Why animals play a crucial role in research
From the development of insulin to the latest life-prolonging cancer drugs and virtually every major medical advance in between, animals have played vital roles in scientific research that have led to cures and treatments for a wide array of human diseases. They have helped scientists improve the nutritional value of our food supply and – thanks to agricultural and veterinary research – have helped bring about a better quality of life for many animals and a safer environment as well.
Millions of lives have been saved, improved and extended thanks to the results of humane scientific research that has relied upon animals at various stages. Without the use of animals, men, women and children around the world would simply not enjoy the quality and length of life they do today.
The “Three Rs”
Animals are used in research when there is simply no alternative that will produce the necessary results.
But before scientists at McGill are allowed to employ animals in research, they must follow what are called the “Three Rs” as established by the federal government’s Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).
• they must replace animals with alternative research methods wherever possible
• they must reduce the use of animals to the least number possible
• they must refine their procedures to minimize adverse conditions for animals
It isn’t easy to get a research proposal involving animals approved at McGill. Before animals are involved in research, two levels of review must occur: First, a peer research panel must determine that the proposed research project does indeed have scientific merit and that it can lead to advances in understanding and knowledge. Second, the University’s Animal Care Committee must approve the project. Even after independent research experts and the Animal Care Committee approve, the researchers must then follow strict guidelines imposed by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. At McGill, we meet or exceed federal guidelines and our facilities are inspected regularly.
Here’s how the process works:
MULTI-STEP PROCESS ENSURES THAT RESEARCH WITH ANIMALS IS VERY CAREFULLY MONITORED AT McGILL UNIVERSITY
The federal government’s Canadian Council on Animal Care oversees every aspect of research involving animals. It inspects all animal facilities, reviews the work of university committees, reviews research projects and reviews institutional policies every three years.
Researchers and everyone involved in research with animals – including veterinarians and animal-care technicians – are sincerely concerned about the welfare of animals that are part of the research process. But researchers are also concerned about the sick and disabled among us who are desperate for ways to deal with pain or the prognosis of fatal illness or who seek better ways to ease their suffering from a chronic medical condition.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of lives can be improved by a successful research project that leads to better care and treatment – for the grandfather taken by Alzheimer’s disease, the mother stricken with breast cancer, the child learning to live with diabetes, the whole segment of a community trying to cope with excessive levels of cholesterol or heart disease. Those are the people the researchers are trying to help.
Myths and realities
A number of myths or misconceptions have arisen in the discussion about the involvement of animals in scientific research. It is important to know the facts.
Myth: Animals are not needed in research.
Fact: Whereas every effort is made to minimize the use of animals, at certain stages of research projects, a living organism must be tested before a drug or treatment is approved for human trials. Most people would consider allowing human trials of new drugs or procedures without prior testing on animals to be dangerous and unacceptable.
Myth: Studying animals does not provide insight into human health
Fact: Genetic and physiological similarities between humans and animals provide researchers with irreplaceable and invaluable insights into how human systems might react to a drug or treatment.
Myth: Dogs, cats and monkeys are the most widely used animals in research.
Fact: Fish and rodents, usually mice or rats, account for more than 83% per cent of the animals used in research and are bred specifically for research purposes. Stolen pets or SPCA animals (other myths) are not used in research. Dogs and cats are purchased from reputable suppliers.
Myth: Research animals live in near-constant pain and suffering
Fact: The vast majority of biomedical research does not result in significant discomfort or distress for research animals. The 2008 report of the Canadian Council on Animal Care shows that the overwhelming majority of procedures involving animals are described as experiments that cause little or no discomfort or stress or experiments that cause minor stress or pain of short duration such as an injection or minor surgery similar to pets undergoing spay or neutering.
How animals have helped
At McGill, recent research involving animals has led to the following advancements:
- the discovery of previously unknown interactions between genes that control whether cells become cancerous
- the development of new, experimental treatments for diseases that affect the nervous system
- a better understanding of the mechanisms of blood flow that has helped in the development of drugs to ease vascular head pain
Other familiar breakthroughs involving animal research have included:
- the discovery of insulin, penicillin, streptomycin and yellow fever vaccine
- the treatment for cancer, aids, hypertension, cardiac stents, high cholesterol, depression
- the development of such important medical devices as the electrocardiogram, computer assisted tomography (CAT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- improved understanding of how cells work, how genetic differences play a role in the development of life and disease, immunity and the regulation of cholesterol
There are, in fact, too many medical research breakthroughs to list them all here. But it is accurate to say that cancer patients are living longer, HIV sufferers are living longer, diabetics are living longer thanks to research that has involved animals. Those diseases used to be automatic – and almost always rapid – death sentences. Now, they needn’t be.
Animals in laboratories around the world have played an invaluable role in helping us understand disease and what we need to do to treat it or cure it.
Where to find out more
There is a wealth of information about humane animal research available on the Internet. Here is a sample of sites you might want to visit to learn more:
You can also send an animalcare [at] mcgill.ca (email )if you have more questions or comments.
Copy of this information into a pamphlet:
In English: animal_research_pamphlet_-_english.pdf
In French: animaux_en_recherche_brochure_-_francais.pdf
For researchers, instructors and administrators:
This University Animal Care Committee (UACC) Web site supports our Animal Care Program for all Faculties at McGill University as well as its Affiliated Hospital Research Institutes: the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC RI), Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) and the Shriners Hospital for Children.
The program holds a certificate of ‘Good Animal Practice’ from the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC list of certified institutions). We are also certified by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Health Service (PHS) under the 'Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals' with an Assurance number F16-00005 (A5006-01).
Anyone who needs to work with live animals in research and teaching must obtain approval prior to acquiring and handling animals. The process may take up to two months for complex projects.
Quick link to Darwin software, the on-line protocol management software.
The following steps are to be followed by researchers and instructors wishing to work with animals:
- If you do not already have access to the on-line software Darwin, please make a request by completing the Darwin Access Request Web form;
- Once access is obtained, complete and submit an Animal Use Protocol application in Darwin. If needed, revise as per committee recommendations and re-submit via Darwin;
- Be aware that there are training requirements for all those handling animals and the Principal Investigators;
- Once an Animal Use Protocol is approved, you can start working with animals.
Assistance available for researchers and instructors:
- For obtaining access to Darwin, instructions on how to complete an Animal Use Protocol application and reporting software issues, you can send an email to darwin.vprir [at] mcgill.ca (Darwin Support);
- Your local Veterinarian and Animal Health Technicians for questions about procedures or experimental design related questions;
- Coordinators of Animal Care Committees for submission deadlines or matters related to the Animal Use Protocol review process;
- Animal Facility staff for animal ordering and husbandry related matters.
Important to know that:
- Everyone working with live animals must take and pass the theory course and at least register for practical training before the project can be approved;
- Participation into the Occupational Health Program for Animal Related Activities is highly recommended but is mandatory for those working with non-human primates;
- Only a McGill or Affiliated Research Institute faculty member, Veterinarian or an Animal Facility Manager can be a Principal Investigator on an Animal Use Protocol.
- For research projects which are not supported by a peer reviewed source of funding, internal peer review for scientific merit is required. Contact your Associate Dean's/Director's Office to make the request. If the funds are from a commercial source and was peer reviewed, a letter from the company stating this must be attached to the protocol;
- Animals requiring approval are:
- all living vertebrates and fish, including higher cephalopods (octopuses and squids);
- animals held, even for a short period;
- wild animals that will be handled, tagged, fitted with transmitters, given food/nests, restrained, measured, etc (no approval needed if only observing them from afar);
- for tissue collection (unless the animal comes from an abattoir or other source where the animals were not obtained for your project specifically).
Please read this letter issued in 2007 by Prof. Denis Thérien, who was Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations); Prof. Anthony Masi, Provost; and Dr. Richard Levin, who was Vice-Principal (Health Affairs):
Letter from the Administration to the community about the Animal Care Program.pdf
Investigators are responsible for complying with CFIA regulations concerning foods, biologicals and drugs for livestock animals destined for the food supply. They must consult with CFIA’s Schedule IV or V, list of approved veterinary biologics, Compendium of Medicating Ingredient Brochures, and/or for obtaining a Research Exemption or Safety Assessment from CFIA at www.inspection.gc.ca. Investigators are advised to consult with the Chair of the FACC or the University Veterinarian in planning these initiatives.
Note that there is a recent CFIA importation law concerning aquatic animals.
For general information about animal research, please read our pamphlet:
The University Animal Care Committee (UACC) site is supported by the McGill Animal Compliance Office (ACO) in the Office of Vice-Principal (Research and Innovations).
Questions can be sent by animalcare [at] mcgill.ca (email).