Picture a rat and most people see a rodent. Biomedical researchers see a cure for cancer.
Medical breakthroughs like this are not possible without the millions of animals used in research each year in this country, said Dr. Sheilah A. Robertson, who presented a lecture dealing with the challenges of pain management in laboratory animals.
"We owe these animals a lot for what they do for the benefit of humans," said Dr. Robertson, an associate professor in the large animal clinical sciences department at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists.
"My philosophy is that it is a privilege and not a right to use animals in research," she said. "We have ethical obligations to provide adequate pain management to these animals, and I think that should be done regardless of the cost and effort involved to provide that care."
The Department of Agriculture, which regulates the use of certain laboratory animals, reports that 1.4 million animals were used for research in 2000. Most animals used in research—rats, mice, and birds—are unregulated, however. Exact figures are hard to pin down, but Dr. Robertson said data from the U.S. Congress Office of Technology indicate between 17 and 20 million are used in research annually. The USDA is currently looking at the feasibility of regulating rats, mice, and birds, a move largely opposed by the biomedical research community because of logistical concerns.
The public is, for the most part, naive about what occurs in research facilities. Once accepted practices, since abandoned, continue to color perceptions of what is done to laboratory animals. But new insight and knowledge about animals and the mechanics of pain have helped enhance laboratory animal welfare.
According to the USDA, between 12 and 14 million procedures performed annually do not involve painful stimuli, Dr. Robertson said. That does not mean, however, the animals are not stressed or distressed, she added. That leaves 8 to 10 million potentially painful procedures performed on research animals.
The number of animals used for research in the United States has been reduced drastically over the past 25 years for a variety of reasons. Statistics show the number has fallen by approximately 40 percent, which still trails reductions in Canada and many European countries.
There is a popular notion that computer models and other innovations can replace animals used for research purposes. But for all their appeal, Dr. Robertson cautioned that significant medical advances are unlikely without the use of live animals. "We won't be able to make breakthroughs in AIDS, diabetes, and pain research itself unless we use live animals," she said.
It is a little-known fact that research animals are currently the most regulated animals in the country. The Animal Welfare Act applies to all research facilities, regardless of whether they are privately or publicly funded, and requires anesthetics and analgesics for potentially painful procedures in designated animals.
Dr. Robertson noted that each facility must also have an institutional animal care and use committee to review all potentially painful experiments. Furthermore, the Animal Care Unit, part of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is charged with investigating research facilities, and is vested with prosecutorial powers.
These safeguards and regulations are no guarantee that violations do not happen, Dr. Robertson said. What if a mere 10 percent of the 8 to 10 million animals used in potentially painful experiments "slip through the cracks"? "It's very important to understand that this is a huge issue and when we say we don't take care of a few, a few are an awful lot of research animals," she said.
Scientific journals, she believes, can contribute to laboratory animal welfare. Editors can implement a policy that submissions must be accompanied by documentation that approved protocols were followed during the course of the experiment.
Pragmatically speaking, pain management helps avoid tainted data. Dr. Robertson used the example of a researcher interested in blood pressure medication. He is likely to see elevated cardiac activity in test subjects that did not receive analgesia. "How will they know the increase in blood pressure isn't because of pain and has nothing to do with their project?" she asked.
To help meet the challenges facing the profession, Dr. Robertson believes there should be more specialists in laboratory animal medicine. The American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine has hundreds of diplomates, but there is room for additional qualified people, she said. In addition, a curriculum dealing with pain recognition and control should be developed for veterinary students, as well as continuing education opportunities for practitioners.
"There is no room for complacency in this issue," she said. "[Improvements are] going to require a lot of effort from a lot of people, [including] commitment, and adequate funding to explore all the ways of improvement. And, again, in the research arena, never lose sight of the fact that the animals are there to benefit us."