Over the past hundred years, science has made remarkable breakthroughs in the field of human health. Some diseases like smallpox and poliomyelitis have been almost eradicated. Continued breakthroughs in research mean that cancer survival rates have continued to rise. And the development of antiretroviral drugs means that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was 30 years ago.
These medical breakthroughs have been accelerated in large measure through the use of animals in research.
Humans share 95% of their genes with mice, which makes mice a very suitable model for the human body. Since animals also suffer from similar diseases, including cancer and asthma, if we can treat these diseases in animals, it will help us treat them in humans.
Although the use of animals in research is unavoidable, such research is conducted ethically and only after independent approval. Considering the welfare of research animals invariably leads to better science. To achieve this, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is committed to following four guiding principles in its use of animals in research. These are:
- replacement with a non-animal model whenever possible
- reduction in the number of animals used
- refinement in the way they are used, which means animals are treated humanely, with every attempt made to enrich their lives
- responsibility in all aspects of research using animals.
These guiding principles are known as the 4Rs.
In 2020, for the first time, UCT presented an award to researchers and facility staff who have been exemplary in their implementation of the 4Rs. This award was given to two individuals: Associate Professor William Horsnell of the Division of Immunology, Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine, for exemplary use of technologies to reduce and refine the use of animals in research; and to Sister Janet McCallum, Head of Animal Welfare at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Head of Para-Veterinary Clinical Services and Head of the Conventional Unit at UCT-Research Animal Facility (RAF) , for innovation and achievement in improving the housing and quality of life of animals used in research at UCT.
Noninvasive use of mice to prevent cervical cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection. So common in fact that, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most sexually active people will at some point contract a variety of infections, even if they have few sexual partners. Although there are often no symptoms or health problems, HPV can cause cervical cancer, which is the fourth most common cancer in women. Even though there is now an HPV vaccine, every year thousands of women, especially in low- and middle-income countries, still die of cervical cancer.
In 2020, for the first time, UCT presented an award to researchers and facility staff who have been exemplary in their implementation of the 4Rs.
Horsnell’s research showed that infection with a parasitic worm (Nippostrongylus brasiliensis) decreased HPV infection. The work was undertaken using an in vivo optical imaging system (IVIS) to help researchers non-invasively study the molecular and biological processes of disease in mice.
During the procedure, the mice are anesthetized and recover with minimal sequelae. The procedure using the IVIS is completely non-invasive and is therefore a very refined method of experimental collection of animal data.
Importantly, mice do not need to be euthanized (as would have been the case in the past), and so data can be collected multiple times from the same animals to establish a timeline of infection or progression. of the disease. This reduces the number of animals needed to generate reliable, good quality and relevant data for preclinical studies.
This IVIS equipment was acquired through a grant from the National Research Foundation and UCT, of which the winner was a co-applicant. IVIS is now available to all UCT researchers to obtain comparable levels of information from a reduced number of animals. This enables all UCT researchers to implement the 4Rs more effectively and improve animal welfare for all research animals.
Husbandry improvements in the UCT Research Animal Facility
There are a number of animals permanently housed at UCT – RAF (UCT-RAF) and every effort is made to ensure their optimum welfare. McCallum received the award for his excellent work in implementing a range of refinementsaligned with the growing evidence base of emerging animal welfare science, including addressing the mental wellbeing of animals.
These refinements include:
- Provision of gnawing blocks for rodents: This provides an activity for rodents where they can express their natural gnawing behavior and serves as a positive indicator of well-being.
- Introduction of animal treats: Beyond the nutritional benefits, this simulates natural foraging behavior in rats, mice, guinea pigs and rabbits as well as rooting in pigs. It also encourages natural stretching behavior in rodents. Additionally, treats create a positive association with experimental procedures for animals and promote a social bond between animals and humans.
- Provision of extra toys and bedding for the pigs: these help to create a stimulating environment for the pigs. Supplemental bedding and oat hay add complexity to enclosures and ensure a suitable rooting substrate.
- Increase in human-animal interaction programs for animals: this leads to reduced animal stress and anxiety during procedures and overall positive animal welfare.
- Improvements to the rat metabolic cage: the rat cages have been enlarged to create a complex and interesting space where they can express their natural behaviors of climbing, stretching and exploring.
In addition to these refinements, McCallum consults with the research community and potential applicants to the Faculty of Health Sciences during the pre-submission phase of ethical applications. This is to ensure that researchers and postgraduate students are aware of potential animal welfare issues that may arise when performing animal procedures. The 4Rs are an integral part of these counseling sessions.
More transparency, accountability and a higher ethical standard
These awards are part of UCT’s broader commitment, in line with international trends in animal welfare, to transparency to ensure the use of responsible and ethical practices in the use of animals in research. This move towards transparency has been supported by animal welfare groups in countries like Australia and the UK.
UCT will be the first African university to take this step in our use of animals in research, opening our work to public scrutiny and working with animal rights groups to ensure the highest ethical standards .