Before coming to WashU, I was a PhD student in Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), a premier research institute in India. Being a fifth-year student, I was working with a tight deadline and could not wait to finally begin collecting data. But life as a researcher is not so easy and straightforward. I was stunned when the lab manager told me that three of my 18 mice had died.
This nightmare was preceded by months of planning and discussions with my PI to create the perfect proposal. For animal studies, the first step is the approval of the proposal by the Institutional Animal Ethics Committee. In Indian research, justification has to be provided for each and every animal to be used in the study. Authorities put emphasis on having the minimum yet sufficient number of animals. Studies with excessive animal usage are discouraged. This unplanned death of mice did not look good for me or my project. Animal deaths in a laboratory are not uncommon, but they are usually due to the stress of transportation and/or new living conditions.
To replace these three mice, I would need the Committee’s approval, and they would not meet for another two months. Unfortunately, borrowing mice was also not an option. It is improper to transfer animals between projects without prior permission. I had no choice but to make do with the remaining mice.
I assumed that India was unique in having such strict regulations around mouse research, but that’s not the case. A neuropathologist at the University of Zurich, Adriano Aguzzi, who had been working with animals for the last two decades recently lost his lab’s license to conduct animal experiments. For researchers like Aguzzi, a rejected license amounts to a closed lab. But he isn’t alone in his struggle. It has become increasingly difficult for Swiss scientists to get their animal studies approved; laws have become wider and stricter. For example, proposals are expected to demonstrate societal benefits of the research as a way of justifying animal use. This is tricky because many studies do not have obvious, direct benefits to society. In certain other cases, the animal experimentation commission sent back several questions concerning the stress received by the animal. While it is true that authorities seek to minimize animal cruelty and exploitation, it is nearly impossible to detect the physical and psychological stress experienced by an animal. To add to the ethical dilemma, it is impossible to quantify this pain without first subjecting animals to stressful conditions.
Scientists agree that the new regulations have resulted in better planning and optimized animal research protocols. However, they have also added many unnecessary complications, leading to many labs waiting years before hearing back from the commission.
In the US, use of animals for research is an entirely different game. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the primary federal law governing animal experimentation, does not include mice and rats under the definition of animals. The argument given is that such an inclusion would be costly, leading to depleted funds and compromised protection of other animal species. As a result, the true number of animals used for research is unknown. Surprisingly, a government study released in 2015 reported a 25% decrease in the use of AWA-covered animals from 1997 to 2012. This study received much criticism and was accused of misleading people as it did not include 95% of the animals used for research (viz. mice and rats).
The uncertainty surrounding animal work has led to unwanted scenarios in the last decade. Instances of animal activists attacking researchers have increased alarmingly. In 2009, a neuroscientist from UCLA working on rats and monkeys had his car set on fire by extremists. Other researchers have reported that activists turned up at their homes and threatened them and their families.
Meanwhile, some researchers attempt to contribute in their own way to minimize animal cruelty. For example, Amber Alliger has adopted her lab rats as pets. Additionally, at Russia’s Institute of Cytology and Genetics, scientists honor the humble lab mouse in the form of a statue of a bespectacled mouse weaving a DNA strand.
What we need today is to find a middle ground, a balancing line that does not punish those trying to make this world a better place. Increased focus on the three Rs of animal research – replacement, reduction and refinement – seems to be the front-runner in this debate. The three Rs accept the significance of animal research, but at the same time foresee a future when advances in science will make animal use necessary. This solution will pave the way for both parties to work together in harmony and peace.