Exposé: the secretive world of animal testing at Bath

Written by Rowan Emslie, former bathimpact Editor-in-Chief (2012-13)

There is a certain, unfortunate breed of mouse that is incredibly prone to addiction. It will forsake water for alcoholic beverages, it won’t contain itself around drugs, it will abandon almost all other activities to run around and get high all day. This type of mouse doesn’t make for a great parent or, one expects, particularly pleasant company for less self-destructive mice. It is, however, coveted by scientists who wish to study the effects of addiction – how the brain and behaviour are altered, or how to improve the ‘cold turkey’ period when addictive substances are withdrawn from dependants. Destructive personality traits are not the preserve of humans alone.

Animal research generates a lot of ire. As recently as February 2013 a nearby facility in the University of Bristol found itself the subject of a protest over the “manifestly cruel physical and psychological” treatment of the animals in the facility. These allegations were strenuously denied. In the past, similar facilities have been targeted by arsonists and bomb makers while researchers have been sent death threats as well as suffered violent, personal attacks against them and their families. People all over the world are passionate about the rights and lives of animals. This passion sometimes spills over into aggression and violence. Understandably, many researchers in the field are reluctant to publicly highlight their work and facilities are often shrouded in secrecy as well as huge security measures.

Mice are amongst the small amount of animals tested on at the University of Bath

Perhaps because of this threat of violence, I was only dimly aware of the animal research that happens at the University of Bath. I had heard vague assertions from friends – ‘you know we do tests on cats and dogs on campus?’ ‘there’s a whole bunch of drugs testing going on, it’s all kept hush-hush’ – which were never followed up with any hard facts. How did they know about these things? Were they involved? What was being tested? This year, my position at bathimpact, with a lot of help from the University and faculty, has granted access to some of these facilities to gather some real information.

My first stop was the facility where I met some of these addictive mice – the catchily named C57BL/6 strain.

What I saw, what I learned

On entering the facility, the researcher who is my guide jokes, ‘Welcome to Fort Knox’. The building itself looks very plain, like any other boxy white building.When I ask about threats, I am told that the vast majority of the safety features are to protect the animals, although some are to protect the researchers from violence. This includes an ‘air shower’ – basically a cupboard like room that acts like an enormous hair dryer – before going near the actual animals. Disease is a huge worry for the researchers. If these animals aren’t as healthy as possible, they are of no use scientifically as they cannot be regarded as typical data sets which can be cross-referenced or tested against.

The facility itself is licensed by the Home Office, as are the Project License holders who are responsible for particular studies and, below these, ‘Personal Licences’ which are required for any contributors to those studies. If, at any time, anybody is found to have contravened the enormous amount of regulations surrounding animal research – mistreatment of animals in any way, going beyond the remit of your particular license – the offender could be black-listed for life, depending on the severity of the misdemeanour. Not only is animal welfare vital for good science, I am told, it is very much in the interest of the careers of the professionals who work there.

Walking around the pristine, white halls and rooms the thing that really jumped out were the pictures stuck all over walls. Pets: cats, budgies, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs and more. Lovingly displayed and pointed out – these are the animals that those who work in the facility keep at home. It is obvious that they are passionate about animals. One person tells me they get phonecalls from time to time from Bathonians asking about their lost pets – ‘are you doing experiments on my cat? She’s been gone three days. You’ll know her, she has one eye and a limp.’ The researcher is quick to note that all the animals on the facility are bred specifically for scientific study; they are also all rodents, mostly mice and rats. There is one room for guinea pigs, used for teaching. The room is kept in darkness as guinea pigs are burrowing, nocturnal animals. I was surprised to find that they played Radio 1 to them , apparently the noise helps them to get used to people walking in and out. The rats get the same treatment. It isn’t URB, but it will do.

The vast majority of the testing at this facility is considered ‘mild’ – the lowest Home Office rating for animal suffering. Some minor surgery is performed, under anaesthesia and pain killers. In other studies the animals are also treated with addictive drugs. Many of the experiments focus on behavioural changes under drug treatment – issues like addiction or depression are examined, including the testing of the controversial group of drugs known as SSRIs, of which Prozac is the most familiar. These are drugs that are prescribed to and used by humans in Britain and most of the world. This is where those addictive mice really come into their own.

Of course, there are deaths. There are several thousand mice and rats in the facility, all of which are fed and watered in enclosures that are cleaned at least once a week by a dedicated staff. Rodents do not have a huge life expectancy and some develop medical issues. These are humanely put down with either a simple neck-breaking procedure or an overdose of CO2 – procedures agreed by the Home Office. The bodies are donated to a nearby zoo’s reptile house.

Often, it is growth patterns that interest the researchers – such studies are often useful for cancer research. They add a gene from a jellyfish which glows bright green under ultra-violet light, to certain parts of the body such as the brain or other organs. This allows researchers to better see what has or has not changed. Looking at some mice, glowing in the dark, they didn’t seem to me to be bothered by this addition to their bodies. Scientists do not think this harms them in any way, but it does raise the spectre of another side of the animal research debate: is it ethical to change the biological make-up of a living animal, however benign the alteration, or is that, as some would argue, playing God?

Fish front page - Uni of Bat
Dr Kelsh with the fish tanks

To follow up on this question I spoke to Dr Robert Kelsh whose work at the University focuses on the Zebra fish. He is a Professor of Stem Cell and Developmental Genetics, his work focuses on the neural crest which develops in embryos and helps to generate various elements of the body – the jaw, the nerves in the skin, parts of the bowel and pigmentation. After speaking to him, he took me to see the fish he studies. More specifically, he showed me the embryos – essentially all their research is done in the first five days of embryonic development – because these embryos are incredibly visible. They are, in fact, see-through. You can quite literally watch organs grow or skin pigment develop.

The work done in the fish facility is less intrusive than the work done with rodents. What they work with they can only see with microscopes. The embryos he showed me were alive and well, not even anaesthetised. But these are embryos, and what the researchers are specifically interested in are stem cells: both of those things are controversial, to an extent, because any testing or tampering with them conjures up images of tampering with young, defenceless, living things. Rightly or wrongly, such work might upset people, not because of the actual harm done to the animals in question (it should be noted that these studies involve non-fatal procedures unlike some stem cell research, procedures similarly benign as taking blood samples in humans) but because of the powerful nature of genetic tampering. Should anybody, regardless of intent or effect, be altering something as basic as the genetic structure of an animal?

“I do not think that the changes we make in the course of our research are any more substantial than those made routinely by, for example, selective breeding. Even the changes we make that involve introducing new genes to test the effects are still very minor in terms of ‘percentage of genes changed’, so that there is no doubt the animal itself is not of a different type. In principle, the field of synthetic biology is capable of creating new organisms, and in this sense the accusation of ‘playing God’ is much more realistic – and indeed a true concern. This is because experience tells us that the frequent outcome of our meddling in eco-systems is disruption of that eco-system, sometimes disastrously But this is a new field, and one where I believe active anticipation of these and other problems is being encouraged, so that guidelines may yet be drawn up to police this in the UK.”

Actual fish - Uni of Bath
There are over 30,000 fish in the labs

Dr Kelsh and his team have the ability to keep up to thirty thousand fish – they are studied partly because of how small,easy to keep and easy to breed they are – but actually keep more like ten to fifteen thousand. “We don’t like to keep more fish than we need,” I am told, because all they really study are embryos. The adult fish are kept for breeding purposes only. As they age, they become less useful for breeding and so are euthanized with an overdose of anaesthetic. Other than this, practically no procedure is done on them after the first five days of their existence.

“Have you been to a pet shop? You’ve seen goldfish in tanks there with bulging eyes and stomachs? They have oedema, we wouldn’t ever keep a fish like that.” This is a usually fatal disease in fish that is considered likely to be harmful. In animal research facilities, such animals are humanely put down to alleviate suffering, not so in pet shops.

Much of the research is exciting, none more so, I think, than the study of certain pigment cells from Zebra fish to inhibit the protein ALK. This protein is linked with the development of several cancers including some lymphomas and lung cancer. They have produced a strain of the fish so that the number of special pigment  cells – iridophores, the ones that make fish scales shiny – produced is a direct read out of the activity of ALK cells. Good cancer drugs are ones that inhibity ALK, in fish, this means adding drugs results in fish with fewer shiny cells. It is a cheap and easy way for testing for drugs that could combat dangerous cancers. It’s the sort of thing people tend not to get upset about.

It is conspicuous that animal rights groups and their associated literature mostly shies away from mentioning medical research done on animals. PETA list the following: “stopping the use of animals in cosmetics laboratories, agricultural research, dog and cat food trials, weapons tests, aerospace studies, and car-crash simulations”. As I prepared to write this article, I was ready to convince the relevant campus authorities to give me access not only to dispel myths but also to expose some of the fascinating medical work being done. What actually happened was I was met by some very proud professionals who were very keen to let the wider public know what they were working on. Despite this, I was told by some other experienced members of student media that as recently as five years ago, this article would have been a no go?

Why now?

I asked some of the researchers what made them want to talk to bathimpact. Dr Sarah Bailey, Department of Pharmacy Pharmacology, had this to say

Some of the research could lead to products on the market

“My personal view on why we should be open? The public fund a lot of medical research, through research councils and medical charities, much of which involves using animals. The vast majority of the public support animal research for medical purposes; this support depends to some extent on how we keep people informed about what we do. If scientists are not open then we may be viewed as having something to hide – and we don’t- the UK has the strictest legislation regulating animal research which places animal welfare at the centre of everything we do. That is important for all researchers. The University has recently signed up to the concordat on openness on animal research along with more than 40 other organizations.”

“We have always been open about our work, through the website and publications. We’re very confident that we work within very stringent guidelines – the UK legislation is more so than those of any other country I have worked in or discussed with colleagues. And our fish are more healthy than, for example, many you can freely buy in pet shops!”

There will always be people who regard any animal research as ethically wrong, just as there are people who regard eating meat as ethically wrong. For me, the whole issue is more complicated than any blanket judgement of right or wrong. The regulations seemed to be incredibly strict, the actual conditions of the animals were, as far as I could see, near impeccable and all the individuals involved had considered, long and hard, what they did and how they did it. To ignore these extra factors seems like wilful ignorance.

Hopefully, this article has shed some light about what actually happens with animal research on campus and dispelled some myths. Fear not for your pets, these researchers are dedicated scientists just like, no doubt, many of you wish to be.

With thanks to the University Corporate Communications team as well as all the researchers involved. If you would like to comment about animal research on campus please email comment-editor@bath.ac.uk

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