In the 1990s, Yale School of Public Health professor Leonard Munstermann stumbled through the forests of Central and South America, capturing mosquitoes to use in his experiments. Now, he only deals with dead mosquitoes at the University — partly because of his changing interests, but also because of the thicket of regulations on the use of live specimens.
Though mosquitoes are among the least protected of research animals, Munstermann said he simply did not want to deal with the paperwork anymore.
Since Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966, increasingly stringent restrictions on animal experimentation have forced researchers to overcome a growing number of barriers to use live animals, six Yale researchers said. Although the legislation protects animals and helps researchers use fewer animals in experiments, many researchers said they believe the paperwork is a burden that can stall scientific progress.
BURIED UNDER PAPERS
Though the federal regulations — enforced by Yale’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), a federally-mandated committee that oversees animal research at the University — are sometimes time-consuming for researchers, scientists who flout the laws have their research discredited, said University spokesman Robin Hogen ’70.
“[Regulations] protect the welfare of animals and the integrity of the research,” Hogen said.
Within the past six months, Yale has been evaluated by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), a non-profit organization that monitors animal research, Hogen said, and the University received high marks.
While researchers necessarily adjust to the ever-growing amount of paperwork — the Animal Welfare Act has been amended six times since it was first passed — it is an unnecessary, time-consuming portion of research, they said. Anesthesiology professor Chao Ma said Yale researchers may spend up to three weeks explaining the need for their experiment to the IACUC, cutting into the time they could have spent on research.
In order to use animals in research or teaching, researchers must fill three or four forms — some of which are 20 pages long — downloadable from the IACUC Web site. There are also over 50 guidelines. For example, a scientist cannot snip more than five millimeters of tail from a mouse, which must be 10 to 21 days old. At the School of Medicine, dogs older than 12 weeks must receive at least 10 minutes of exercise daily throughout the week and five minutes of exercise daily on weekends and holidays.
To study alewives — a fish found on the Atlantic coast whose numbers have dwindled drastically in recent years — ecology and evolutionary biology professor David Post had to spend a “good chunk” of a week filling out paperwork. Because Post primarily observes the alewives, he said his paperwork was processed by the IACUC relatively quickly. But for researchers that work on animals bred for research such as mice, the process is even more tedious, Post said. Although Post has worked well with the IACUC and understands the importance of the committee, he said he would prefer not to have to deal with them.
A neurobiology and psychology professor at the Yale School of Medicine, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect his research, said while the IACUC requires researchers to submit their protocol for dealing with animals in experiments only once every three years, IACUC officials — many of whom are not researchers — force professors to arbitrarily revise the same protocols they approved three years earlier to “justify [the officials’] existence.” The administrative burden of renewing protocols has prevented him from pursuing new, more innovative experiments, he added.
“IACUC exists because animal rights activists always complain about animal research,” he said.
School of Medicine professor Michael Crair, who works with rats on a variety of experiments, agreed that the regulations have the potential to discourage scientists from working with animals. He added that he was often frustrated by the “lengthy, cumbersome and seemingly pointless” paperwork for the IACUC’s approval process. The IACUC declined to comment.
Alan Goldberg, the chairman of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing and a former IACUC committee member at other institutions, said the amount of time that Post and other professors spent on their paperwork was exceptional. Most investigators can fill most of the forms in less than an hour, he said — a claim that several Yale professors said they disagreed with.
“[At Yale], normally protocol and forms take a couple of weeks,” said Ma, the anesthesiology professor.
Regardless of how long the paperwork actually takes to file, researchers should be ashamed of complaining about having to fill out forms to “torture animals,” said Justin Goodman, a research associate supervisor for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“I wish there were an insurmountable amount of paperwork that would prohibit animal experiments in general,” Goodman said.
IS ANIMAL TESTING NECESSARY?
Because of the controversy surrounding animal testing, some researchers have discontinued their previous work on primates, cats and dogs, said anesthesiology and neurobiology professor Robert LaMotte.
“People feel that the research is wrong, but [they] benefit from the research,” LaMotte said.
Many major breakthroughs in medical research have resulted from animal experimentation. In 1921, the invention of insulin was made possible by experiments on dogs, and in 1941, the antibiotic effects of penicillin was discovered by research on mice. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration requires drugs to be tested in animals before being tested in humans.
Although researchers would be open to alternatives to animal testing, Crair said he cannot rely on computer simulations to study living beings.
“Studying how the brain works without using ‘live specimens’ would be like trying to understand photosynthesis without using live plants,” he said. “You may be able to make some guesses, but you’re surely going to miss essential aspects of the underlying science.”
On the plus side, because researchers need to justify the use of every animal, the regulations also reduce the costs of experiments. The regulations also encourage researchers to train undergraduates to better care for research animals, he added.
While the federal regulatory system for animal research has worked well for the past four decades, improvements can still be made, said Goldberg, the former IACUC committee member. One of the major flaws of the Animal Welfare Act — which was last amended in 2007 — is that rats, mice and birds are not considered animals under the law, he said. Although the Public Health Service Act, first passed in 1944, covers all research animals, it only applies if public funds are used. Goldberg said he would like to see the Animal Welfare Act cover all species used in research.
Kathleen Conlee, a director of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal advocacy organization, said her organization is lobbying for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to streamline the IACUC’s review process by creating a system that would allow the committees to focus on experiments that cause the most suffering to animals, decreasing the time needed to review monitoring studies similar to Post’s alewives.
But PETA representative Goodman said IACUC has consistently failed at protecting the welfare of animals, and any regulation will continue to provide researchers with a legal “cloak of legitimacy” that protects their studies, he added.
“Ultimately, no amount of oversight or rubber-stamping changes the fact that animal testing treats [living creatures] like disposable lab equipment,” he said.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are 18 animal research facilities in Connecticut.