Is animal care due for an update?

Canadians will fiercely defend nearly any Canadian-made thing, and we have an uncanny ability to keep track. Insulin? Discovered by a Canadian. The telephone? Also Canadian. Sir Sandford Fleming and his time zones? Canadian too. Tom Cruise? Spent his childhood here.

At the philosophy symposium here in September on ethics and animals, I learned of yet another point of pride: our national body governing the care of animals in research was one of the first in the world. Although the first official law to prevent cruelty to animals was passed in Britain in 1876, and the US had its Animal Welfare Act a few years before Canada’s┬áCouncil on Animal Care (CCAC) was official, the CCAC had its beginning in the early 1960s – and it was revolutionary at the time.

But is it due for an update?

This was the gist at a workshop I attended on animal research at an ethics symposium here at Queen’s. It was led by Laura Janara, a political scientist at UBC who recently started a seminar group there to open up the discussion of how nonhuman animals are used by the university. The question is, how can we make these decisions about animals democratically? (Videos of the UBC talk are available on Youtube, at the bottom of the page here.)

At the workshop, there were some big misconceptions about science – perhaps not surprising since nearly all of the other attendees were humanities scholars. One claimed that confinement is not part of the CCAC’s categories of invasiveness (it is). University animal care was also described as a rubber stamp process where every research project gets automatically approved (it’s not). One of the first things I learned from my supervisor here is how difficult it is to get approval.

Admittedly, the CCAC guidelines about confinement aren’t particularly clear – I only knew about them because I’ve written protocols for purely observational studies where animals are never captured (which counts as category A in the CCAC scheme, although this is not stated on their website).

But the rubber stamp issue is critical, especially since Janara’s main point was that the CCAC’s policies do more to protect the researchers than they do the actual animals involved.

I asked Paul Martin about it – he’s a biologist who served on our university animal care committee for 3 years. He says that while it’s true that most protocols do get approved eventually, the overall approval rate doesn’t capture what goes on. This is because the real value of the committee is in the review process, and the fact that researchers nearly always make substantial changes to their proposals as a result of committee feedback before obtaining approval.

One of the biggest misconceptions I encountered at the workshop was the idea that most research on animals is a massive waste – after all, we still haven’t cured cancer, so what are all those lab mice dying for? This is a natural consequence of the idea that some level of suffering is justifiable in order to save many human lives.

But there’s a problem with this view: it ignores the fact that basic research is valuable in ways that simply can’t be calculated. Take this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine. It went to two independent researchers: John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. Gurdon was tinkering with frog cells in the late 1950s, when he discovered that he could inject a nucleus from an adult frog’s intestinal cell into an egg cell, and grow a new adult frog. Forty years later, Yamanaka, a surgeon, figured out which genes are critical for allowing this cellular reprogramming to happen. These genes can turn a specialized adult cell into a stem cell, capable of developing into any tissue. Yamanaka – and others – are now working on using stem cells to repair tissue and reverse diseases like Alzheimer’s.

But could we have anticipated the value of Gurdon’s work at the time? Gurdon actually delayed publishing his results for several years, until he was sure that his frogs became healthy adults. Why? Because he knew how difficult it would be to get his paper accepted, given that it flew in the face of scientific dogma at the time.

The point is that we can’t use utilitarian calculations of suffering to judge the merits of a given project, since basic research is valuable in ways that simply can’t be predicted. If Shinya Yamanaka finds a cure for Alzheimer’s, it will be built on the shoulders of dozens of techniques in cell biology in addition to Gurdon’s discovery.

In the end, Laura Janara suggested that the CCAC guidelines – so revolutionary when they were first introduced – may be sorely outdated now, and I’d have to agree. Most of the biologists here seem to view animal care approval as a chore that has to be ticked off before getting down to the real business of doing science.

Interestingly, Christine Overall, a philosopher of ethics here at Queen’s, said that she has been asked more than once to contribute to the university animal care committee, but that she always refuses – even though she knows this isn’t helping. She would just find it too painful to be reminded of all of the suffering that university research entails.

Ideally, I think the CCAC guidelines should lay out clear standards for scientific as well as ethical merit. I think the review process also needs updating to be better integrated with graduate training and the mechanics of how research is done in different fields. After all, anything we can do to improve science is in everyone’s best interests, in Canada and elsewhere.