By Valerie Luu & Arianna Puopolo
“Not doing it is like telling sick people their lives count less than a rat’s,” said Sam*, a UCSC faculty member involved with animal research.
The issue of animal testing is raising new concerns in the Santa Cruz community. Reactions to the impending construction of a brand-new biomedical facility are heated, with scientists claiming a moral imperative to save lives and activists questioning the ethics and effectiveness of animal research.
“I don’t really know if the ends justify the means,” said Lisa Carter, executive director of the Santa Cruz Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Opposition to animal testing at UCSC was the reason for recent violence toward faculty who use animals in their research, which was addressed in an email sent on Feb. 25 by Chancellor George Blumenthal to the UC Santa Cruz community.
According to the message, six masked intruders confronted a UCSC faculty member and her family at their home on Feb. 24. This incident succeeded a previous incident, also addressed by Blumenthal. On Feb. 12, the Chancellor sent an email to faculty members in which he expressed concern about “recent incidents of intimidation to faculty and staff, purportedly over laboratory research involving animals. The incidents include harassing phone calls and graffiti vandalism at the victims’ homes.”
The controversy stems from research being conducted at UCSC and the impending construction of the campus’s new biomedical facility. The building is meant to support a new vivarium, a facility constructed to retain animals intended for research . In addition, the Thimann laboratories will be converted to a lab for undergraduates, which will allow for more teaching space.
Stephen Thorsett, dean of physical and biological sciences, says the current vivarium at the Thimann laboratory is outdated and that the construction of the new biomedical facility is necessary to increase faculty and improve the quality of the laboratory.
“[A] 40-year-old building isn’t really suitable for a lot of modern research,” Thorsett wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press (CHP). “There has been essentially no growth in the biology faculty in more than a decade, while the campus has grown and a larger fraction of students have decided to major in biology and related fields.”
Doug Kellogg, chair of the molecular, cell, and developmental biology department, hopes the new vivarium will recruit more faculty who will do research relevant to human health. There are currently only seven researchers who are working on a variety of research projects, including infectious disease, genetic, and cancer research.
Kellogg explained that as part of infectious disease research, animals – like rats or mice – are infected with mutated bacteria and then euthanized to determine how well the bacteria is able to establish an infection in the host tissue. For cancer and stem cell research, cells are introduced into the animal and then observed to study the division of cells.
According to Kellogg, the new vivarium will facilitate medical research using mice and rats, but that the treatment and use of animals will follow strict guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health.
“UCSC researchers are doing outstanding work on human disease and aging, and we’re very proud of their efforts,” Kellogg said.
UCSC researcher Sam will work in the new biomedical facility. Sam wished to remain anonymous in light of the recent incidents of vandalism toward UCSC faculty engaged in animal research.
Sam believes the most important medical research of the decade requires animal testing. “UCSC has already contributed greatly to medical research, and will continue to do so,” Sam said. “A vivarium allows the kinds of contributions we can make to be multiplied. In terms of size, costs, and knowledge already gained, the mouse is the best overall model for human biology.”
While Sam recognizes alternatives to animal testing like computer simulation, he contests the effectiveness of these methods. “Computer models are only as good as their built-in assumptions, and we aren’t close to having the assumptions right,” he said.
Ray Greek, a board-certified anesthesiologist and president of Americans for Medical Advancement, is opposed to animal research on the grounds that it is ineffective. He has written several books on his studies that focus on the scientific relevancy of the studies.
“Animal testing does not help us determine how a disease affects humans or how a drug affects humans, because of very small genetic differences between species,” Greek said.
On the other hand, Jeremy Beckham, director of the Utah Primate Freedom Project, who is opposed to animal testing, expressed disappointment upon hearing that UCSC was introducing a new biomedical facility that would provide lab space to test on animals.
“The most important thing to me is the ethical issue,” he said. “It should be viewed as a violation of the most basic fundamental medical ethics.”
Yet UCSC scientists such as Sam feel that it is imperative to produce research to address human health issues whether or not that involves animal testing.
“We are a special and privileged place, and with these privileges comes the responsibility to use our gifts to help others,” Sam said. “We are dedicated to learning things that may help provide cures, and we are very good at what we do. It is dispiriting to have to struggle against insults, vandalism, and threats simply in order to try to help others.”
_*Name changed to protect identity_