The Animal Justice Project’s launch of the Lifeline campaign on campus grounds was both potent and compelling. However, we were certain the activists’ portrayal was only one side of a multifaceted subject.
Our quest to get a rounded perspective of the issue led us to Dr. Sarah Bailey’s body of work. Dr. Bailey is a senior lecturer in the University’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology as well as the Chair of the Animal Research Forum. Her work primarily focuses on understanding how the brain responds to stress and using that knowledge to develop new and better antidepressants. Akin to a large expanse of medical research, her research uses mice to study brain activity and behavioural changes. Given that over four million UK adults experience depression at any one time, Dr. Bailey underlines the need to understand brain mechanisms that cause depression more thoroughly. Undoubtedly, animal research plays a key role in this endeavour. In a candid article she wrote for The Guardian, Dr. Bailey admits she grew up in a scientific environment that encouraged people to avoid speaking about the use of animals in research. This was to protect them from the violent personal attacks conducted by animal rights activists on scientists involved in such projects.
On the contrary, surveys undertaken recently have shown that a vast majority of UK public support the use of animals in research where there is no alternative. But, according to the aforementioned Guardian article, only 30-40% trust scientists not to cause unnecessary harm. Research involving animals is fundamentally important in the quest to understand disease mechanisms. Our University carries out various research projects that include the use of vertebrates, particularly for the development of new therapies for chronic and distressing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and neurodegenerative disease. The gap between public understanding of this kind of research and scientists’ efforts to communicate them demanded more transparent dialogue.
The result was the launch of the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK’ in 2014, of which Bath University is a signatory. This means that the University has committed to be clear about how and why animals are used in research and to make this information publicly available. The open approach has since quelled many myths about the use of animals in experiments. In 2017, a TV camera crew even managed to access animal facilities maintained for research purposes at the University, a feat that was unimaginable not too long ago.
A range of animal based research is carried out in our University’s Pharmacy, Pharmacology and Biology labs. None of this work involves the use of dogs, cats, horses or non-human primates. All experiments are scrutinised by a veterinary surgeon and procedures are carefully designed to minimise animal suffering. Surgical procedures are always performed under sedation, animals are closely monitored at all times and given appropriate pain relief. The University has a purpose-built animal facility and a dedicated team of health and welfare officers who provide day-to-day care along with an on-call veterinary surgeon.
Projects that are currently in progress at the animal facility include
- A study on how genes and environment in early life impact adult health. Mouse blood pressure measurements aid scientists ’ understanding of how characteristic determinants during early life translate into later life health.
- Another study uses zebrafish genetic models to better understand a human disease gene associated with skin and pigment diseases.
- There are also considerable efforts being made to develop a minimally invasive method of blood sampling in mice, which allows multiple samples to be taken from the same animal in a manner that causes as little stress as possible.
However, one of the most ambitious projects currently being undertaken is to understand early embryonic development using a model based on mouse genetics. The purpose of this study is to answer the key question that has plagued biologists for centuries: ‘How do cells make decisions in order to generate tissues and organs in a coordinated manner?’. It is vital to address such questions in the field of Developmental Biology because any problems in this cell decision making will stop growth of an embryo, resulting in a miscarriage even before the woman acknowledges the pregnancy. 76% of miscarriages happen during this stage of embryo development.
Every animal starts as a single cell which divides to form different groups of cells. Each of these groups will form all the tissues present in the adult but also those required to support embryonic growth. In the first decision, some cells separate from the rest to form the placenta. In the second decision, cells decide to become part of the embryo or the yolk sac. Laboratory scientists at the University are currently studying the second decision which happens only a few days after fertilisation in mice. The mouse is an ideal model to understand this process as there are clear similarities with humans and important discoveries were initially made in this model system, before undertaking similar studies in humans. In order to reduce the number of animals used for experimentation, researchers are also using mouse embryonic stem cells which have been modified to allow the study of this decision. This approach although new, is allowing rapid progress in the field.
In the UK, research involving non-human vertebrates is regulated by the Home Office and all work is carried out by license. Projects are reviewed initially by the local Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (AWERB) which includes scientists, veterinarians, animal welfare officers and lay members, and finally by the Home Office Inspectorate. This ensures that, for any proposed project, the benefits from research unambiguously outweighs any possible discomfort to the animals.
As the University already has an ethical review procedure for licensed animal use, it was considered good practice to build on the existing knowledge and expertise to extend this to non-licensed animal and tissue use. A new policy introduced at the turn of the decade set procedures relating to the use of animals in research and teaching that was not covered by Home Office legislation. The University has also never been involved in cosmetic testing on animals, which has been banned in the UK since 1997.
The protest that took place on campus on the 15th of September explicitly targeted a recent study published by the University of Bath that reveals a new potential mechanism for combating drug addiction relapse. Researchers used an animal model to study relapse on morphine seeking behaviour and after conducting certain experiments found that rats or mice learned to associate particular environmental cues with morphine. Even after removal of the drugs, relapse back to drug-seeking behaviour occurred in response to getting the cues again.
When approached for comment by Bath Time on claims put forth by campaigners, Chris Melvin, the Media Manager for the Faculty of Science, responded: “The University of Bath conducts biomedical research aimed at understanding disease and developing new drugs. We work with a range of small animals such as mice, rats, and fish. Our researchers have made significant advances in motor neuron disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, cancer and the therapeutic potential of stem cells because of animal studies. Research at the University is investigating how the use of animals can be reduced, or even replaced, by using tissue culture and computer modelling, but some properties are shown only by whole animals.”
In addition he refuted points made by the Animal Justice Project campaign group on grounds of being inaccurate. While the press release by the group claimed the study on drug addiction relapse involved drilling rats’ skulls and implanting cannulas that allowed administration of drugs in the brain by researches, as well as almost two months of successive drug injections, Chris clarified that animals only received an injection once daily on 10 seperate days rather than being ‘repeatedly administered’. He also stated that in contrast to statements made by the group, in no experiment conducted by the University have animals experienced skin burning. This is due to the time limitation on ‘Warm Water Tail Withdrawal’ tests that has been put in place in order to protect them. Animals used for research at the University are purpose built and majority of experiments conducted on them are ‘mild’ (e.g. Blood sample) or ‘moderate’ as classified by the Home Office.
No-one wants to use animals for research purposes and the faculty is actively finding ways to replace them. Scientists at Bath are investigating how the use of animals can be reduced, or even replaced by human brain slice cultures for epilepsy research. They also use tissue culture and computer modelling but some properties are only shown by whole animals. For example, although vascular cells can be studied in tissue culture, the regulation of blood culture can only be studied in whole animals. In these instances the research faculty is committed to ensure that animal numbers are kept to the minimum possible to provide credible data and that all procedures are as refined as possible to reduce any possible suffering.