A look at the University’s animal testing

Monday, February 12, 2007

In an episode of the “The OC” that aired late last year, Brown first-year Summer Roberts gets suspended after she is caught breaking into science labs to free rabbits in an attempt to save them from inhumane experiments.

Though writers of the Fox drama may have been exaggerating Brown students’ liberal activism, they were right about one thing – the University does keep animals, from fruit flies to sheep, for research. University officials say they do their best to ensure the research animals’ safety, but the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims that Brown researchers have been conducting cruel and ineffective studies.

The Brown Animal Care Facility currently has three operational sites, wrote Mark Nickel, director of University communications, in an e-mail to The Herald.

The main site is a five-story, 59,000-square-foot center in the Bio-Medical Center, and satellite sites are located in Hunter Laboratory and the Laboratories for Molecular Medicine at 70 Ship Street. A fourth site, in the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences, is not yet operational.

The sites house animals as small as frogs, turtles, rats and mice and as large as sheep and pigs, according to Nickel. There are usually about several dozen species at the facility, he added, with rodents accounting for more than 90 percent of the animals.

A Bio-Med facilities pamphlet on the Alpert Medical School Web site said the animal facility has an aquatic room – mostly for frogs, Nickel wrote – a quarantine space for rodents from noncommercial sources, a rodent housing suite and a biohazard rodent housing and procedural suite with “features surpassing (Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention) Biosafety Level 2 criteria.”

There are also three well-equipped animal surgical suites. The facility is in compliance with government regulations on animal welfare and, since 1971, has been accredited every three years by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.

Most of the research conducted on the animals occurs in Brown laboratories outside the facility, Nickel wrote. But to ensure the animals’ safety, all experiments must follow research protocol set by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, chaired by Professor of Medical Science Donald Jackson. Though faculty researchers are personally responsible for animals in their own experiments, researchers cannot modify the protocol without the committee’s approval. Veterinarians from both the committee and the animal facility can suspend experiments if protocol is violated. The University tries to “provide the best possible care for animals used in research,” and the facility provides around-the-clock care for the animals, he wrote.

“Continuity of care in all (animal care) facilities is among the University’s highest priorities,” Nickel wrote.

But Alka Chanda, a senior researcher at PETA, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the labs at Brown “have been on PETA’s radar.”

“Several experimenters at Brown University expose rhesus monkeys, mice and rats to a variety of addictive substances including marijuana, alcohol and nicotine,” she wrote. Chanda described those studies as “very cruel” and the research has been criticized for being inapplicable to human conditions, she wrote.

“Often animal addiction studies simply reiterate what is already known about addiction through observation on humans,” she wrote.

But one study using primates helped Professor of Neuroscience John Donoghue develop his groundbreaking BrainGate system that enables quadriplegics to control prosthetic limbs and electronic devices with their brains, according to a 2002 University news release.

Whether or not the studies are controversial, University officials remain tight-lipped about the facility to protect its 16 employees. Veterinarian James Harper, director of the animal care facility, declined to be interviewed for this story because he and his family have been threatened by animal rights activists in the past. A senior animal technician at the facility also declined to comment, saying that employees were not allowed to speak to the press.

The University’s Web site contains little information about the facility. Except for the Bio-Med facilities pamphlet, the animal care facility is only listed among other research facilities on the Med School Web site and appears in an Encyclopedia Brunoniana article about the Bio-Med Center.

“There’s information that you might normally find on a Web site that we won’t give because (we) have to protect the people” that work in the facility, said veterinarian Larry Hulsebos, assistant director of the facility.

Many students seem to be unaware of the animal care facility’s existence. Most students approached by The Herald did not know about the facility.

“It’s surprising that it exists and no one knows about it,” said Tess Bolder ’07, who said she was unaware of the facility even though she lives less than a block away from the Bio-Med Center.

Paul Cotter ’09 said he heard about the facility through friends who worked with animals on campus.

“I’d like to say it bothers me, but it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s bad to say that the ends justify the means, but I think the research that professors are doing more than outweigh the costs.” He pointed to Donoghue’s BrainGate system as an example.

Elias Sarris ’09 did not know the facility existed, but he echoed Cotter’s sentiments.

It’s different when researchers use animals to test cosmetics, he said, “but if it’s for the cure of cancer, then I think it’s worth it.”

Melanie Carver ‘08.5 said though a few of her friends also worked with animals, she was unaware of the University’s animal facilities. She said she understood why Brown professors would experiment with animals but worried about the animals’ welfare.

“I worry a little about what they do with the animals after the experiment,” she said. Carver also said one of her friends worked with a rodent that was bred with a mental disability, “which in my book is a definite form of cruelty.”

It is unclear what Brown does with research animals after experimentation. In 2005 Brown lobbied against a state bill that would have banned euthanizing animals with carbon monoxide gas. The University supported the bill after its sponsor modified it to exempt local colleges and universities. The bill was approved and became law.

The history of animal testing at Brown stretches back at least four decades. Allan Schrier, a former professor of psychology who studied under primate research pioneer Harry Harlow, established the Primate Behavioral Laboratory in Hunter Lab in 1964. It remained open until his death in 1987, said his widow Judith Schrier. An animal care facility opened in 1969 with the Bio-Med Center, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

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