Cures and controversy

Animal experiments advance medicine, but secrecy, violations keep some activists skeptical

By Sara Burnett,
Rocky Mountain News
August 12, 2006,1299,DRMN_957_4912443,00.html

Most of the research monkeys that attracted protests, petitions and candlelight vigils to the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center have been moved out of state, but animal research continues at a steady clip in Colorado, information obtained by the Rocky Mountain News shows.

Nearly 600,000 animals have been bred or used for research at the state's three major institutions - CU's Health Sciences Center, CU and Colorado State University - during the past three years, according to data provided by the universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The overwhelming majority of those are mice and rats. But the numbers also include other creatures, from dogs and cats to frogs, fish, pigs and bats.

Together, the schools estimate research involving animals brought $237 million in grant money to the state last year from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.

That troubles animal rights activists such as Rita Anderson, who's made freeing CU's bonnet macaque monkeys a kind of personal mission - some would say obsession - over the past few years.

But researchers and university administrators say the work is vital to advancing science and has made Colorado home to major medical breakthroughs that otherwise would not have been possible.

"It's unimaginable to me to think about the state of health care in the world if animals had not been sacrificed," said John Sladek, vice chancellor for research at the University of Colorado at Denver and the CU Health Sciences Center.

At Colorado State University's Animal Cancer Center, veterinary oncologist Dr. Stephen Withrow's research on dogs resulted in a new way to focus radiation on bone cancer. The treatment - first conducted on pets whose owners volunteer them for it - has saved limbs of humans who have the disease.

At CU's Boulder campus, professor Tom Johnson is locating a gene that makes mice more susceptible to severe alcoholism. Because the mouse's genetic makeup is similar to that of humans, the findings could help alcoholics - even those with a long history of relapsing - stop drinking for good.

There would be "absolutely no way" to do the research on humans, Johnson said. It involves injecting alcohol into a mouse's bloodstream to raise the blood alcohol content to sometimes fatal levels.

"Overall, it's a trade-off," Johnson added. "For every mouse we sacrifice we hope there's going to be a resulting improvement in human health."

Monkeys spark controversy

Colorado's research institutions have been doing animal research for decades, largely without controversy.

Yet many university officials remain skittish about discussing the work, pointing to incidents on other campuses where animal-rights activists destroyed labs, causing millions of dollars in damage and setting back research by years.

CSU's Animal Cancer Center - where owners volunteer their pets for research - was the only institution to allow the Rocky Mountain News to see and photograph animals. The other campuses would not reveal the location of their labs or let nonemployees enter them.

That secrecy is part of what bothers Anderson, a Boulder grandmother and animal-rights activist who has been a thorn in the side of CU's Health Sciences Center for years.

Anderson started her fight to stop research on CU's colony of bonnet macaque monkeys more than two years ago, after working on other animal-rights projects in the Boulder area.

She said she was first troubled by the research of psychiatry professor Mark Laudenslager, which she describes as a study of whether maternal separation causes young monkeys to abuse alcohol - a project she calls "pointless and absurd."

"We're not saving lives here," Anderson said. "It should be an embarrassment to CU."

Since then she has launched a campaign titled "Free the CU 34" (at the time, there were 34 monkeys; the number grew to 48), held candlelight vigils on campus, collected thousands of signatures on a petition and spoken at CU Board of Regents meetings, sometimes wearing a monkey mask and accompanied by supporters, including one in a monkey suit.

CU officials maintain the research is worthwhile.

Laudenslager has identified a gene that may make some young monkeys prefer alcohol more than others, Sladek said. With adolescent alcohol abuse such a problem today, the findings could be significant.

"Some of us can say no to the next drink. Some of us cannot," Sladek added. "It's a serious problem."

Last fall CU began talking with researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina about moving the monkeys there. Laudenslager would continue his studies, working with colleagues at Wake Forest.

In mid-June, 37 of the monkeys were moved. CU officials are looking for a sanctuary in which to place the remaining 11 monkeys, CU spokeswoman Sarah Ellis said.

The decision was made because Wake Forest has much larger and better facilities in which to study the monkeys, including outdoor areas, Sladek said. Wake Forest also has an alcohol research center.

Sladek denied the transfer had anything to do with pressure from Anderson and her supporters.

"If that was the motivation, (Laudenslager) would have done this a long time ago," Sladek added.

Anderson isn't so sure.

She believes CU is simply trying to get out from under her spotlight, and she says she won't stop until the project is terminated.

Last spring Anderson traveled to North Carolina to protest the use of monkeys there. She urged the CU Board of Regents to look into violations at Wake Forest's primate research facilities, such as some monkeys that did not have perches in their cages and outdated drugs found in some labs.

And she has continued pushing for CU to send all the monkeys to a sanctuary - and to pay for the animals' care once there.

"I just want the public to start paying some attention," Anderson added.

Committees provide oversight

Officials at both CU campuses and CSU insist there is plenty of oversight to ensure animals are being used only when no other option exists, that they are treated well and feel little or no pain.

Each campus doing animal research must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, which reviews each proposal. A campus veterinarian makes unannounced stops in research labs, as do U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.

Protocols are reviewed to ensure animals feel the least amount of pain possible - if any - and if there are problems or concerns, a study can be terminated at any point, said Peter Hellyer, professor of anesthesiology at CSU's Veterinary School and a member of CSU's IACUC.

"You don't cut a toenail here almost without some morphine," added Withrow, the veterinary oncologist at CSU. "We really do care about animals. We're a vet school, for God's sake."

USDA inspection reports for CSU did find some incidents of noncompliance. In 2005, for example, an inspector reported that sheep housed in a remote location had no shade to protect them from direct sunlight. A 2001 report showed CSU's older mascot, "Cam the Ram," had overgrown front hooves and had not received veterinary care.

Both issues were corrected by the next inspection, reports show.

At the Health Sciences Center, a 2003 inspection found temperatures in the facility where monkeys were housed reached 96 to 100 degrees - more than 10 degrees higher than allowed. It also found "numerous enclosures are deteriorating," pulley systems designed to open doors not functioning and exposed electrical components and conduits.

In April 2005, an inspector noted rodent droppings and cockroaches were found in the room where items used by the monkeys were stored. A month later, the problem had been resolved, reports show.

The monkeys have since been moved to a newer facility, university officials said. The most recent inspection, in February, found no cases of noncompliance.

USDA reports from CU-Boulder between 2003 and 2005 also found no violations.

Albert Petkus, director of animal resources at CU-Boulder, said each lab hires trained animal caretakers, and it's in their best interest to treat the animals well.

He also said the public should be aware of the benefits animal research has not just on science, but on educating students as well.

At CU, undergraduate physiology students study the heart by opening the chests of anesthetized rats and putting the rat on a ventilator to watch how its cardiac system works. The lab is one of the department's most popular, Petkus said.

"You could read about it in a book, watch a film or on a computer, but there's still nothing like seeing live tissue and working on it," he added. "It's a really, really valuable experience."

The facts about animal research in the U.S.

• Can anyone conduct animal research?

No. Federal law requires all institutions that conduct animal research to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC. The committee - made up of faculty, the campus veterinarian and at least one member of the public - evaluates each proposal to determine if the use of animals is necessary and if the researcher has an adequate plan for reducing and/or managing any pain that may be inflicted on the animals. The proposal then goes through a similar review by the group issuing the grant, such as the National Institutes of Health.

• Where do researchers get their animals?

Most animals are purchased from licensed dealers, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Others - dogs at CSU's Animal Cancer Center, for example - are pets whose owners have volunteered them for clinical trials. Other research is conducted on animals living in the wild, such as prairie dogs or deer, while some researchers breed their own animals.

• Where do the animals live?

Assuming the animals are kept on campus (vs. a study of animals in their natural habitat), they are usually kept in cages. Mice, for instance, are generally kept in shoebox-sized, polycarbonate plastic boxes with steel wire on top. Because they are social animals, the monkeys at CU's Health Science Center were kept in larger cages, usually with other monkeys.

• Who takes care of them?

Each university has a campus veterinarian who oversees the care of animals and treats any medical problems that arise. The university, academic departments or individual researchers also employ caretakers who are responsible for cleaning cages and feeding and monitoring the animals.

• What kind of oversight is there?

The IACUC is expected to inspect the facilities where animals are kept every six months and ensure the researcher is following the approved protocol. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has inspectors who visit campuses. The veterinarian at CU-Boulder said a USDA inspector checks on its animals once or twice a year. The campuses also must file annual reports with the USDA listing the number of animals being used for research, though that list does not include mice and rats.

• How does Colorado compare with other states in number of animals used? It's hard to tell. No entity collects data on the number of animals used nationwide, so there's no accurate way to compare one state with another.Source: Csu, Cu-Boulder, Cu Health Science Center, U.S.

Department Of Agriculture

Research in Colorado schools

• CSU: Dr. Stephen Withrow and researchers at the Animal Cancer Center, operating on dogs, found a way to target radiation to cancer of the bone. The procedure has saved some humans with bone cancer from having limbs amputated. The center also keeps a tissue bank of various types of naturally occurring tumors removed from animals. The tissues may be used in various studies to identify drugs that will attack cancerous cells.

• CU: Professor Tom Johnson uses colonies of worms to study aging. One of his projects looks at how stress affects lifespan. He also studies alcohol abuse in mice. Professor Leslie Leinwand's lab is studying how a python's heart enlarges rapidly as it digests food. If researchers can understand how the python's heart works, they may be able to apply the knowledge to human conditions, such as high blood pressure.

• CU HEALTH SCIENCES CENTER: Mark Laudenslager's study on monkeys explores how poor maternal care affects the tendency to abuse alcohol. It focuses on young monkeys that have a particular gene identified by Laudenslager. The gene makes monkeys more susceptible to alcohol abuse. In the School of Dentistry, researchers use zebrafish to study how the jaw is formed. The findings could help prevent humans from being born with cleft palates.Source: Cu, Csu, Health Sciences Center. or 303-892-5343

Copyright 2006, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.,1299,DRMN_957_4912443,00.html

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