Perspective on the use of animals in research

May 9, 2013

We were just discussing the closure of the New England National Primate Research Center. One of the uncertainties about that decision of Harvard Medical School was where the approximately 2,000 animals of various species were to be placed. 2,000. Remember that now. Some of the news reporting also referred to the deaths of some of the NENPRC nonhuman primate subjects as a triggering cause for a two year attempt to improve their procedures. These deaths comprised a series of ones and twos going by the available news reporting…perhaps amounting to a dozen or score of animals[ETA 4, see first comment]? We have no information over what timeframe those deaths occurred.

According to the LA Times, Malaysia has culled 97,000 cynomolgous macaques. Last year. The article claims they culled 88,000 of them in the previous year.

The cynomolgous macaque, btw, is a very commonly used species in research laboratories in the US. From Speaking of Research we learn that in 2010 there were about 73,317 nonhuman primates used in 2010. Of all species. This is out of an estimated 25 million vertebrate animals used in research for that year. And remember, for the longer-lived species such as dogs or nonhuman primates, the vast majority of studies use them across multi-year and even multi-decade intervals. So across time the comparison of the yearly use of, say dogs versus mice, tends to overestimate the dogs on a per-individual basis.

We are incredibly parsimonious with the approximately 1% of animals used in research that are cats, dogs or monkeys, the ones usually of greatest concern to the average person. Parsimonious with all of them, in reality. As the Speaking of Research page puts it.

Let us put the number of animals used in perspective. Scientists in the US use approximately 26 million animals in research, of which only around 1 million are not rats/mice/birds/fish. We use fewer animals in research than the number of ducks eaten per year in this country. We consume over 1800 times the number of pigs than the number used in research. We eat over 340 chickens for each animal used in a research facility, and almost 9,000 chickens for every animal used in research covered by the Animal Welfare Act. For every animal used in research, it is estimated that 14 more are killed on our roads.

Malaysia just euthanized (how we don’t know but I’m pretty sure IACUC oversight wasn’t involved) 185,000 monkeys in the past two years. Why?

Tourists and many Malaysians gather near jungle edges to watch the monkeys, snap photos of them and feed them peanuts and bananas. But the wildlife department, also known as Perhilitan, says the extensive culling was necessary to curb a “pest species” that breeds prolifically, adapts with ease, and ransacks homes for food.

“It is a hard decision, but in order to safeguard the well-being of people and to maintain a stable macaques population … it might be the best option in a short run,” the department said in an email to The Times.

185,000 culled as annoying pests over two years. A problem that may or may not have been increased by tourists. Even if the above stats reflected different individuals in each year, this is about equivalent to the total number of nonhuman primates used in US research laboratories. In fact, the number is likely to be much closer to the annual 73,317 count, given the longevity of the species. And we have no idea when Malaysia will stop culling.

In a related vein the ASPCA says that about 3-4 million companion animals (dogs and cats) are euthanized in shelters in the US annually. Annually. Why? Because nobody wants them. 64,930 dogs and 21,578 cats used in research in 2010. Versus 3-4 million. That’s 3,000,000 vs 86,508. Mere inconvenience and irresponsibility versus the advance of knowledge and creation of new medical treatment for humans and animals as well.

The inadvertent deaths of a handful to perhaps a score of monkeys[ETA 4, see first comment] at the NENPRC led to massive shut down of research, a two year reorganization process and ultimately the demise of the Center. The center which made demonstrable advances in AIDS, drug abuse and Parkinson’s disease amongst other accomplishments.

At the very least this should give some perspective on how seriously the research enterprise and oversight system takes the humane treatment of research animals. It compares very favorably indeed with how the rest of the world (including the US) treats animals (yes, including companion species).

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33 Responses to “Perspective on the use of animals in research”

  1. Paul Says:

    “These deaths comprised a series of ones and twos going by the available news reporting…perhaps amounting to a dozen or score of animals? We have no information over what timeframe those deaths occurred. ”

    Actually it was a total of 4 deaths in the 2010-2012 that led to the review of procedures at NEPRC, and in two cases (the monkey which was put through the cleaning system after it had died and one that died the day after a scan) the cause of death is not known, and may indeed be unconnected to the mistakes surrounding it.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6132/535.summary

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  2. Dario Ringach Says:

    …and don’t forget about 1 million animals killed every day in just in the US because… well, we need to get to work:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html

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  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Thanks for the specifics Paul.

    DR- May is Bike-To-Work month!

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  4. Ronald Auktepus Says:

    DM, the numbers are compelling.

    I can tell I sense a growing murmur in the biomedical community about use of rodents. The worry is that over-reliance on these organisms as “models” of neurological and immunological diseases has yielded questionable progress, thus far, towards cures for human disease.

    Increasing the use of other animals, including NHPs, just makes sense. However, it will be up to the research community to provide clear, concise arguments with data, like the one you posted, to sway a fickle and fur-loving public.

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  5. John Capitanio Says:

    I’m pleased to see one point that is so often overlooked: when it comes to research with nonhuman primates (and other long-lived species), “used” does not mean “used up.”

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  6. zb Says:

    This post is going in my reference library.

    Like

  7. Former technician Says:

    I am a member of the fur loving public (my husband and I have 5 rescue cats). However, I am also a member of the research community. I often get asked how I can justify lab animal use. My simple answer is that cell culture is not adequate for full answers and if they really want advances in medicine, I can either use animals ethically or we can return to human experimentation. Since we are located in the South, this response usually provokes a look of horror or confusion.

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  8. LM Says:

    While I think animal experimentation is necessary, I’m not sure this really addresses the most compelling arguments against it. Lab experimentation is not the same as merely killing an animal; in some cases, we are talking about serious infliction of distress. To use a deliberately inflammatory analogy, comparing animal culls and lab experiments is like saying torturing prisoners is OK because tens of thousands of people die in traffic each year. The relevant comparison should be about balancing benefit to humanity vs pain inflicted. Of course, lab animals look much better on this scale than a lot of other things we take for granted, like factory farming, which probably inflicts more cruelty for less clear benefit.

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  9. The Other Dave Says:

    Fine post!

    Like

  10. Jim Thomerson Says:

    Animal experimentation generally precedes human application. Is it the case that veterinarians have procedures available for various animal species which are not, and may never be, available to physicians treating humans?

    I am wondering about the the benefits to animals from research on animals, I suppose,.

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  11. Matthew T-R Says:

    Great post! One hole in the logic, however: I think that people who advocate for stopping the use of lab animals would also be against many of the other forms of deaths that animals endure. Advocating for the end of lab research does not mean you aren’t advocating for the end of euthanizing dogs in shelters. Lab animals are merely peanuts, but they are also the ‘low hanging fruit’ of protecting animals. Also, its not as if researchers would use shelter dogs for research. I’m not familiar with the dog strains, but I know the mice strain my lab uses came from 3 pet stores in england a hundred years ago. It would be nice for researchers to be able to use the malaysian monkeys, but I bet the researchers wouldn’t want to use the wild monkeys.

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  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I’m not sure this really addresses the most compelling arguments against it.

    I never made any such assertion. I was responding to the news of the cull is all.

    in some cases, we are talking about serious infliction of distress.

    The regulatory system of oversight is set up so that this requires extraordinary justification. in general, pain and distress must be relieved and minimized to the extent possible.

    comparing animal culls and lab experiments is like saying torturing prisoners is OK because tens of thousands of people die in traffic each year.

    Well you certainly know your way around an inflammatory (and in this case inaccurate) analogy. lab animals are not “tortured” by any reasonable conception of the term.

    The relevant comparison should be about balancing benefit to humanity vs pain inflicted.

    That is only one of many issues involved in the use of nonhuman animals in research. But I suspect the Malaysian cull of “pests” using, one presumes, less than entirely humane euthanasia such as is practiced in the laboratory (they specifically refer to not having enough vets to do sterilization, for example) would still come up short on a “balancing benefit vs pain” analysis.

    lab animals look much better on this scale than a lot of other things we take for granted, like factory farming, which probably inflicts more cruelty for less clear benefit.

    indeed. Ploughing fields to grow vegetables to feed the vegetarians plays havoc with the resident field mice, gophers and the like. Not to mention destroys food sources for birds and insects, etc. Having a plow blade come crashing through your den certainly is not consistent with AVMA euthanasia recommendations and violates most IACUC’s ideas of acceptable levels of pain and distress. Surely you are right on this.

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  13. drugmonkey Says:

    JT, if you search animal research advocacy sites you can find some of the applications of animal research to benefit animals.

    one example…

    http://www.fbresearch.org/TwoColumnWireframe.aspx?pageid=122&linkidentifier=id&itemid=122

    Animal research has also paid incalculable benefits to animals. It has resulted in many remarkable lifesaving and life-extending treatments for cats, dogs, farm animals, wildlife, and endangered species. Pacemakers, artificial joints, organ transplants, and freedom from arthritic pain are just a few of the breakthroughs made in veterinary medicine thanks to animal research. Dogs, cats, sheep, and cattle are also living longer and healthier lives thanks to vaccines for rabies, distemper, parvo virus, hepatitis, anthrax, tetanus, and feline leukemia. New treatments for glaucoma, heart disease, cancer, hip dysplasia, and traumatic injuries are saving, extending, and enhancing the lives of beloved pets while advanced reproductive techniques are helping to preserve and protect threatened and endangered species.

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  14. Joe Says:

    @LM “in some cases, we are talking about serious infliction of distress.”
    Have you tried to get any animal protocols through your iacuc lately? There are a lot of serious and well-educated people protecting the animals from infliction of distress.

    Like

  15. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    I cannot believe so many poor, little, innocent Guinea Pigs are used!!!

    Before I had mostly philosophical and political issues about the NIH misallocating and mismanaging funds (i.e., wasting money in useless research).

    NOW, THIS IS PERSONAL. THE NIH IS FUNDING GUINEA PIG MURDER.

    If you think the sequester is bad, you haven’t seen anything yet. The pigs will strike back.

    Like

  16. jipkin Says:

    if animal rights groups cared about invertebrates, they’d have a whole lot more to complain about. I mean, the shit we do to fruit flies and nematodes…

    (although, to be honest, there probably should be more rules in place when it comes to cephalopods because octopodes are pretty smart)

    Like

  17. Drugmonkey Says:

    Soo, what exactly do you do to fruit flies?

    Like


  18. We consume over 1800 times the number of pigs than the number used in research. We eat over 340 chickens for each animal used in a research facility, and almost 9,000 chickens for every animal used in research covered by the Animal Welfare Act.

    And some of us who support ethical use of animals in scientific research are working hard to decrease those multipliers (not by increasing the number of research animals).

    There’s more sensible ways for my family to get its nutrients than ways for scientists to get answers to questions they study in animal models. Those protocols they submit to their IACUCs have to explicitly address the question of whether there are non-animal alternatives to build he same knowledge. And, once built, that knowledge has the potential to serve a whole lot more people (and, via veterinary application, animals) than would be “served” by an equivalent number of eating animals.

    Thanks for this post!

    Like

  19. whimple Says:

    The worry is that over-reliance on these organisms as “models” of neurological and immunological diseases has yielded questionable progress, thus far, towards cures for human disease.

    The supposition that bunny hopping is a good model of human locomotion is fraught with peril. In particular, a lot of work on bunnies gets done without going to the all the unnecessary bother of determining whether what holds true for bunnies also holds true for people. It is also distressing that difficult translational research establishing (on occasion) that ‘factoid A’ known to be true for bunnies IS actually also true for people gets greatly discounted in value when you try to publish the result, because of course (from the bunny hopper reviewers), “we already knew that”. And god help you if you find that the bunny hopping research, when applied to humans, turns out to be invalid…

    Like

  20. mat Says:

    Matthew T-R, in point of fact many macaques used in labs are genetically outbred enough that they might as well be wild-caught. Breeding facilities are not infrequently small islands with essentially free-ranging, freely breeding populations.

    Like

  21. DD Says:

    Thanks for a great “resetting” post and eye opener. for many I am sure. Like “Former technician” I am an animal lover who rescues a lot of animals from shelters or just accept those that come out of the forest to adopt themselves. Yet, I am also a researcher. And even worse, a primate researcher!. My monkeys are counted as being used in my research every year, yet, I keep them in their large indoor/outdoor pens, grooming, playing and fighting, and making a happy mess, for years, mostly even decades. But they are counted every year, artificially inflating the apparent number of NHP used in research… there are some alternatives to some procedures (and scientists use them as much as possible) but not for all….nothing replace the complexity of a complete living organism.

    Like

  22. jipkin Says:

    Soo, what exactly do you do to fruit flies?

    well nothing beyond cutting their wings off or tethering them and cutting a hole in their head or I dunno just mutating the shit out of them.

    come to think of it I suppose it’s not much different than mice, except no IACUC and their food smells, well, fruitier.

    (and disclaimer I don’t work in drosophila myself, but leeches)

    Like

  23. drugmonkey Says:

    wow. what do you do to leeches? actually scratch that. how do you grow laboratory leeches? What do they eat?

    Like

  24. AcademicLurker Says:

    how do you grow laboratory leeches? What do they eat?

    You just attach them to the graduate students every now and then.

    Like

  25. jipkin Says:

    you can buy leeches from commercial suppliers (we use medicinal leeches, Hirudo verbana). We have a breeding colony as well for embryonic studies but it takes a long time for the juveniles to get to the size of adults (a year or two) so we don’t generally replenish from that stock. As for eating, we feed them every few months with a blood sausage (though one little juvenile managed to find my hand earlier today but I got it off). They’re pretty low maintenance.

    as for what we do to them? well you can do a lot to a leech, such as cut off the middle of the animal (to record from the nerves) while the head and tail (only attached by the nervous system), still swim. a video of this at a woods hole course my PI helps with:

    Generally, we dissect out the nervous system for physiology preparations (or in my case, anatomy) and go from there. We simply use icy cold saline for partial anesthesia and then discard of the body afterwards.

    Like

  26. dvz Says:

    and do you also support the ethical, parsimonious use of Jews in ‘humane’ research?

    Like


  27. That video is mistitled “fictive swimming”, since the animal is actually swimming. Fictive swimming would be nervous system pattern generation in the absence of actual swimming. Although thinking about it a little more, it is a hybrid case, since the segments being recorded from are deafferented and deefferented.

    Like

  28. becca Says:

    I just gotta say, I think we should do way more research in animals I personally dislike (such as mosquitoes and leeches) and way less in animals I personally find cuddly and adorable (such as mice and bunnies).

    Like

  29. Eli Rabett Says:

    dvz, for Tay Sachs there is not much choice.

    Like

  30. FeathermerchantUSMC Says:

    And the point is…?
    Attempting to put animal use ( and abuse) in perspective by citing “the numbers” is as irrelevant as pointing out the “relatively few” number of slaves that were abused by their masters or that some masters treated their slaves better than other masters.

    And while I am making the slave analogy, let’s add in the heartfelt “concern” that ante-bellum slave state apologists voiced about “what will happen to the poor darkies if’n we emancipates ’em?” vis-a-vis the oft-stated concern expressed by the lab animal industry about whatever shall we do with all those monkey’s and doggies now that the “extremists” are making us get rid of them.

    The numbers of animals used is not the point.
    Either you can make a case for ethically using non-human animals for research solely because humans are “more valuable” than other animals or you can’t.

    And you can’t.

    Like

  31. whimple Says:

    Either you can make a case for ethically using non-human animals for research solely because humans are “more valuable” than other animals or you can’t.

    And you can’t.

    Are you seriously arguing that a mouse and a human are “equally valuable”?

    Like

  32. uh-oh Says:

    whimple: Are you seriously arguing that a mouse and a human are “equally valuable”?

    Oh…pleeeeeease don’t go there. That question has been asked in too many variations over our history to think that there is an “obvious” answer that “any intelligent person” would acknowledge (and please excuse the vernacular that I employ in these examples, as they are what was actually used in the argument of the times) :

    e.g., Are you seriously arguing that a “Negro” and a white man are “equally valuable” ?

    Are you seriously arguing that a “retarded person” and a normal human are “equally valuable” ?

    Are you seriously arguing that a “female” and a man are “equally valuable” ?

    Are you seriously arguing that a “Dago/Spic/Pollock/choose your slur” and a white male American citizen are “equally valuable” ?

    Are you seriously arguing that (a member of any group but my own) and “my kind” are “equally valuable” ?

    Like

  33. Drugmonkey Says:

    The difference is the quality of the available evidence at the time. Also, the magnitude and quality of the proposed differences. This is where your analogy fails utterly.

    Like


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