being euthanized at the shelter today. The people involved in both of these areas are subject to scrutiny and harassment at the hands of extremists, and both are largely misunderstood. It is easy to believe the stories of mad scientists torturing mice willy-nilly, but that is not accurate. Research using animals is vital to the advancement of medicine for all species, and these animals are not mistreated.
What is biomedical research and why are animals used?
Without going into too much detail, biomedical research is research that seeks to understand the inner workings and mechanisms of bodies that are both healthy and functioning and unhealthy and not functioning. The topics to study are endless—how a disease starts, evaluating whether or not a new drug works, finding a way to stop the spread of cancer cells. Experiments and studies need to be closely monitored and controlled to allow the researchers to know as much as possible about whatever they are studying; for example, if studying the effect of diet on lymphoma, the researchers need to know exactly what each subject eats so that they can then analyze the data and determine whether or not a particular item is beneficial or not.
Many studies begin at the cellular level, working with tissue samples or biopsies. But there comes a point when the pursuit of knowledge makes it necessary to observe a drug or disease in an actual living body. Diseases often affect more than just one area of the body, and to effectively treat them we need to know all of the potential things that can happen to a patient. Medications need to perform their stated function while also not harming the patient in other ways—no one wants to take a cold medicine that stops your runny nose but makes you go blind.
This is where animals (including humans) come in. Scientists take the information learned in vitro and move on to studying the disease or medication in a live animal. Drug studies determine whether or not a medication does what it is supposed to, factors that may affect performance, side effects that may occur, and proper dosages. Successful trials eventually move up to clinical trials with people or whichever species the medication is intended for—many of us have friends who have participated in experimental cancer treatments for humans and/or dogs.
How do we know the animals are well cared for?
Research using live animals is heavily regulated, and institutions are subject to inspections from a variety of organizations depending on each situation and how they obtain funding. One of the best-known regulations is the Animal Welfare Act. The AWA outlines the space and care requirements for animals used in research. The Public Health Service and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare cover all vertebrates and their care and housing. All institutions that keep animals must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee that oversees the facility and makes sure that they are in compliance with care standards. Researchers are also encouraged to adhere to three Rs: Replace animals with other models where possible (such as tissue samples), Reduce the number of animals used (if a study only needs 20 rats, don’t use 200), and Refine techniques to minimize suffering and improve welfare.
The best resource to learn about how animals are cared for in the research setting is the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, which is the bible of lab animal care and includes detailed information on the care, housing, shipping, veterinary care, and facilities necessary for just about any species that you can imagine from farm animals to amphibians. The Guide is currently in its 8th edition, and anyone can buy a copy (not the most thrilling read, but very thorough
Another thing to consider is that it is in researchers’ best interests to have healthy, mentally sound animals. Poor conditions like overcrowding or inappropriate light cycles cause stress, and stress impacts the physiology of the body. This will drastically affect study results, and not give accurate information. When studying a particular disease, the animal needs to be otherwise healthy for researchers to get an accurate picture of how that disease works. By knowing how a disease works, they can identify ways to stop it.
One of the big things in the research world right now is environmental enrichment for animals. According to the Guide, enrichment is “providing animals with sensory and motor stimulation, through structures and resources that facilitate the expression of species-typical behaviors and promote psychological well-being”. This can be as simple as providing mice with a plastic tube to hide in so they feel more secure, or housing dogs in groups so that they can play and interact with their little pack.
Dogs in research?
You got it—research isn’t just for rats and zebra fish. Beagles are the most commonly used dog in research due to their friendliness and small size. Most dogs in research are bred specifically for that purpose, but occasionally may be acquired from other sources (if dogs come from a shelter, the Guide instructs that they should be checked for tattoos and microchips that might indicate they were a pet and contact the owners—one would hope all shelters do that anyway). The Guide recommends that dogs have toys to play with, at least eight square feet of space per dog (this is the minimum size for dogs under 15 pounds—space increases with the size of the dog), and opportunities to run and play, be that in an outdoor yard or indoor run. Training is both beneficial for the dogs and makes life easier for the researchers and husbandry staff.
Dogs have helped in many scientific discoveries. One of the best known is the discovery of insulin and how the pancreas was related to diabetes. After the observation of diabetic patients suggested that the pancreas was involved, Dr. Frederick Banting wanted to run experiments to figure out what was going on. Along with medical student Charles Best, he removed the pancreas from a dog, that then developed diabetes. They then removed the pancreas from another dog and processed it to form a substance that they called “isletin.” When this was injected into the diabetic dog, its symptoms subsided. From there, isletin would come to be called insulin, testing was done on more dogs and then human volunteers. Today, insulin is a household word.
Dogs also played a vital role in the development of modern blood transfusion. In 1907, George Crile used 32 dogs for successful blood transfusions, and in 1914 Adolph Hustin tried adding sodium citrate to prevent clotting and successfully transfused it into dogs. Richard Lewisohn took this idea a little further and refined the amount of sodium citrate that could be added to the blood without harming the canine recipients.
Dogs are great models for cardiovascular and orthopedic conditions. They have been used in angioplasty studies to help understand, treat, and prevent heart attacks, and were used to test stents for keeping blood vessels open. Orthopedic advances that dogs contributed to include the study of spinal cord injuries, tendon and ligament repair, and the use of prosthetics.
Canine diversity is ripe for genetic and DNA studies. Some studies focus on heritable disorders that dogs and humans share (such as epilepsy), while others focus on ones specific to dogs. All species benefit from these discoveries because they increase our knowledge of how genes interact with one another and assist with locating problematic genes.
Dogs are also being used in studies on brain aging and Alzheimer’s, several types of cancer, and organ transplants. For additional information and studies, visit the reference sites listed below.
It is true that dogs in research don’t lead the life of a typical family pet, but their care and management has improved by leaps and bounds over the years as science and animal care have advanced. These dogs and other animals are given great care to keep them happy and healthy. It should also be noted that dogs make up a very small portion of the animals used in research—less than .25% of the total animals in US research facilities in 2014 according to the National Association for Biomedical Research.
Most of us will probably never work with any animals in research, but it is an important topic to understand. Most of the medications and treatments that we take for granted today were made possible because of the efforts of scientists and the animals that they studied. The medical knowledge that is gained from biomedical research is used to improve the lives of all species.