A dog’s life: Bred for the laboratory

JEFF SCHWEERS | The Gainesville Sun

Life in a laboratory is the only life Colin has ever known.

The tan-and-white Maltese-beagle mix has lived in the University of Florida’s kennels since he was 2 months old. Colin has had all his teeth removed, gotten into fights with other dogs, suffered from anxiety and has been forced to wear a specially designed shirt for months at a time to help with the stress of living in enclosed, cramped quarters.

Colin was born predisposed to a deadly disease that prevents the body from using sugar stored in the body. For over four years, researchers have subjected the dog to gene therapy to combat the disease, which occurs in one in every 100,000 humans.

During that time, he’s developed serious kidney and bladder infections, a prostate condition, conjunctivitis and chronic vomiting.

At 4 years old, Colin exhibits health conditions of a dog twice his age.

“From what I’ve seen, this kind of life is sadly typical for a dog being used in experiments,” said Jeremy Beckham, coordinator of the Identity Campaign, a comprehensive nationwide effort to get the public records of lab dogs and cats at 17 public research universities and laboratories.

The campaign was started by the The Beagle Freedom Project, which enlisted over 1,000 volunteers to virtually “adopt” dogs and cats and request the animals’ veterinary records, treatment and progress reports and other data.

Their goal: to shine a light on animal treatment at public research institutions, make those institutions more transparent and accountable, and ultimately push for tougher regulations and mandatory adoption of lab animals.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Janet Skinner, a Palm Shores grants writer for the Clearwater Police Department who requested Colin’s records.

Researchers say using animals is a necessary part of creating scientific breakthroughs in medicine that ultimately can save human lives.

“We have outstanding animal research care, and researchers doing incredible things, and we see people who come here every day for treatment,” said David Norton, vice president of research at UF.

People can receive state-of-the-art treatment not possible 20 years ago because of basic research that began with animal models with propensities for certain diseases being used in developing vaccines, drug therapies and other treatments, Norton said.

Two-thirds of the $705 million in research money UF received last year came from the federal government. Much of that _ $251 million — came from the National Institutes of Health and Health and Human Services.

“Their focus is on improving health care,” Norton said.

Obtaining specific information on animal research is difficult. A veil of secrecy has been drawn over much animal research because of the actions of radical animal rights groups. Researchers have been harassed, had their addresses and phone numbers published, and their homes vandalized.

UF successfully campaigned to get the Florida Legislature to exempt the names of researchers from public records requests about research. Access to labs and animal housing is restricted.

Getting access to animal research requires massive public records requests and patience, especially when UF alone has more than 1,000 experiments going on at a given time.

Animal research is governed by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Act and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

The USDA covers all warm-blooded vertebrates. The NIH OLAW covers rats, mice, birds, and cold-blooded critters.

Animals used in agricultural research are not covered by any federal agency, and therefor no public information is available on cows, horses, pigs and other animals being used at UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Each researcher who wants to use animals in their experiments has to go before the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a panel made up of scientists, veterinarians and fellow researchers and at least one member of the community.

These panels review research protocols, and have the researchers explain why a particular animal is the correct model for their research, describe the project in detail and explain how it advances science, Norton said. The key is providing a “scientific rationale” for their research. UF currently has 1,200 active protocols, according to Karl Andrutis, UF director of Animal Care Services.

“Our job is not to tell you how to do your research, but to approve or not approve based on the welfare of the animal,” Dr. Lyle Moldawer, vice chairman of research for the College of Medicine and an IACUC committee member, told one researcher over the summer.

Animal rights activists counter that much of the research on animals is unnecessary or redundant, and even harmful. The FDA reported that 106,000 people each year die from adverse effects of drugs that had been found safe on animals.

“People want to have careers, publish papers and get grants. Money drives a lot of animal research,” said Jeanne Stuart McVey, spokeswoman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting non-animal research.

The organization found that Wayne State University in Michigan, for example, was conducting research on dogs that does not lead to therapies that benefit human patients.

It isn’t the only example, Beckham said. “Researchers are getting rats addicted to cocaine at universities around the country,” he said.

The Beagle Freedom Project’s Identity Campaign has led to a complaint with the NIH alleging that Ohio State University is doing unnecessary heart testing on dogs that is killing them.

Both groups would like to see an end to the use of dogs altogether. The Texas Health Institute just announced that it would no longer be using dogs in its experiments, McVey said.

Last year, just over 59,000 dogs were used in research nationwide. Sixty-eight percent of the dogs used in lab studies were being used for product and drug testing, Beckham said.

The “scientific rationale” standard is pretty low, he said. “There is so much duplicative work you can use scientific rationale for anything,” he said, even if it is just to validate the results of someone else’s previous research.

About 1,700 animals were used in research, education and experimentation at UF in 2014, including 278 dogs.

Not all those animals are housed at UF. For example, some scientists use shelter animals for their research.

Not all are used on medical research targeting human diseases, either. Many are used in clinical research to help cure diseases in animals, such as feline AIDs and degenerative spinal disease in dachshunds.

As of the most recent federal inspection report, June 23, there were 52 dogs and one puppy at UF.

The Identity Campaign sought the records of 48 animals at UF: 27 dogs and 21 cats.

Under state law, UF provided the veterinary records and daily cage charts for each animal, the protocol’s title and description of the research project and the source and amount of funding.

UF has been more responsive than other universities, Beckham said, only charging $66 per request for hundreds of pages of veterinary records. Some universities, like the University of Missouri, are charging hundreds of dollars.

Still others, like Texas A&M University, have denied requests claiming veterinarian-patient privilege, and got an opinion from the Texas Attorney General backing them up. Beagle Freedom Project is suing Texas A&M over the records and hopes to reach an agreement soon.

The organization has filed complaints against the University of Missouri and Stony Brook University in New York.

San Diego resident Julie Radcliff requested the records of a 10-year-old female tri-color beagle named Kahlua. Records show the dog was born at the UF kennels, has been used for breeding purposes, and has been subjected to no fewer than 9 experiments.

“I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that in this day and age with so many ways to test, we are still using animals,” Radcliff said. “Animals and humans are not the same.”

Radcliff doesn’t consider herself the kind of activist who would throw buckets of red paint on people wearing fur, but she doesn’t believe that research to save human lives should come at any cost.

“My stance is tax dollars are paying for these experiments, on some stuff that has been proven already. Why make dogs inhale cigarette smoke to see if it is addictive or causes cancer. That’s proven.”

Some of UF’s dogs come from USDA-certified breeders around the country.

“These dogs are largely bred for the purpose of experimentation,” said Ainsley Niemkiewicz Fillman, a medical physicist from Fort Myers who treats cancer patients with radiation therapy and has two beagles of her own.

“I can’t imagine them living in a lab and being exposed to things that caused pain and harm,” Fillman said. “The dogs in lab probably think the humans are helping them.”

Fillman received records of a dog purchased through Covance Research Products, a company criticized by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Records show her dog was tested several times for different types of anesthesia.

“She is only 2 years old and I am hoping that she will be adopted out.”

UF does have an adoption policy and application process for adopting research dogs, Norton said.

UF also has several dog colonies selectively bred to be predisposed to getting certain diseases for gene therapy research. Sometimes, dogs succumb to the disease and have to be euthanized.

Currently, 11 dogs, including Colin, are being used in glycogen storage disease gene therapy research.

Dr. David Weinstein has been conducting research on glycogen storage disease for nearly a decade at UF, using dogs bred to be genetically prone to the disease. When he and his collaborators began their research, a dog with the disease lived about 28 days.

Today, a dog with glycogen storage disease can live for years. In June, Weinstein announced he is working out a deal with Dimension Therapeutics to begin clinical trials on people.

Colin, the dog Skinner requested records for, is one of those dogs.

No explanation was given for Colin’s teeth removal, and there was no explanation why he was kept in a special shirt 24 hours a day. Also, the daily cage card showed constant problems with temperature and humidity levels.

“The way they’re doing this is not encouraging,” Skinner said. “Most people would not be happy to know what they’re doing.”

Published through the AP/Newsfinder member exchange.