By Toby White
The University of Calgary recently approved a $12 million expansion to its Life Sciences Research Centre, the Spy Hill facility that houses research animals. At the facility, there are currently 100 ongoing research projects valued at $8 million and research is expected to double over the next five years. The increase in research, along with stricter guidelines for research animal care initiated the expansion.
"The facility we currently have is not up to modern standards and it is necessary to upgrade those facilities to meet rigorous national guidelines," explained Dr. Keith Archer, U of C interim Vice-President Research.
The expansion has raised debate on campus about the ethics of experimentation on animals. Animal rights groups, such as the U of C-based Students’ Organization for Animal Rights and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believe that it is wrong to experiment on animals, even if the results are beneficial to humans.
"We’re opposed in principle to the use of non-consenting subjects, animal or human, in harmful research," explained Troy Seidle, a Canadian Research Associate for PETA. "Even if it’s within the medical or educational context."
There are, however, rigorous procedures researchers must negotiate to carry out animal research. The Canadian Council on Animal Care is the national peer review agency responsible for setting and maintaining standards for the care and use of animals used in research, teaching and testing throughout Canada. In addition, the U of C enacts stringent guidelines governing animal research.
"Our first question is, ‘Does this research require the use of animals?’" explained U of C veterinarian Dr. Merle Olsen. "If it does, we then ask ‘Can this research be done in a manner that does not cause any pain or suffering to the animals?’ If it cannot, we must ensure that steps are taken to alleviate pain."
Both Archer and Olsen emphasize that in today’s universities, any proposed research involving animals must prove scientific merit before the university or any granting agency will allow it. There are also extra steps involved for the touchy subject of experimentation on animals funded by private companies. "In the case of privately-funded research, they must also go through an external peer review process," explained U of C Associate VP Research Dr. Pam Sokol.
PETA is unconvinced that the welfare of animals is objectively reviewed in the research review process.
"The CCAC is ineffectual, it’s nothing more than a smokescreen," said Seidle, a former CCAC member. "There is absolutely nothing you can’t do in an animal research lab in Canada."
Many animal rights groups also question the scientific merit of animal research.
"Most animal testing is outdated and redundant," claimed SOAR founder Elisabeth Price. "It’s also more expensive than the more effective alternatives."
PETA claims that sophisticated non-animal research methods, such as tissue cultures and computer models are more accurate than traditional animal-based research methods. Seidle suggested that research review bodies should review the results and benefits of animal research in addition to the applications.
"Scientists claim that animal research has improved our lifespan," said Seidle. "But increases in human health in the past century have been because of improved hygiene and public health policies.
Dr. Douglas Morck, the Director of the Life and Environmental Sciences Animal Resource Centre at the U of C disagrees strongly with the assertion that animals are not necessary for studying biological processes and diseases.
"Animals are irreplaceable when studying biological systems," he said. "There’s just no replacement for the biological unit."
Dr. Morck feels the situation as portrayed by animal rights groups is not that simple, pointing to the importance of animal research data in constructing the latest technologies.
Marie Schlachter, a U of C Biology student and President of the People for Animal Welfare Society provides an educational perspective. The goal of PAWS is to increase human-animal interaction and knowledge and the membership includes many zoology and pre-veterinary students.
"I think animals should be used for essential research, but I feel many things don’t require animals," stated Schlachter. "But if you’re studying a treatment for leukemia in animals, for example, you have to eventually test it on an animal."
When asked whether the U of C should be involved in practices such as experimentation on animals, the ethics of which are highly criticized, Archer emphasized the need for academic freedom.
"Our view is that university research exists within a regulatory framework, and our role is to ensure that university policies are consistent with that regulatory environment," he said. "There is definitely room within the university for debate on the matter, and that’s one of the fundamental characters of universities, to have those discussions. The university as a whole, however, needs to provide an environment for people to conduct research within accepted standards."