It’s an exciting time in medicine and technology, and the combination of the two. New advances and discoveries are seemingly made every day. Every given new understanding in science replaces an old theory, method and/or practice. With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, medical understanding entered a new frontier. One major area of agreement to emerge: The certainty of what we know now in terms of medicine, treatment and research will be crude and outdated in no time at all.
It’s against this backdrop of major change in medicine that the University of Washington Board of Regents in November 2013 approved spending over $123 million to build a new underground animal research facility on campus, (now under construction) a decision protested at the time and ever since. The approval completely ignores one of the major shifts in science today: Animal research designed to help solve human problems — whether to cure cancer or create make-up — is on its way out. For scientists, the main impetus is that animal studies don’t readily translate into successful therapies for humans; and for animal rights activists, that keeping captive animals for experimentation is cruel, and that their care is usually substandard.
The UW does not have a good track record when it comes to the care of animals used in their research. The USDA cited the university in 1995, 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2009. The school was cited for negligence in an incident in which a macaque starved to death; and in another case, for unauthorized neurological surgeries on monkeys to study the relationship between the brain and eye movement. The research involved putting a metal cylinder — sometimes two — into holes drilled in the monkey’s skull and implanting wire coils in their eyes. The list of complaints, and citations goes on and on.
It’s against this ugly backdrop of failure that the UW regents approved the new lab, even when other leading research institutions, such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins, are closing such labs, and/or moving away from using animals, primarily primates, in research. Just this month, The Washington Post reported, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced new rules that put captive chimpanzees under the umbrella of greater federal protection, like wild ones. Additionally and belatedly, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is considering forcing research facilities to include information about how animals are being used for research and experiments in their annual reports.
This week, Harvard researchers announced the creation of “organs-on-chips,” which mimic on the microscale the functions of human organs, The Christian Science Monitor reported, which would allow scientists to test drugs and cosmetics without the use of animals. And at less cost and time.
Who knows what will be discovered tomorrow, as the UW’s already out-of-date animal lab continues to be built. And protested.