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In Vivo

Animal-Based Research

'Replace, Reduce, Refine'

In the same way that the Institutional Review Board ensures that the strict safety guidelines for human subjects in biomedical research are followed, the IACUC – Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – oversees the care and use of animals in research. The medical center's IACUC ensures that all federal regulations and guidelines relating to animal research are being followed.

By law, every institution in the country that engages in animal research must have an IACUC. CUMC's 20-member IACUC – which includes scientists and veterinarians as well as community members unaffiliated with the university – exhaustively studies all research protocols before any experiment can begin. Morningside has its own IACUC.

"The use of each and every animal must be justified. Our committee needs to understand why it is necessary to do a particular test in a particular animal," says IACUC chairman Mark Underwood, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychiatry. don't just say to the researcher, ‘that's a good idea, go ahead and do it.'"

IACUC employs the "three R's" – Replace, Reduce, and Refine – when assessing a protocol. It first determines whether the research hypothesis can be addressed by replacing animals with cell or tissue cultures, or computer models. Once it's decided that the research is valuable and that the use of animals cannot be avoided, the Committee looks for ways to utilize classes of animals lower on the phylogenetic scale (i.e. substituting rats or mice for pigs). Next, the IACUC ensures that the researcher reduces the number of animals used in the research to a minimum needed to answer the scientific question. Finally, the reviewers and scientists alike are obliged to refine each technique so it's most humane to the animal, down to the size of needles used to take blood samples.

At least twice a year Columbia's IACUC inspects all animal care facilities and locations where animals are used. (Approximately 1,000 disease-specific animal research projects are currently ongoing in University labs.) The Committee looks for compliance with standards, both by the scientists and by the veterinarians in the Institute for Comparative Medicine who provide care and husbandry for the animals. The IACUC also reviews all concerns about the care and use of animals at CUMC, and reports any significant issues to the Columbia administration, and, where required, to external authorities such as the USDA and OLAW.

The entire animal research program itself is inspected at least once a year by the USDA, which reviews protocols, ensures that the three R's are being used and substantiates compliance with federal regulations.

"The researcher's impetus is to save human lives. There's no incentive to do poor research or to make an animal suffer – if nothing else, those practices won't give you good data," says Dr. Underwood. "Every animal used for scientific research is used with the intention of obtaining results that benefit the quality of life of human beings."

—Susan Conova