health & science

Taking animals out of the lab

Globally there are moves to make teaching, testing and research kinder to animals. Farah Hancock reports on what's happening here.

Today Fido* has a heart murmur. Yesterday he was diagnosed with heart arrhythmia. Tomorrow he’ll need CPR. Sickly Fido is a robot dog and his daily ailments means Massey University veterinary students can hone their skills diagnosing conditions without a sick dog in sight.

Robot dogs are among a range of approaches universities, scientists and commercial entities are using to replace, reduce or refine how they use animals in research, teaching and testing.

Massey’s senior veterinary lecturer Doctor Stuart Gordon said robot dogs are part of a drive to minimise the use of live animals in the early years of training vets. The university has a number of animal stand-ins ranging from the dogs with heart beats which tutors can adjust to mimic a range of conditions, to latex skin which bleeds when students learn to suture.

His personal favourite is a life-sized mannequin of a horse which he said looks so realistic it often startles people who come across it in the third-floor laboratory.

“You can take it’s back off. It’s got very realistic intestines you can manipulate the intestines to all the different types of intestinal abnormalities horses unfortunately get.”

Students then diagnose the ailment using the traditional technique, feeling for the abnormality via the horse’s rectum.

Using a mannequin for a student’s first attempt at this is a win-win situation, Gordon says.

“By them practising and practising on a simulated model they get familiar with the clinical technique, they have no personal risk to themselves. They can do it a thousand times if they want to, whereas with horses, if you do a rectal you only want to do it once and then the horse has had enough of you.”

The university is also one of the first New Zealand universities to allow animals previously used in studies to be rehomed. Rats have found new homes through rehoming programmes and 50 mice used in behavioural studies are currently up for adoption. Previously the mice would have been gassed. 

Gordon's horse 

Animal testing in New Zealand

Examples like Massey University's use of robot dogs and rehoming are out there, but there is plenty of room for improvement according to academics and animal rights advocates.

In 2016 over 250,000 animals were used in research, testing or training in New Zealand. Of those 25 percent died or were euthanised.

The use of these animals falls under the Animal Welfare Act. Approval must be given by an animal ethics committee which assesses the need for the activity and whether researchers have considered alternatives to using animals, ways to reduce the number used in tests or refinements to minimise the effect on animals.

Despite these strict controls, the number of animals reported to having been used in 2016 increased by 13 percent from 2015.

A statistics report published by the Ministry for Primary Industries shows agricultural animals were responsible for much of the increase and accounted for more than 150,000 of the total.

“High impact” uses on agricultural animals ranged from stunning for the halal killing of cattle, sheep and goats to comparisons of pain relief for removing horns from calves.

The number of agricultural animals that die or are euthanised is low compared to rats, guinea pigs and mice. In 2016 two percent of mice made it out of the laboratory alive.

 Auckland University of Technology research fellow Doctor Robert Borotkanics’ specialises, among other things, in alternatives to animal testing. He says MPI’s annual statistics report has some “vagaries” around whether animals were used for teaching or testing.

“If it is for testing, what is the purpose of the public health testing?”

There was a healthy tension emerging in science. “Worldwide you are seeing regulatory bodies adopting more of a balancing strategy, where there is a recognition of, ‘Hey, we need to make sure things going into commerce are safe and effective but at the same time we want to be conscious and ethical in the way in which we carry this out’.

“Where I come out, is evaluating where and how we can apply alternatives to show that things we enter into commerce are safe and effective.”

It can be a slow road. The science takes time to develop, but sometimes changing regulatory frameworks which require animal tests can take longer than the science.

One example he gives, ,which is gaining worldwide regulatory acceptance, is replacing rats or mice used in skin irritation and corrosion tests with in-vitro or tissue-level tests. 

Borotkanic says there is always a need for more research funding..

"When you talk about animal alternatives you really have to think about what’s the type of test, what’s the purpose of the test."

Synthetic testing

One New Zealand start-up is taking on a $40 billion industry for antibodies which relies on the animal deaths. AuramerBio, a biotech company spun out of the MacDiarmid Institute, is using aptamers in place of antibodies.

“An antibody is produced by immunising an organism [animal]. That immune response recognises it and you sacrifice the animal and purify the proteins from the spleen. That’s traditional antibody making. Nothing can survive without a spleen unfortunately,” says its CEO Shalen Kumar.

Aptamers are short strands of synthetic DNA which are produced in a lab without the need for an animal. They can be made faster and at a fraction of the cost of an antibody.

AuramerBio is looking to roll out the technology to replace antibodies in roadside drug testing and fertility testing with handheld sensors which link to mobile phone apps to give speedier, more accurate results.

Work is also being done on a listeria testing kit for seafood processing plants.

Mice and mussels

In a single year an improved shellfish testing procedure developed by New Zealand’s Cawthron Institute kept 6975 mice out of testing laboratories.

The institute’s technique is a more accurate, faster and cheaper way to test shellfish for toxins which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.

“A major problem that the New Zealand shellfish industry faced when using mouse testing was the quality of the information received [e.g. likelihood of false positive and false negative results] and the time it took to receive a test result,” said research scientist Tim Harwood.

Sometimes shipments could already be on ships bound for other countries when results came in, making recalls difficult.

The institute developed a chemical method of testing which it began using in 2001. Although the new method was more accurate it took nine-years for it to be accepted as a standard by the European Union.

No mice have been used by the Cawthron Institute for testing of the toxin since 2010.

Glowing bacteria

University of Auckland’s Doctor Siouxsie Wiles refers to herself as the person who makes nasty bacteria glow in the dark.

In the past, to understand how bacteria grow, large numbers of animals would have been infected, then small numbers would have been euthanised at different stages of the experiments.

“[We would] take out the organs where you think the bacteria are and put them onto petri dishes and wait for the bacteria to grow or wait for the animals to show signs of sickness.” Wiles told a Tedx event in Christchurch.

Light travels through skin, so the technique Wiles works on uses the glowing bacteria with sensitive cameras. Levels of bacteria can be seen through the animal's skin, and changes over time recorded, without the need to kill.

The glowing bacteria technique means fewer animals are needed. Wiles’ efforts to reduce the number of animals used in research have been recognised here and in the United Kingdom where she won awards for the “Three Rs”. These recognise refining animal testing, reducing the number of animals used, or replacing animals altogether.

Replacement over refinement or reduction 

New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society executive director Tara Jackson does not agree with two of the three Rs. She believes the focus needs to be on full replacement, not reducing or refining tests

“Our main focus is dismantling the misconception that most people have animal experimentation is a necessary evil, the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. We work to advocate human relevant science rather than using animal models to predict a human response.”

An example of this is a test mentioned in the MPI annual report as having “high impact” on the test subjects, where rats were given ecstasy.

“It’s part of addiction studies. It’s a really good case for highlighting how scientifically flawed using animals is to predict how humans will respond. There are so many other factors that come into play with addiction. You literally just can’t force-feed a rat ecstasy and then watch its behaviour and put it through environmental stimuli. What you could be doing, is actually talking to people.”

Jackson said data from human-addiction clinics around New Zealand would provide more relevant information than a rat for human addiction problems.

“If we spent the same amount of time and resources, including money in developing non-animal-based methods, we would have so many more. We’ve spent years and years pumping that money into animal-based research rather than thinking about what's the most viable method and starting from that place."

The future

Massey University’s Gordon has plans to budget carefully and purchase more animal stand-ins for his students. Some he said can be low-cost, requiring cheap materials and creative thinking.

“Honestly, with a bit of imagination you can teach the castrating of a dog with balloons and paper clips and pieces of string.”

Others cost thousands such as a “truly remarkable” robot dog selling for $60,000 which Gordon said was too much for the university to be spending on a single item.

“It’s got everything, you can practise full surgery on the dog. It even breathes so you can hook it up to ventilators. When you incise it, it bleeds and it twitches.”

*Our name, not necessarily that used by the vet students. 

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