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Lab animals in the spotlight as research come under scrutiny

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13 November 2008.

Lab animals in the spotlight as research come under scrutiny.

by Sigrid Lupieri

Indistinct figures pad through the windowless corridors of Northwestern University's animal facilities in Chicago. Only their eyes peer out from the layers of surgical masks, gloves, shoe covers, head covers and long, wide laboratory coats as the scientists here care for the animals they use for research.

Government funded facilities, such as Northwestern, must follow instructions in the "Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals," but for the first time in more than 10 years, some of the directives may change.

The Institute for Laboratory Animal Research is planning updates of the guide and will welcome public opinion in an open forum at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago on Friday from 9 a.m.-noon.

The forum is the last of four meetings throughout the country called to address animal housing and management in research facilities, veterinary care and institutional policies. With more than 18,000 mice and other mammals in its laboratories, Northwestern researchers have been keeping a close eye on the meetings and many plan to attend the Friday session.

"The Guide is not the law, but if you get government funding, the policy is that you will abide by the Guide," said Dr. Philippe Baneux, veterinarian and executive director of Northwestern's Center for Comparative Medicine. "'If it hurts a person, it will hurt an animal,' is one of the fundamental thoughts."

NU personnel try to guarantee the best treatment of animals and to ensure that the guidelines for environment, health and safety are met, said Carolyn Malinowski, quality and training manager of the center. As Malinowski opens the thick steel doors of the animal facilities with her magnetic card, she explains that night and day cycles are respected by putting red panes on these doors. Since mice cannot see the color red, they are not disturbed by the neon lights in the hallways during their sleep cycle.

To prevent the spreading of diseases as well as to keep the animals dry and clean, every mouse cage is individually ventilated. This measure also helps keep the personnel safe. "If you work with animals for a long time, you develop allergies to fur, urine and saliva," Malinowski said. "Because of ventilation, you are not breathing the same air."

Every one of the 18,000 mice also has a personal medical card hanging outside its cage and the record is updated twice a day by the veterinary staff.

Other measures to avoid contamination between the animals and the outside world include an air pressure system. With positive air pressure inside, Malinowski said, the air from inside the animal room is swept out when you open the door.

With negative air pressure, researchers can sweep air in from the hallway when they open the door.

The animals' social life is also an important factor. Groups of mice with their tiny babies live together in the same cage, while veterinarians interact and play with the bigger animals, such as dogs and pigs.

In addition to the basic requirements, animal laboratories have to hire a committee of at least five members to oversee the research. The members include a chair of the committee, a veterinarian, a scientist, an ethicist and a member of the community such as a lawyer, nurse or religious leader.

The committee must ensure that all regulations are met regarding the origin of the animals used for research, their disposal as well as employee training. "It's a difficult topic to address," Baneux said. "But animal research is almost more regulated than human research."

Dr. Lisa Forman, a veterinarian and Northwestern's director of the Office for Animal Welfare Assurance, said educating the public about the realities of animal research is not easy.

"It's a problem in our country because people fear science," she said.

Though animal rights demonstrations in Illinois have been contained, Malinowski said Northwestern employees at the labs are careful, as some acts of protest elsewhere have targeted individuals and their families.

At the end of the tour, she locks the massive doors to the facilities through a fingerprint scan of her hand. Malinowski explains that security is tight to prevent people from breaking in. Thanks to the Enterprise Terrorism Law, she says, breaking into labs is now a federal offense.

Researchers at Northwestern University care for pigs that participate in the experiments.

More than 18,000 mice are kept at Northwestern labs in individually ventilated cages. This keeps the environment dry and clean and diminishes the chances of allergies for staff members.

Dogs are used for studies on heart disease at Northwestern University. When possible, they are adopted out when the experiments are over. News/Chicago/Images/Science/Dog(3).jpg

In the meantime, staff and vets play with the animals.

Do lab animals benefit from science?

New imaging technologies, such as digital X-ray, MRIs and ultrasound, spare animals the ordeal of invasive procedures to see what's going on within the animal.

Drug developments over the past four years allow researchers to use gas anesthesia even for small animals instead of injections.

Individually ventilated cages provide a better environment with less humidity, bacteria and ammonia.

Greater focus on animal care has led to better trained staff.

Certification programs encourage technicians to undergo more training for monetary gain.

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