Here's why Congress should support the lab animal oversight community

Here's why Congress should support the lab animal oversight community
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Policymakers in Washington and the public at large are likely to be unfamiliar with the federal regulatory structures that guide the ethical care and use of animals in research. The recently passed 21st Century Cures Act calls for a much-needed assessment of the nation’s animal research regulations, and the National Institutes of Health just issued their first public “Request for Information” on the topic.

We believe it is imperative for policymakers to use this opportunity to strengthen and streamline the oversight of animals in research and enhance the quality of the science that relies on animal subjects.

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But at this moment in time marked by enthusiasm for de-regulation, we also must ensure that the principles at the foundation of ethical animal research are not eroded. We must also guarantee continued funding for national and institution-based oversight structures that promote the humane treatment of laboratory animals.   

 

Animal models of human disease are vitally important for progress in science and medicine. Ethical animal research in the United States is grounded in thoughtful attention to the conditions under which animal research is conducted.

Over the past four decades, regulations and guidance from the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Research Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare have undergone substantial refinement aimed at improving compliance with standards for animal well-being, care and housing.

Continuous improvements in welfare are driven by shared public and professional expectations to minimize animal discomfort and distress, to incorporate improvements in animal handling practices and procedures, to advance veterinary pain relief options, to institute species-specific environmental enrichments and behavioral assessments and to provide specialized training and certification for individuals working in animal care.

Animals and their housing areas are checked daily, year-round, by a team of husbandry, veterinary and research personnel, to safeguard against harm and monitor research procedures in the interest of upholding compliance and welfare standards.

Before a study can begin, scientists and institutional oversight bodies weigh the anticipated benefits of the research against the potential costs that may be borne by the animals. Each proposed study must be reviewed and approved by an institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) prior to project initiation. In addition, analysis is conducted by the research team to provide statistical justification for the proposed number of animal subjects to be used.

Arguably, this prerequisite for institutional approval, with high-level assessment by subject matter experts (e.g., statisticians, trainers, veterinarians, scientists and study monitors) and input from committee members that represent public interests (known as IACUC community members), serves to maximize humane and effective research conduct.  

Since 1959, there has been an emphasis on applying the 3Rs — reduction of numbers of animals used, refinement in study design and replacement with alternatives to animals for research.

These principles are an ethical guidepost for all proposed work with animals. Critics of animal research argue that, as ethical principles, the 3Rs are no longer robust enough to offset the noted shortcomings of animal research: lack of scientific reproducibility, unnecessary duplication of experiments and concerns that human diseases are poorly mimicked by animal models.

We acknowledge these challenges, but believe they instead reveal opportunities to enhance the quality of science involving animals and therefore promote animal welfare by, for example, the establishment of higher standards for study design, the focused selection of animal models and the sharing of research results, including accurate reporting and publishing of procedures and practices.

The public acknowledges that research with animals is critical to the improvement of human health. Discoveries that drive the development of new therapies and our understanding of biological systems in health and disease rely on animal models and interventions of ever increasing sophistication.

For federal and institutional animal oversight to keep apace of such developments and adhere to rigorous ethical standards, public, administrative and federal support must remain in place and regulations must be re-worked to eliminate those that are inconsistent, redundant, or do not meaningfully contribute to animal welfare.

With expert driven and intelligent reform efforts, time and resources can be dedicated to meaningful animal protections. This will ultimately enhance laboratory animal welfare and scientific discovery, human and animal health, food safety and the nation’s future.  

F. Claire Hankenson, DVM, MS is the director within Campus Animal Resources and the attending veterinarian at Michigan State University, Elisa A. Hurley, PhD is the executive director of public responsibility in medicine and research at Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research. David H. Strauss, MD is the director of research operations and compliance at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.