As students go about their daily business, many UNC faculty and staff conduct cutting-edge medical research -- with the help of mice, dogs and other mammals.
The world of animal research on campus was thrust into the spotlight April 18, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video filmed by a member of the organization who worked undercover in UNC's labs.
The video, which shows several instances of alleged mistreatment toward mice used in the Thurston Bowles labs, drew immediate fire from animal rights groups and has prompted an investigation into the practices in the labs.
But research practices and topics on campus involving animals go far beyond the mice shown in the PETA video and span a wide range of medical purposes.
Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, said that in the 2000-01 academic year, there were 1,260 active protocols involving animal subjects.
Waldrop said most of the research conducted on animals is medical in nature, involving procedures from drug trials to anatomical studies. "Most are dealing with disease and cures for diseases as diverse as you can imagine," he said.
Dwight Bellinger, the interim director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine, which provides daily care and veterinary services to laboratory animals, said animal experiments are applicable to almost any study that could be done at the University.
"For virtually all kinds of things people do in medical research, there is probably someone who uses an animal model for that," he said. "People can now manipulate mice genomes to create models of disease, for example, and a lot of people do that in a lot of varieties of ways."
Bellinger said some of the most common areas of research on campus that use animals are work on cancer, neuroscience and neurological diseases, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, atherosclerosis and hypertension, as well as projects at the Center for Alcohol Studies.
Of the animals used on campus, Bellinger said most are rodents -- primarily mice, although rats and other rodents also are used -- but that dogs, cats and a few non-human primates also are utilized as research subjects.
He said there are about 60,000 mice now on campus for medical research.
Waldrop said major advances have been made on campus as a result of animal testing in recent years, particularly in the areas of genetics, genomics, cancer and cystic fibrosis, areas in which he said UNC is a leading researcher.
The University gained recognition in September for the work of Oliver Smithies, who received the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for his work manipulating mouse genomes to create animal models of human disease.
Waldrop said testing using animal subjects is most commonly employed at an intermediate stage in the research process -- after initial study is done into the topic and before the study moves to human subjects.
"In virtually all cases, studies are going to begin in animals," Waldrop said. "If something is not felt to have negative effects, it could be continued in humans."
But although cutting-edge research involving animals is widespread at UNC, those projects are not undertaken easily.
The process for implementing an animal protocol is complex and follows both federal guidelines and rules specific to the University at every stage.
The main body responsible for reviewing and overseeing protocols involving animal subjects is the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a 15-member body made up of University faculty and staff, local scientists and community members.
IACUC Chairman Lester Kwock said the IACUC's presence and structure are mandated by the federal Animal Welfare Act. He said the committee reviews between 30 and 50 applications a month to determine whether the process for a protocol should be changed and whether the researcher's use of animals is appropriate.
"You have to explain why you can't use a non-animal alternative, and there has to be a strong justification reviewed by IACUC before you can be permitted to use animals," Waldrop said. "They are looking for strong proof you can't do it without animals."
Kwock said the IACUC mainly follows guidelines put out by the National Institutes of Health, although he stressed that UNC has developed its own rules.
"(The NIH guidebook) only serves as a guide -- you don't see many 'wills' in there, you see a lot of 'You should do this,'" Kwock said. "We've felt a number of times our guidelines are much too rigid -- one of our charges is to be able to look at it and say, 'Should we allow this?'"
UNC also is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, which oversees the institution's protocols involving animals.
The application that any researcher who wishes to use animal subjects must submit to the IACUC is more than 20 pages long and includes detailed questions on what type of animals the researchers plan to use, what alternatives to using animals they have considered, what type of pain the research might cause to the animal and why that pain is necessary.
Waldrop said the application often is sent back for revision to clarify the procedures used and to make sure a researcher is using the minimal amount of animals necessary.
"It's rare that (an application) gets turned down flatly, but it's extremely common that when a proposal come forward, everyone looks at it and a series of questions are sent back to the researcher," he said. "It's sort of like when you turn in a term paper and get a chance to turn in many drafts."
In addition to the application process, IACUC is also responsible for conducting biannual reviews of laboratory facilities on campus, in which Kwock said it looks for facilities and personnel violations.
In the last review, Waldrop said only two serious violations were found, both of which involved improper gates that might have endangered the animals.
Finally, IACUC is responsible for investigating allegations -- like those raised by PETA investigator Kate Turlington, both during her time at UNC and after she left, when the videos were made public.
Kwock said the consequences of a severe violation, which generally involves some sort of break from the protocol originally approved by the IACUC, commonly include suspension of a particular individual's right to work with animals -- the punishment handed down to one of the researchers implicated by Turlington.
But Kwock said it is rare to cancel an entire experiment that has already begun. Instead, experiments are usually modified or delayed so that work that has already been done is not wasted.
"If you totally suspend (an experiment), what happens to those animals?" he said. "We usually restrict research, so at least the animals are still being utilized."
Adrian Shelton, research compliance coordinator at the University, said the IACUC is required to follow all federal guidelines when considering each element of a protocol, from initial application to review, but that the rules do not necessarily prescribe a set course of action for a given situation.
She said the subjective nature of ethical questions related to the research, as well as the vagueness of many federal guidelines, makes the IACUC's job both more complex and more important.
"The question is, What are the relevant safeguards? What can you do to minimize risk, and when is the risk too great?" she said.
"There is government guidance on how they might approach it, but ultimately, these are the people who have to apply the criteria to a given situation."
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