It’s not that its practices are particularly reticent – they’ve just been seldom discussed. That is, until now.
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professors Nagalingam (Raj) Rajakumar and Timothy Regnault hope to engage members of the Western community – and the broader London community – to bring to light the mandate and functions of the university’s Animal Care Committee (ACC).
Maybe you’ve thought about it, maybe you haven’t, but the use of animals in research is a necessity, said Rajakumar, who served as ACC’s chair from 2010 and stepped down earlier this summer.
“One of the mandates at the university is health research. Animal models play a very critical role in that. The only way to do this (type of research) is to properly educate the principal investigators about the ethical guidelines and policies and help them adhere. It’s critical for us to do that,” Rajakumar said.
The ACC does not just oversee animal models in health research, but also wildlife. Research in biology, in fisheries and bird programs – such as the Advanced Facility for Avian Research at Western – are also on the docket for the committee.
So, what does the ACC do, exactly?
Mandated by the university Senate, the committee is made up of some 35 members of the community, including faculty researchers who deal with animals, faculty who don’t, graduate students, technicians and staff who facilitate research and members of the London community who are not connected to the university. Their primary role is to ensure all research at Western conducted using animal models adheres to policies laid out by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).
“Western, and any institution that uses animals in research, has to go by certain policies and procedures set by the government. The Tri-Council has identified CCAC to oversee these polices. What we do is make sure CCAC’s policies are followed,” Rajakumar said.
There are approximately 200 principal investigators citywide currently working on animal-based research projects.
Members of the committee regularly meet with researchers, working to ensure policies are clear, understood and followed. The policies are worded in a way that they may as well be a law, Rajakumar noted, and they have specifications concerning animal health and ethical use and treatment in animal models. Requirements include maintaining a particular habitat dependent on the species, minimizing pain and suffering and conducting procedures in such a way that proves justifiable.
The committee is tasked with ensuring the reason for animal use laid out in a proposal is, in fact, justifiable.
“We do ethical reviews and provide ethical support. We facilitate discussion and make sure research is primarily done in accordance with the ‘Three Rs’ – refinement of procedures to make sure they are being done properly, minimizing pain and suffering; reduction, how far we can go in animal usage while still achieving statistical significance, which is an important outcome; and replacement, like using a cell culture model,” added Regnault, who took over as chair in July.
Reducing or replacing an animal with a cell culture system might not always be the best thing, he noted, because a cell doesn’t operate in isolation. But it is an option in some models and, if so, ACC facilitates that research not only to ensure ethical treatment of animals, but also to reduce the number of animals used, wherever and whenever possible.
It’s important to note that all policies are public domain, Rajakumar added, and just because they’re not being discussed publically, doesn’t mean there’s inappropriate action behind closed doors.
“It’s important in our practice that everything is transparent and nothing is hidden. There is some confidentiality because there are people involved, and the investigators might not like for us to reveal what they are doing and what experiment they are conducting, what is its role and outcome or where the animals are,” he said, noting it is important to protect the integrity and originality of the research in some cases.
ACC meets monthly, ensuring concerns from researchers, and everyone else at the table, are always addressed. The committee, likewise, oversees animal use in the London community, Regnault said, as hospitals and university animal models in research belong under ACC’s oversight umbrella.
“Our primary goal is to act as a facilitator – we want principle investigators to do their work. We’re not policing, we’re facilitating,” Rajakumar said.
“CCAC visits us and is in constant communication with us. We report to them. They talk to stakeholders, students, principle investigators, look at animal records, etc. and make sure we adhere to very strict, ethical guidelines,” he added.
“We ask: Is this justifiable research? Is it necessary? Just because someone wants to use animals in a study, they’re not given permission. There’s a review process. Is this justifiable? Ethical? Is it possible for you to do it differently? Or in a more ethical way?”