COLUMBIA — From Abyssinian cats to zebrafish, animals have helped MU amass over a century of scientific research and discovery.

Animals have been used in research for centuries to study diseases and develop treatments for both animals and humans. Seventy-five of the 98 Nobel Prizes awarded for physiology or medicine were for research that depended, in part, on animals.

Despite its benefits, nearly half of Americans still said they opposed animal research in a Pew Research Center poll in 2014.

As of mid-November, there were 448 ongoing animal research projects at MU. Each of these projects involve dozens of cats or dogs, and hundreds of mice, rats or other small animals, said Jeff Henegar, director of MU's Animal Care Quality Assurance Office.

A pilot study by the College of Veterinary Medicine published earlier this year raised questions for one animal rights group about the way four MU researchers treated seven young beagles during an experiment. The researchers injured the dogs' left eyes to see how effective a controversial acid treatment was in healing damaged corneas. After discovering the treatment was ineffective, the researchers humanely euthanized all seven beagles, according to previous Missourian reporting.

That disclosure prompted a response on social media in Columbia and beyond about the practice of euthanizing some lab animals. The beagle story seemed to elicit surprise, too, about the kind of animal research that takes place at MU.

"Animal models are the basis of how we move fundamental research into something that's much more therapeutic or applied in the real world," said Mark McIntosh, interim vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and economic development at MU.

"Researchers set out to answer very specific questions," said Tom Holder, director of the U.K.-based nonprofit Speaking of Research, an animal research advocacy network. "Many of these will require measuring varying chemical levels within different organs of the animal they're studying. This would require tissue samples to be taken after the animal has been humanely euthanized."

The four researchers who conducted the study, which was criticized by the Beagle Freedom Project, declined to be interviewed for this article.

A controversial tool

Euthanasia is permitted after animal testing only to relieve suffering, prevent disease or for tissue storage. Although the beagles' eyes had fully healed at the conclusion of MU's study, the researchers still euthanized them because their corneas could be used for future research.

Henegar, McIntosh and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Michele Kennett could not comment on the study involving the beagles due to a pending lawsuit against the university by the Beagle Freedom Project. The petition alleges MU violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by denying fee waivers and demanding more than $82,000 to hand over records on animals used by the MU School of Medicine.

The nonprofit group submitted at least 27 requests for public records for 179 different animal test subjects, and claims MU could face up to $900,000 in fines, plus attorney fees and costs. But the Beagle Freedom Project will settle with MU for just $1 if the university agrees to working with the group, according to a statement on its website.

This would entail MU working to develop an adoption program for its laboratory animals. The group is also offering to pay to install a live-stream webcam in the lab animals' living area.

Henegar said that when studies are concluded, MU finds adoptive families for animals that meet certain criteria — like health and temperament — and whose tissue isn't needed for further study.

In the last 10 years, 394 dogs, 293 cats and dozens of gerbils, mice, rats and other small animals have been adopted from MU labs and research centers, MU spokesman Christian Basi said. He did not have data for the number of animals in studies on campus or the number of animals that are euthanized.

Animal research guidelines

Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 — the first and only federal law on the books enforcing proper care and use of animals used in experiments, teaching and research.

The law does not apply to animals used in agricultural research, or mice, rats, fish, reptiles and amphibians. But all cats, dogs, chimpanzees, monkeys, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits and other warm-blooded animals used for research are housed, fed and cared for under the conditions laid out in the Act.

Researchers hoping to receive a federal grant for an animal study must comply with the Act's guidelines and the National Institutes of Health's federal Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. Under both sets of federal guidelines, all research institutions are required to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

The animal care committee reviews all research proposals for species selection and number of animal subjects, the demand for the suggested research, the animals' treatment, as well as the conditions in which the study would be performed. The study must be approved by the committee to receive federal funding.

The Act requires that all animal care committees have a chairperson, a veterinarian and a community member who is unaffiliated with the research institution. The National Institute of Health policy requires animal care committees to include a scientist, a community member, a veterinarian and a non-scientist.

These members are all appointed by an institutional official. At MU, Kennett assumes this role.

"Community members are a really valuable part of the committee in terms of making sure that we all stay grounded," she said.

Fourteen people sit on MU's committee, Henegar said, including two non-scientists, two community members, a veterinarian and scientists with expertise in varying fields.

In Henegar's three and a half years as director, he said the committee has never rejected a study. However, approving a study can take a while, he added, because they are rarely accepted the way they are first written.

A harmful stigma

Holder said most people support animal research for medical or scientific purposes, provided it's strictly regulated. Nevertheless, opponents have taken extreme measures — even committing acts of violence against researchers — to protest animal studies.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, American and British animal rights groups broke into and bombed labs, and harassed and assaulted researchers, according to the National Association for Biomedical Research.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation found two groups, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, responsible for more than $110 million in property damage and for the "vast majority" of terrorist acts committed in the U.S.

"When I first started in animal research, I was terrified to tell people what I did," said Jazzminn Hembree, an Ohio member of Speaking of Research. "I would just say, 'I work with animals,' or something like that."

Hembree has worked in labs for almost 13 years on various projects but is now a registered laboratory animal technologist for a university in Ohio, where she oversees the animals used in studies.

She said she's been with Speaking of Research for just over a year and has become acquainted with researchers who have dealt firsthand with backlash or animal rights extremism.

"I think it's really common for researchers to have this fear," she said. "I have a family, and the last thing I want is for someone to come target me or my family."

A push for transparency

On Nov. 15, a national report released by the White Coat Waste Project on dogs used in federal laboratories revealed that in 2015, more than 1,100 dogs were used in experiments by five federal agencies. The report excludes the additional 60,000 dogs used in experiments at universities and other laboratories, which are also paid for by taxpayers.

The White Coat Waste Project opposes animal testing funded by taxpayer dollars and demands more transparency from government agencies about their animal research. Its report details some of the experiments conducted on dogs in federal laboratories, such as inducing them to have heart attacks or drilling into their skulls.

"In many cases, it appears agencies intentionally omit or obscure information to prevent scrutiny," according to the report.

Holder, who also works for another U.K.-based group called Understanding Animal Research, said scientists should start speaking more openly about animal studies because it will reduce the animosity people have about animal research. He said he's seen that change very clearly in the U.K.

In May 2014, the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research was launched in the U.K. So far, 109 British research institutions have signed the agreement, stating they are committed to improving transparency about their animal use.

Holder said this put the U.K. "ahead of the curve" in openly discussing animal research. 

"But we're seeing U.S. universities providing more and better-quality information, and I think that needs to be applauded," Holder said. "Animals play a small, but important part in medical and veterinary research. Without their careful use, we wouldn't have many of the medicines that we take for granted."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

  • I'm a public health and safety reporter for the Columbia Missourian. You can reach me at elizabethloutfi@mizzou.edu or give me a follow @ElizabethLoutfi.

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