Researchers on the MCV campus may turn to animal testing to help find answers for debilitating illnesses and diseases found in the human body.
Although VCU has been accredited as a research university for over 35 years and has state-of the art research facilities, Dr. Bobby Collins, the assistant director of veterinary serves at VCU, said animal testing helps research.
“All animals have pathology,” Collins said. “They get sick; they get injured. We use them to answer questions.”
According to Collins, animals are used as a last resort in medical testing. Most primary investigators conducting the experiment start out with much smaller organisms, such as cells.
“Cells are easy to manipulate and have less complicated pathologies,” Collins said. “They are also a lot less expensive.”
Cost is a factor when it comes to animal testing. At VCU, the animal researchers use range anywhere from zebra fish to non-human primates. Most studies start with the lowest denominator of animal. As the research becomes more complicated, researchers move up to higher-level organisms.
Collins said VCU uses domestically produced animals, which means they are bred in the U.S. solely for the purpose of research. There is a process to attaining an animal for research.
“All animals used have to be inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture,” said Monika Markowitz, the director of the Office of Education Compliance Oversight. “There’s also paperwork and committees that have to be approved before research can begin.”
When an inspector decides to use animals for research, he must present a detailed plan on what research is going to be conducted on the animal. Once an outline for the research is completed, researchers must present the plan to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The IACUC then will consider the outline and decide wether an animal is truly necessary.
“It’s a lengthy process,” Markowitz said. “And we want to make sure that the use of an animal is beneficial to the research.”
The IACUC must consider certain elements, including the federal Animal Welfare Act. According to the USDA, this act “requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or exhibited to the public.”
One of the biggest points to take into consideration is the ethical manner in which animals are being studied. Both Collins and Markowitz demand animal testing be done correctly and humanely.
“I think the public is OK with animal testing,” Collins said, “as long as they are assured that it’s done in a humane way.”
Markowitz said she agreed with Collins, saying she believes using animals in research is more ethical than using the alternative.
“Most people would agree that it’s more beneficial to test on animals than it would be to test on humans,” Markowitz said.
Husbandry, which is the care of the animals while they are in a research facility, is a way ethics is applied to animal research.It ranges anywhere from keeping their cages clean, to having food and water or even having toys with which the animals can play.
“There are investigators that also come out to the site and inspect that the animals are treated humanely,” Collins said. “There are guidelines that the state sets for animals while in the facility, and the investigator comes to make sure we’re meeting them.”
Guidelines also are applied to the euthanization of animals.
“There are acceptable forms of euthanasia. It can go anywhere from physical shock, the use of a guillotine (or) carbon dioxide,” Collins said. “It’s all done in a humane way.”
VCU has adopt-out programs for animals not euthanized. Also, Collins states VCU is known for sending non-human primates that have taken part in studies to sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives.
According to Collins, no animal from VCU research facilities has ever been sent to a zoo.
“Every animal we use contributes a small piece to the bigger puzzle.” Markowitz said. “It’s a new discovery every day.”