In vivo: How do students in biomedical research adjust to animal experimentation?

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
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By Jacob Axelrad, Assistant Arts Editor
Published November 26, 2012

Inside a large white box there is an operant chamber, housing a rat with black and white hair.

How would you feel about working in a lab where you had to do experiments on animals?


As the rat scurries, it looks this way and that, a tourist observing foreign surroundings, oblivious to the adjacent monitor tracking electrical signals that emanate from the tips of wires inserted into its brain.

The monitor, known as a bank of amplifiers, enhances the sound of distinct neurons, each of which makes a crackling sound as it appears on screen.

Researchers listen to these neurons to test algorithms in the rat’s brain circuitry that are used, according to Joshua Berke, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, in the service of “deciding.” Results aid in the understanding of the core neural circuitry that underlies human diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, Tourette syndrome and drug addiction.

These experiments are common for the Berke Lab. And at the University, which as of September spends $1.24 billion annually on research, professors and students alike devote countless hours to laboratories scattered across campus, from East Hall to the Biomedical Science Research Building.

Initial shock

Yet, when many labs require live animal subjects, which can range from mice to dogs to rabbits, what is the adjustment process like for a student unaccustomed to working with animals, some of whom are killed by the end of an experiment?

According to Berke, those who choose to work with animals are self-selecting.

“I think everyone finds that they enjoy and are comfortable with some kinds of experiments and that you don’t want to do other kinds of experiments,” Berke said. “People find their natural niche.”

Moreover, students are given full warning about what they’re getting into during the interview process, Berke said. He added that if a student was uncomfortable or unable to deal with animals, there are always other positions available in the lab.

But no matter how mentally prepared you are, the first time you watch an animal die can be shocking.

“You just kind of have to deal with it,” said University alum Steven Kiss, who induced heart attacks in dogs and rabbits while working in a cardiovascular pharmacology lab that tested new drugs for people with heart conditions. “Definitely the first few times were really surprising.”

In 2010, statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture showed that about 1.1 million animals were used in laboratory settings, excluding animals such as rats, mice, birds and fish that are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act, though these same statistics estimated that 25 million of such animals are used annually, comprising 95 percent of all animals used in U.S. research.

Kiss’s lab observed dogs and rabbits that had been given an oral medication. Some animals were given the drug for a seven-day period, while others for a 14-day period. The goal, Kiss said, is to determine how well a drug protects the animal from a heart attack, similar to how a person taking heart medicine might react.

He explained the initial difficulty of seeing an animal being put to death.

“Some of the dogs are so nice,” he said. “You’d be with them for two weeks and you’d have to walk them and play with them, and then on that fourteenth day it’s like, damn.”

Yet Kiss emphasized he never dwelt on this aspect.

“You’ve got to understand that you’re doing it for a good cause,” he said. “It feels worth it.”

Animal training

LSA senior Emily Buttigieg’s hands were shaking the first time she dissected a mouse during her freshman year at the University.

Her work in the Kalantry Lab examines chromosome X-inactivation in mice embryos. Having learned from science textbooks all through high school, this skill was different; it was hands-on and could only be learned through trial and error, Buttigieg said.

Before students ever handle animals they are required to take a series of courses through the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine to meet standards set by the University Committee on Use and Care of Animals and the Department of Occupational Safety & Environmental Health.

While all students go through ULAM before beginning lab work, each lab has its own set of protocols it submits to ULAM for approval. As a result, ULAM can tailor its instructions to ensure that each student’s training is animal-specific to his or her lab.

For Kiss, this meant being trained with canines and New Zealand white rabbits prior to starting lab work.

“They go over how to handle the animal, ways to hold it … who to call if there’s a problem,” Kiss said. “They just go over every single situation you would need.”

For example, Buttigieg employs a technique known as cervical dislocation to remove mice embryos from the mother.

“We can’t use the (traditional) gas because that harms the embryos. So we use cervical dislocation, which is a little difficult to learn at first,” she said.

She noted, however, that she was fortunate to be trained directly by Sundeep Kalantry, the lab’s principal investigator. This close attention made Buttigieg feel more comfortable with the experiments when first starting out, especially since she could have been trained by an overworked graduate student with little spare time to dedicate to undergraduates.

She said Kalantry’s careful guidance was key to her success in the lab, which she says has taught her more than any science class she has taken at the University.

“It’s always frightening coming from no experience and then having someone watch what you do,” Buttigieg said. “But I think it’s the best way to learn.”

Being ethical

The University's Office of the Vice President for Research states on its website that the University is “committed to the humane and ethical treatment of all animals used in research and training.”

Yet there are naysayers, notably the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which deems animal research unnecessary.

On its website, PETA cites an article from The Journal of the American Medical Association: “Patients and physicians should remain cautious about extrapolating the finding of prominent animal research to the care of human disease … poor replication of even high-quality animal studies should be expected by those who conduct clinical research.”

Berke said this is not the case.

“The reason why we’re funded by the federal government is because we’re trying to understand how we can intervene to alleviate horrible diseases,” he said.

Furthermore, as Berke views it, animal treatment has only improved over the years since he started in research.

“It’s now increasingly standard to give even rats and mice enriched environments with toys to play with,” he said. “Ten, 15 years ago, only monkeys might have gotten that.”

Kiss agreed.

“(The animals) have 24-hour access to a vet,” he said. “I would say three (to) five times a day someone’s checking in on them. So they’re living pretty well.”

For Rackham student Daniel Castro, who studies biopsychology in the Kent Berridge Lab and looks at mice and rats to understand aberrant motivational systems in the brain, ethical treatment is a form of giving back.

“We want to make sure that the animals experience the least amount of suffering possible,” Castro said. “We’re using these animals to do research to help people and even to help animals. So we want them to have the best experience we can give them.”

Despite better conditions, many animal subjects have limited life spans. For newcomers to lab work, the transition process continues, each student overcoming his or her personal obstacles one test at a time.

“It takes a while to get used to,” said LSA senior Lily Zhang, who studies mice to learn how synapses in the brain are formed. “Actually getting in and getting your hands in on it, it’s another experience.”