MU came under national scrutiny in August after it euthanized seven beagles that had been used to study the effects of a topical acid on corneal ulcers. Opponents of animal testing were upset the dogs were not put up for adoption instead. The experiment also did not use enough animals for it to be statistically significant, meaning it would need a follow-up experiment for results.
Suffice it to say, MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine has taken a lot of heat — including an ongoing lawsuit from the Beagle Freedom Project, which was not available for comment. The Los Angeles-based program tries to find new homes for animals used in research. The group sued MU in May for allegedly violating the Sunshine Law on more than 200 occasions over records requests for animals being tested. MU did not comment on the lawsuit or study. On a complex issue, Vox sought out answers to some common questions.
All new drugs require animal testing
False: But it’s complicated. The FDA doesn’t require cosmetic products to be tested on animals. But, it does require animal testing for any candidate drug that uses a device not previously proven to be compatible with the human body. The FDA states that animal testing is used to measure “how much of a drug or biologic is absorbed into the blood; how a medical product is broken down chemically in the body; the toxicity of the product and its breakdown components; and how quickly the product and its metabolites are excreted from the body.”
Yet, the vast majority of drugs tested on animals don’t make it to market. In 2004, FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford said that 92 percent of candidate drugs entering human trials (which were previously tested either on animals or in a test tube) never survived the four-phase clinical trial process needed for approval.
Scientists who conduct animal research operate with oversight and regulation
True: All research institutions are subject to a litany of state and federal guidelines, the most prominent being The Animal Welfare Act. The AWA was signed into law in 1966 and sets the minimum standards of care that must be provided to animals with regard to housing, handling, sanitation, food, water, veterinary care and protection from weather extremes. Warm-blooded species are covered, except for birds, some rats and certain mice.
The most powerful regulatory entity is the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Dr. Jeff Henegar is a member of MU’s IACUC, and this committee has the final say on every experiment*. Federal guidelines dictate the IACUC must have five members, but the committee that oversees MU actually has 14. It is made up of six scientists with different areas of expertise. “If you’re going to work on a certain species, we have experts there who can review that properly,” Henegar says. It also has two non-scientists, two community members and veterinarians*.
An experiment must prove a hypothesis in order to be ruled a success
False: This, Henegar says, is one of the biggest misconceptions about any sort of research. When a study fails to prove a hypothesis, scientists still walk away with concrete results as long as the study was statistically significant. In order for a study to be statistically significant, McIntosh says it needs to have at least 12 test subjects.
Henegar says a study can only be ruled a failure if the researcher didn’t use enough test subjects. The now infamous MU study only used seven beagles, which the study author says was due to the impracticality of using the two groups of 12 dogs needed for the study to be statistically significant.
Any animal could be subject to multiple studies
False: No animal can be used in more than one study, says Henegar. MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine currently has 448 animal-use studies going on, but within each protocol, there are multiple experiments. So within one study, an animal would likely be subjected to several tests, but it all has to be for the same study. In all, there are 21 species currently being tested on MU’s campus including mice, rats, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, pigs, cows, horses, sheep and chickens.
Animal research on MU’s campus has scientific applications
True: McIntosh says drug studies on MU’s campus are close to beginning human treatment trials for diseases such as muscular dystrophy, cancer and diabetes. Treatments against viral infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and Zika are also being tested on animals.
MU is also working toward developing pigs that are immune to certain diseases that are easily spread while they are shipped around the country for the pork industry.
There will never be an alternative to animal research
False: Advancements in stem cell research could create a real and effective alternative to animal testing in the near future. Right now, McIntosh says researchers can use stem cell research to accurately test human tissues and organs. But in terms of how the human physiology would react to a new food, drug or disease, McIntosh says the current stem cell research is not a viable alternative to animal testing. “You cannot reproduce in a laboratory what happens inside an animal,” he says.
However, if advancements continue with stem cell research, it might take over animal testing.
* CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Dr. Jeff Henegar's role on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Additionally, several veterinarians sit on or advise the committee.