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In Vivo

Animal Care

Institute of Comparative Medicine Ensures Humane Care of Research Animals

Thomas Martin, left, and Mark Underwood oversee the care and use of animals in research at CUMC.
Thomas Martin, left, and Mark Underwood oversee the care and use of animals in research at CUMC.
Throughout the 20th century, major advances in biomedical research have been achieved with the use of animals. Vaccines, antibiotics, insulin, open heart surgery, kidney dialysis and transplants, treatments for asthma, leukemia and high blood pressure – these are just some of the areas in which scientists have been able to improve the quality and length of life for millions around the world. Other maladies, such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and malaria still await cures. At CUMC, researchers are studying many of these seemingly intractable diseases in more than 1,000 ongoing projects.

Because studying biological and biochemical processes in animals is essential to understanding how diseases work in humans, an elaborate mechanism is in place at Columbia to ensure both that the best research results are achieved and that research animals are treated humanely.

The responsibility for ensuring that animals are treated with the utmost care and attention falls to Columbia's Institute of Comparative Medicine (ICM). Thomas
Martin, D.V.M., Ph.D., was named director of the ICM in June 2004. Dr. Martin came to Columbia from the University of Buffalo, where he was a professor of pathology and the director of the Division of Comparative Medicine. Dr. Martin is also co-chair of the National Task Force on Pain Management. He oversees a staff of more than 100, including six veterinarians, three residents, 70 animal husbandry staffers and additional technicians and administrators. InVivo spoke with Dr. Martin recently about the role of the ICM and its stewardship of research animals (99 percent of which are rodents).

What role does the ICM play in animal research here?

The ICM is responsible for all care and maintenance of animal resources at CUMC. We consult with researchers about all protocols involving animals, especially when anesthesia and surgery are proposed. We provide expert advice on animal care to University administration and committees and care for all animals used in research. We also train Columbia personnel in humane and best practice techniques of animal care and use.

You describe yourself as an animal welfarist. What does that mean?

Animal welfare is the belief that all animals, particularly those under human ownership or responsibility, deserve proper care and respect, including food, shelter and humane treatment. All of us in the ICM care deeply about animals used in research – individuals as well as groups of animals. Our goal is to make sure the animals under our care are treated humanely, with a focus on alleviating distress.

Why are animals necessary for research?

Although the vast majority of preclinical research takes place using computer models and cell cultures, there are many cases where it's not possible to get answers without the use of animals. In heart disease research, for example, it's necessary to have a heart in a compromised state to assess the response to different types of interventions. With diabetes, you can study cell cultures to try to figure out how pancreatic cells respond to certain drugs, but you need to understand what happens when the drug is given to a live organism. All disease-related research has to end with an animal. This is especially true here where we study so many difficult diseases in research studies that simply wouldn't be possible without animal models.

What regulations govern our use of animals in research?

The use of animals in research is subject to both internal and government oversight. First, every protocol is scrupulously examined by Columbia's IACUC [the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee], the committee charged with approving all research protocols. Before the study can begin, IACUC considers myriad parameters, including scientific justification for the research. The IACUC also inspects our research facilities. We are subject to state review annually and federal review by the USDA, whose veterinarian inspectors come here on a regular basis. Inspectors look at everything – from the frequency of fresh air changes in the rodent rooms to whether the wheels on a cart are working properly.

In addition, our animal care program is subject to review by the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, (OLAW), which can cut off federal research funding in the event of noncompliance.

We are also accredited by AAALAC [the Association for the Assessment & Accreditation of Lab Animal Care, International], an independent organization considered the premier accrediting body in the U.S., and undergo comprehensive AAALAC reviews every three years. Although AAALAC accreditation is not required for undertaking research, it is the sought-after gold standard for animal care and we are proud to have it.

Describe scientists' philosophy about using animals in research.

The goal of scientists in biomedical research is very simple – we want to improve the health of human beings. Scientists think about how to do the best experiment possible; there's no incentive for doing poor research. Every animal we work with is treated with that goal in mind. If a disease does not present a significant health problem, then animals won't be used. Self-interest doesn't really come into it; research is not a game for those interested in self-aggrandizement or getting rich quick. If it were, it would attract a different type of person. Biomedical research is the greatest force for good in the world because there are no age, country, racial or ethnic barriers when it comes to sharing in the benefits of the scientific discoveries.

—Anna Sobkowski