Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can I care about animals and do research too?

My dog Dinah at agility.

As a junior in college, I was at a turning point: should I pursue veterinary medicine or a career in research? I loved animals and was very compassionate towards their well-being. I wasn’t sure how I felt about animal-based research. I understood the necessity, both from a research and a legal standpoint. Most people don't realize this, but it is mandated that researchers prove the efficacy of a new drug or therapy using animals (as models for humans) before testing the treatment on people. So, without animal research, we wouldn’t have medical advances. But, could I really devote my career to research if it meant involving animals?

I began talking to a number of people about my concerns. It was a friend of mine that finally convinced me. She pointed out that perhaps I was the perfect person to pursue a career in research, because I genuinely cared about the animals. Taking her point and trying to keep an open mind, during my senior year in college, and for two years after, I worked in a research laboratory to really get a feel for what it was all about.

Well, I was in for quite a surprise. Rather than the dank, dreary lab that I had envisioned, I found that these research labs were quite the opposite. I quickly learned that researchers have a vested interest in keeping their animal populations happy and healthy.

Imagine if you will, a college student, whose biology final is approaching. This student absolutely needs an A in order to graduate, and has yet to begin preparing. In a brilliant move, the student decides to lock himself in his room for the next 48 hours, with nothing but coffee, snacks, and the fear a flunking to keep him going. The stress of the exam, lack of sleep, and the isolation will probably all work against him, and in the end he’ll perform no better than if he hadn’t studied at all.

Option 2 is one that most college students never consider, but time and again has been shown to provide the best results. It is to study in groups, in short sessions, being sure to eat, sleep, and take some breaks in between study rounds. Option 2 works, because it keeps stress down. Stress is a tricky thing. When experienced for over a long time, it breaks down your immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses, and generally affecting your body in a negative way.

The same is true of animals. If you put them in an environment that causes stress, they’ll become more anxious and prone to illness. In general their behaviors change. As a result, as a researcher you can't include them in your research trials because they’ll likely give you skewed results. If they get sick, then you absolutely can't use them in your research trials. So, if you don’t care for them properly, you’ve basically spent a whole lot of time and money on an animal that you can’t use. Not ideal!

So, not only did I find that there were actually a large number of researchers like me, who really care about their animals, all researchers have a vested interest in insuring their animals stay healthy.

For now, I'll leave you with that, and tomorrow, I'll talk about the laws in place that mandate humane treatment for research animals.

This is Part 4 of 13 in our From Ideas to Treatments series.
Part 1 - From Ideas to Treatments
Part 2 - Basic Research: It Starts with an Idea
Part 3 - You're an Animal!
Part 4 - Can I care about animals and do research too?
Part 5 - Regulations for Animal Research
Part 6 - Clinical Research Trials
Part 7 - Patient Safety in Clinical Trials: IRB Approval
Part 8 - Recruitment
Part 9 - Health Disparities in Clinical Research
Part 10 - A Brief History of Inclusion Policies
Part 11 - Breaking News: Women and Men are Different
Part 12 - Including Minorities in Clinical Trial Research
Part 13 - Bringing From Ideas to Treatments Home

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