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Animal testing facility incites heated debate

UBC  vice-president of research John Hepburn: “I’ve often said there’s more regulations around the use of animals in research than around the use of humans.” - Contributed
UBC vice-president of research John Hepburn: “I’ve often said there’s more regulations around the use of animals in research than around the use of humans.”
— image credit: Contributed

If there is one thing the students at UBCO want, it’s respect.

Respect for animals, animals’ rights and the students and faculty who want to discuss the issues.

This week, as concern flies through the media about In Vivo, the new animal testing facility being built in the Arts and Sciences II building on the Kelowna campus, the right to information and respect for those rights seems to fall at the top of the pile of concerns.

“I think that this is an issue that isn’t marginal. I think it’s an issue that involves the students and the community…and it strikes at the core of what the university is about,” said Lindsay Diehl, an interdisciplinary studies masters degree student who noted those questioning the university’s animal testing mandate appear to be being trivialized.

Diehl’s comments follow a week-long uproar which began when student reporter Robyn Travis learned through the campus tours program about a new animal testing lab on campus and started asking questions.

“As a student and member of the community, it would have been nice to be told about it,” she said.

A journalist for the Phoenix student newspaper, Travis said she felt a responsibility to ensure that the information was made public.

She contacted the Vancouver campus public relations department, the dean of her faculty and the researchers responsible for the new lab, but received no calls.

While she’s hoping for better response this week, she found the entire episode disappointing, saying she was surprised at how difficult it was to get information.

The one biology professor  charged with overseeing the facility who did speak to her, is quoted in her article as saying the facility was downplayed for the  protection of the research and researchers involved.

It’s a point UBC vice-president of research John Hepburn cannot overstate.

“I’ve often said there’s more regulations around the use of animals in research than around the use of humans,” said Hepburn.

With the advent of the UBCO’s new medical school, UBCO has been able to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars of new research equipment to the campus, which will attract millions in research dollars and bring some of the best researchers in the world to town, he said.

Protecting that research mandate, and the research involved, is critical to the success of the program, he pointed out, stating this means the university must work with animals.

“One of our primate researchers has received threatening calls late at night,” he said.

The researcher was doing Parkinson’s disease research on monkeys.

Hepburn was clear UBC has never dealt with overt threats to any researcher’s safety at either campus and stated he has respect for the position of Stop UBC Animal Research, the primary group protesting UBC’s animal testing, though he does not agree with it.

The group was formed last February with 32 founding members and has grown to over 500 on its email alert list as it wages a very public battle over issues like the treatment of endangered sea turtles, the monkeys in that Parkinson’s disease study and cats used in spinal research.

“They don’t talk about the numbers of animals or what kinds of animals are being used,” said Brian Vincent, spokesperson for the group.

He agrees with the students that transparency is a huge problem, and he would like to see information on every experiment conducted posted to the web as the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

It’s a feat Hepburn says would be incredibly costly, likely unnecessary, and would eliminate investment in any pharmaceutical research.

“The drug industry relies on the protection of ideas. If everybody has access to the same idea, then why would anybody invest in it?” he said.

All animal testing facilities must be built to Canadian Council on Animal Care standards.

The researchers have to find funding, which comes from government agencies or companies with ethical guidelines.

There is also an ethics committee at the university comprised of scientists, veterinarians and general community members, one of whom has traditionally been a senior person from the SPCA at UBC.

“What the committee approves is something called a research protocol and we actually have a full-time veterinarian who reports differently, and is hired with a different budget away from the animal care budget, who reviews the research to make sure it is following the protocol,” Hepburn said.

This form of post-approval monitoring is not required of the university and has only been in place for approximately a year, he added.

Nevertheless, when UBCO professor Jodey Castricano, whose work deals with the ethics of animal testing, began asking questions, she too was not impressed with the answers she recieved.

Castricano points to research on everything from strokes to HIV to that Parkinson’s disease research to show that there is just as much to learn from the human body as animals—if not more.

She believes people really need to question whether animal testing actually advances medical science.

“We start talking about human benefits and our minds go numb,” she said, pointing out there is very little emphasis on just how much can be learned without the animals.

The professor asked to see the facility, but was turned away because the university says the animals cannot be contaminated by having those who are not trained in how to move through the lab come through the facility.

When she asked for the tour, the facility, which is set to open next fall, was empty, she said.

“It’s really difficult for people to wrap their minds around the idea that animals are subjects of their own lives,” said Castricano.

At various points in history, women, slaves and Jewish people have all been in the same position, treated like we currently treat animals—without rights.

She contends the university is overlooking the fact that science, too, is a social phenomenon and, therefore, the very idea of animal testing should subject to moral analysis, not removed from it.

The Parkinson’s disease research referenced by the head of research, for example, is testing only a simulation of the disease.

Monkeys cannot get Parkinson’s disease, so it’s worth questioning how much is really being learned by injecting the animals with metals to recreate symptoms, she said.

Far more, could be accomplished by studying people with the actual disease, she contends.

In the meantime, the students who penned the original article in The Phoenix Newspaper say they’re still waiting on more answers from the university.

jsmith@kelownacapnews.com

 

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