Advancing health through animal research: New website aims to inform employees and public about animal research at UTMB

May 22, 2017, 07:55 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
When you take medication or get a vaccine or chemotherapy, chances are you’re able to do so because of animal research.

In fact, most of the major medical advances in the last century were made possible through the help of laboratory animals.

“Many people may not realize that almost every drug you take has been tested for efficacy and safety in an animal first,” said David Niesel, PhD, UTMB’s chief research officer and the senior vice president and dean of the Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences.

Niesel, a microbiologist who has worked with animal models for more than 30 years, knows first hand how important they are. “They are essential to understanding how to treat diseases and, ultimately, how new therapies, drugs and vaccines must be evaluated. Funding agencies and the FDA routinely require animal testing before a new drug or device can progress to human clinical trials. I don’t think any of us would want our loved ones to get a drug that had not been deemed safe for human use—that’s why animals are so important for medical progress.”

As a major research university, UTMB uses research animals for some of its most important laboratory work. In just this decade, UTMB scientists have led worldwide efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, developed a vaccine for Chikungunya, created a quick test for the Zika virus and are working on growing lungs in a laboratory to help children whose lungs are diseased or not fully developed.

But how are animals cared for and used in research, and what is the process for approving studies that use animals?

Accessible information

A recently launched website,, aims to educate and inform employees and the public on all aspects of animal research at UTMB—from the approval process for projects involving animals to the training required for their proper care and use.

WebsiteScreenshot“The website is really important in that it defines for people what animal research is, why it is important and how it benefits health,” said Niesel. “It also highlights how careful we are in terms of using animals. The scientists I know who work with animals consider it a privilege. What we’d like is for the public to know that we do this very responsibly.”

As a guiding principle for the use of animals in research, UTMB adheres to what is known as the “3Rs” – Replace, Refine and Reduce.

A scientist with a research question will consider all the available ways to answer that question. In some instances, there are ways to test a hypothesis without using animals—and these strategies are used whenever possible. This is the “replace” component. However, if it is determined animals are necessary, researchers turn their attention to the two other 3R components, “refine” and “reduce.”

“Researchers work hard to refine their studies in order to minimize animal discomfort and pain,” said Niesel. “And, our scientists always look for ways to reduce the number of animals used while also making sure they have enough to get high-quality data that’s needed—so there’s a balance in that.”

Niesel pointed to an example of the dangers of not fully testing medication before its use in people—the use of thalidomide in the mid-twentieth century. Thalidomide was widely taken to reduce anxiety and morning sickness in pregnant women. But the animal testing done before the drug came to market did not include studying its effects during pregnancy. Worldwide, more than 10,000 children whose mothers had taken the drug while pregnant were born with thalidomide-related disabilities.

Oversight roles and compassionate care

The new website also contains easy-to-understand information on UTMB’s programs that oversee animal research—including the Animal Resource Center (ARC) and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

Every institution that receives federal funding for vertebrate animal-based research must have an IACUC in place to ensure compliance with all laws, regulations and policies—and to ensure research is conducted as compassionately as possible.

“Before a scientist can ever do an experiment, they have to get approval from this3rs committee, which includes a chairperson, veterinarians trained in laboratory animal science and medicine, practicing scientists, a non-scientist and an individual not affiliated with the institution,” said Toni D’Agostino, associate vice president for research administration. “Researchers fill out a very extensive document that makes them explain exactly what they are going to do and why, how many animals they are going to use, and more. Once the study is underway, IACUC inspects all research animal facilities regularly and, if needed, will investigate any concerns involving the care and use of animals.”

UTMB’s Animal Resource Center is a robust operation, providing hands-on care for all animals. Six veterinarians and about 65 staff members, including animal technicians, provide comprehensive veterinary and animal husbandry services 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day. ARC staff look at each individual animal— whether it’s a mouse, sheep or nonhuman primate—at least once a day.

“I see our role as a pretty important one—to advocate for the animal, for science and for the institution,” said Doug Brining, DVM, ARC director and attending veterinarian. “We are in a position to really help. We have unique training and understand a lot of different aspects of research from an animal welfare perspective. For example, we review all scientific research that is proposed to help ensure the right animal model is used, the right nutrition is given and any animal discomfort is managed.”

Brining, who transitioned from a private veterinary practice to institutional research about 20 years ago, said most of his colleagues also have worked in the field for decades and care immensely about each animal.

“The caretakers who are there every day are connected to those animals and provide really great care—they even occasionally form strong emotional attachments,” said Brining. “It’s hard for people outside our work to really visualize what animal research looks like, but once they see our facility and realize how clean it is and how professionally it is done, it creates a different image in their mind. I really believe in what we do and the role we play in helping to develop vaccines and surgical models, for example. To see something go from an idea, to being tested in an animal model, and then go into actual patient care is extremely rewarding.”

Improving communication

In addition to the ARC and IACUC, several state and federal regulatory agencies provide oversight and comment or cite when they believe certain rules or protocols have not been followed.

“We want to be transparent with everything we do,” said Toby Boenig, JD, vice president and chief compliance officer, whose office handles all legal and regulatory matters related to animal care at UTMB. “If we have to notify a government agency because of our legal, regulatory and ethical obligations, then we are going to do it—and we will post that communication on the website so our community can see it.”

D’Agostino acknowledged there have been newspaper articles and allegations by certain animal rights activist groups that portray animal research at UTMB in a negative light. She said the website is an opportunity to provide the public with the facts.

“The same standard of care and compassion shown to our patients by health care staff is applied to our animals by the research community,” said D’Agostino. “As in patient care, on rare occasions there are unintended outcomes. When an unintended outcome occurs, we look at the system and processes leading up to the outcome, and take appropriate steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. All of that information, including the reporting of the event to our regulators, will be posted to the website. Additionally, we have developed an Animal Safety Assurance System web form that allows any UTMB employee to report any concerns that they have regarding an incident they observed. Of course, we would also like to hear about positive interactions as well using this same web form. The web form is available through the ARC and IACUC websites. I think that shows the amount of confidence we have in what we are doing.”

UTMB leadership encourage employees, faculty and students to visit the new website and learn more about the groundbreaking research being done every day and the important role animals play in advancing medicine for all.

“We do this type of research because it is essential to our mission to improve health and improve lives,” said Niesel. “We want to push science forward—it’s going to lead to better care for you and me and our children and grandchildren.”