Agenda Life Sciences have always been advocates of openness and communication on animal research. As a former in-vivo researcher, I maybe feel more passionate about this than most. We’ve had a great example in popular media recently of a celebrity speaking about animal research in a less than positive light. Unfortunately, some of the points he made were not accurate and its disappointing that with our industry’s efforts to be more open and informative, these myths still come to the public’s attention. And then there’s social media, a fantastic tool for sharing information (and opinions) but typically something our industry has not used to its full potential. We want to be open, but not that open, right? Wrong!
In the spirit of openness, Agenda Life Sciences hosted an Ask me Anything session on Reddit. We encouraged anyone to ask us anything about what it’s like to be an animal technician in biomedical research. There I was on Thursday, behind my laptop, prepared to receive any question. Maybe some would be negative or controversial, overly emotive or difficult to answer. Although I didn’t have to answer every question, I did aim to do that as ‘cherry picking’ questions to avoid the challenging ones would not truly be the objective of openness. The reason we chose Reddit for the session was because it would attract questions from all walks of life, again very open. A peripheral benefit was that I could do it all with a cup of tea to hand.
I certainly was not trying to change people’s opinions, but I would like to think I can share my experiences to inform people and encourage opinions that are based on truths. I hope the session was informative for all those who posted questions or watched the discussion evolve. If you missed it, here’s an overview of our Reddit session with a few of the upvoted questions and replies:
Q: First of all thanks for working in this crucial life-saving field.
My question is: How do you assess if an animal is right for testing?
There are many different species used in biomedical research and choosing the best model allows researchers to gather the most scientifically valid data from the fewest number of animals possible. So, a very important question, and why we have legislations to guide our choices on which species to use.
Firstly, regardless of species, we are only permitted to use an animal for research purposes if there is no scientifically valid alternative. If the research progresses to an animal model, the legislation further specifies that we must use a species “with the lowest capacity to experience pain, suffering or lasting harm and are most likely to provide satisfactory results” (Standard Condition 4). Research on monkeys, cats and dogs is more strictly regulated. Dogs, cats or primates are only used when no other species are suitable.
The legislation has helped us limit our choice to the most applicable options but there is still an element of choice in assessing which species are most likely to provide satisfactory results. For this we must consider the animals biology and what we already know from previous research. What will best mimic a disease? Which species is most similar to the human for each specific project? Here are a couple of examples on why a certain species is chosen for certain research:
Because ferrets are domesticated and their oestrous cycle is similar to the human menstrual cycle, they have become important in reproduction research.
Nematodes (worms), despite having a relatively low number of cells, still have a nervous system and this makes them ideal for studying the development, or disorders of, nerve cells.
Mice are the most commonly used vertebrate animal in medical research, particularly in the study of genetic disorders. 80% of human genes are exactly the same as those found in mice, at least a further 10% are very similar, making them the most appropriate model for exploring how we can prevent, treat or even cure genetic diseases. With a lifespan of around 2 years, we can study the whole life progression of a disease or a treatment in a relatively short time in the mouse. With an ageing human population this is particularly attractive attribute, we can study geriatric disorders in mice much quicker than in other species.
Q: What qualifications do I need to work in biomedical research?
For me, the most important thing is not a formal qualification, but having a genuine love for animals. As I mentioned in my reply to dantooine1977 when he/she asked about surgery, I want to make sure that any animal technician has the animals' welfare as their priority. So, empathy and compassion are key skills.
Requirements for a formal qualification depend on what level of entry you are looking at. An apprentice animal care technician can enter the industry with good GCSE's and some hands on experience with animals. A junior or trainee technician with Agenda would need a L2 Diploma (or higher) in an animal related subject. There are lots of colleges and universities offering further education and higher education courses in animal care, animal science, animal management and bioveterinary sciences. All these would be good subjects to look for if you are interested in a career as an animal technician.
Q: What breakthroughs have there been in medical treatment that have been down to animal research?
Almost all medical treatments have been made possible by animal research. It would be impossible to list them all but I can highlight some of the major medical advances over the past 120 years:
- 1900's = Corneal transplants, local anaesthetics, treatment for rickets, discovery of vitamin C
- 1910's = Blood transfusions
- 1920's = Insulin, canine distemper vaccine (it's not just humans benefitting from animal research)
- 1930's = Tetanus vaccine, Diphtheria vaccine, anticoagulants
- 1940's = Penicillin, kidney dialysis, heart-lung machine
- 1950's = Polio vaccine, hip replacement surgery, cardiac pacemakers, treatments for high blood pressure
- 1960's = Heart transplant, coronary bypass, antidepressants, MMR vaccine
- 1970's = CT scanning, chemotherapy for leukaemia, asthma inhalers, migraine medication
- 1980's = MRI scanning, prenatal corticosteroids improving survival rate for premature babies
- 1990's = Combined therapy for HIV, Meningitis vaccine, medicines for breast and prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes
- 2000's = Deep brain stimulation for Parkinsons Disease, cervical cancer vaccine, Bird flu vaccine
- 2010's = Stem cells for spinal, heart and vision repair, gene therapy for muscular dystrophy, new cancer treatments and medicine for type 1 diabetes
Q: I have witnessed surgery on animals and although the animal is euthanized, it is treated humanely under anesthesia. What has been your experience?
In my experience, surgery is avoided if there are less invasive methods to get results. Never-the-less there are some times when this is unavoidable. I have seen both non-recovery and recovery surgeries (and by non-recovery, I don’t mean that the animal died due to the surgery, but it is a planned euthanasia as part of the research work).
In both scenarios there were a team of fully trained staff present throughout, including qualified veterinary surgeons, NACWO (Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer) and dedicated care/recovery staff. I particularly like that the person performing the surgery is not the only professional focussing on the animal’s vital signs and anaesthesia, to have a second pair of eyes to solely monitor the welfare of the animal throughout the procedure greatly minimises the risk of adverse events, pain or inadequate anaesthesia.
Thank you for recognising, and including in your question, that the animal was treated humanely. Not just specific to during surgical procedures, I have worked with many animal care professionals and what has always been apparent to me is their compassion and empathy towards the animals they work with. Animal technology is a very caring profession and we actively seek to recruit people with a love for animals. If you were to choose someone to care for your animal (be it a pet or a research animal) you would want to trust the person had the animals welfare as their top priority, right? That’s what I look to achieve in all the teams I have worked with, even to the point that ‘displaying empathy and compassion’ was a specific point in the training regime and the sign-off to perform any task involving an animal.
If I could avoid surgery and replace it with a less invasive technique I would, but if there is no alternative the surgery is performed to the highest standard and by trained professionals in specialised, licenced research establishments.
Q: You mention alternatives to surgery, but what alternatives are available?
I have been fortunate to be involved in projects which look at alternative approaches to animal surgery. For example, heart rate monitors which were once surgically implanted can now be applied dermally to dog skin if we shave a little bit of their fur. Instead of inserting electrodes or catheters into the dogs arteries, we can use adhesive patches attached to the skin to detect heart rate over a prolonged period without any surgical intervention. The whole set-up is externalised and protected by a fabric jacket so the animal can be returned to its home environment amongst a group of other dogs and express normal, ambulatory behaviour whilst the researcher collects heart rate data externally. A good alternative which benefits both the animals and the science.
Q: What kind of duties do animal technicians have?
The average day for an animal technician includes a variety of tasks, including:
- Environment checks - there are defined guidelines for what temperature and humidity animal holding rooms should be maintained at. You would check each room and report any deviation from the legal requirements to your supervisor.
- Health checks - one of the first tasks of the day is checking each and every animal for any signs of illness or poor health, checking they have access to food and water, reporting any abnormalities to the vet or the NACWO and following their advice if action is required.
- Providing food and water for all animals, changing for fresh at regular intervals.
- Cleaning cages and moving animals to clean areas
- Cleaning work areas
- Providing enrichment for the animals
- Assisting research staff during procedures, maybe by preparing equipment, weighing animals handling or restraining animals, taking samples, monitoring health and welfare during the experiment.
- Keeping accurate records, every action is recorded and all abnormalities reported to senior staff, vets, NACWO's, researchers
- Taking deliveries of new animals, diet, bedding, equipment
- Helath checks - yes again! Every animal must be checked at least twice per day, normally the first and last job of the day.