Fighting for transparency with Queen’s haemophiliac dog colony

Growing concerns about live animal research

Queen's is home to a colony of dogs with haemophilia that are used for live animal research.
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In the basement of Botterell Hall, below the scattered study spaces and underground lecture halls lie some of Queen’s more contentious research labs. 

The live animal research facilities hold a range of companion species, including dogs. Most famously, a research colony of schnauzers, spaniels and beagles carrying the sex-linked gene for haemophilia  (a rare blood clotting disease) have been held and studied at Queen’s since 1981.

Although the research conducted on the colony has given rise to ground-breaking leaps in understanding the disease, it has met resistance around Kingston. In April 2014, The Kingston-Whig Standard published an article citing lack of transparency in animal research at Queen’s. The Journal published articles in 2006, 2014 and 2015 citing an increased demand for accountability when it comes to live animal research on campus. 

This isn’t the first time concerns have been raised surrounding the lack of transparency about the animals used at research institutes around the world. For example, universities in some European countries are now required by law to disclose information on animal numbers, species and breeds upon request. 

While most schools in Canada don’t disclose this information on their websites for public access, some do. For example, UBC provides detail about the animal numbers and species used in their labs. 

At Queen’s, the University links the policies and procedures of the University Animal Care Committee (UACC) and the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) guidelines on their website, but doesn’t disclose the specificities of their  research subjects.  

“The lives of lab animals at Queen’s are hidden behind a wall of secrecy,” Sue Donaldson, Queen’s Animal Defense (QAD) representative said to The Journal via e-mail. “We don’t know how many animals, of which species, are on campus. We don’t know what experiments are being conducted.”

Donaldson said the only way QAD can gain insight on the use of live animals at Queen’s is through vigilant monitoring of published papers that the University’s researchers produce every year. 

“[The studies] describe animals being purposefully and catastrophically injured — their spinal cords severed, heart attacks induced, brain damage inflicted,” Donaldson said. “QAD’s position is that the use of animals in research and education at Queen’s does not meet any meaningful ethical standards.”

Currently, Canada has a tiered system to address the requests for animal models and the use of any and all animals used for scientific purposes. 

On the national level, the CCAC sets guidelines and policies for the use of all animals in science. As a research institute that receives funding from the tri-council agencies (CIHR, NSERC, Heart & Stroke), Queen’s is required to hold a certificate of good animal practice. 

“[The CCAC] visit tri-annually and assess the overall animal care and use program, which then would lead to reviewing our overall program. If it’s a successful assessment we receive [the certificate],” Dr. Andrew Winterborn, one of the University veterinarians, said in an interview with The Journal

The facilities at Queen’s are subject to unannounced inspections by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to ensure compliance with UACC regulations.

The UACC is the barrier for animal research at Queen’s. The composition of the committee is dictated by national level recommendations and includes two community members that have no personal interest in protocol approval, to represent the Canadian public. The committee then sets their own policies which are reviewed by the CCAC. 

Located somewhere under Botterell Hall, the colony is one of two canine haemophiliac colonies in North America (the other located at Chapel Hill in North Carolina). The colony was established at Queen’s due to the particular interest in bleeding disorders at the University in combination with the unique expertise of the research team when it was established in 1981. 

The Queen’s colony was the subject of a QAD blog post in 2014 in which they cited concerns about the necessity of haemophilia research on gene transfer therapy, the lethality of the disease and the financial responsibility for undertaking research that might yield expensive treatment options. 

The population and breakdown between normal and haemophilia-bred dogs that the colony includes remains unknown to the public. Dr. Winterborn also declined to share how many dogs make up the colony at present, saying it fluctuates regularly.

According to Dr. Winterborn, the colony was established with dogs with the spontaneous mutation and then they were brought in and used as an animal model for haemophilia. 

“[Haemophilia] is a severely devastating disease within the human population. It’s not uncommon for animal models to be directly related to the human disease where there’s a very similar genetic mutation,” Winterborn said of the colony’scontribution to haemophilia treatment in humans and animals.

According to the Hemophilia Federation of America, 400,000 people worldwide are affected by the disease. 

“It’s important to note that the understanding of the disease pathology and treatment strategies, whether it’s around haemophilia or another disease process, goes back into veterinary medicine. “[The research] benefits the human population and the animal population as well,” he continued.

As part of the enforced animal use protocol and contrary to the 2014 QAD blog post, Dr. Winterborn said there’s an adoption program in place for animals that have reached their maximum number of safe litters and animals whose genetic makeup is overrepresented in the colony. At present, there’s a waiting list for the adoption of those animals into the Queen’s community. 

While some of the dogs are housed at a separate facility off-campus in order to allow increased outdoor access for exercise, the animals that actually have the genetic blood clotting disorder are held indoors 24 hours a day. 

Dr. Winterborn explained that allowing outdoor access is simply too risky. “We need to take care of them because of their bleeding disorder,” he said. “We cannot have those animals in an outdoor facility because we would run the risk of those animals having bleeds.” 

According to Dr. Winterborn, everything pertaining to the use of animals in research at Queen’s is driven by the three Rs: refinement, reduction and replacement. On a national scale as well as within campus, the goal is to refine the ethical treatment and sourcing of animal tissues, reduce the number of animals used without loss of the use of scientific validity and replace animal models with less sentient animals or bacterial-colony based models. 

“Obviously with dogs there’s increased sensitivity because they are companion animals.” Winterborn said. “We are looking at how we can increase our transparency around the use of animals in research at Queen’s and that’s an ongoing discussion. I think we will see some changes around our transparency in the coming months.”

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