The curtain on animal research at Queen’s lifts an inch

The Journal obtains correspondences detailing non-human primate use in research, transportation 

Non-human primates are often used to model humans in scientific research.
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If Air Canada wasn’t going to fly the monkeys, Queen’s would find another way.
 

In 2012, the University faced a problem: Air Canada had stopped shipping non-human primates used for research. While closely guarded, Queen’s animal research program had to continue receiving these animals. It would get its monkeys, either through competing airlines or trucking.

Air Canada’s decision followed calls from animal rights organizations, and the policies of other airlines that ended research animal transportation, including Delta, Virgin and Northwest.

Meanwhile, Queen’s University and the Public Health Agency of Canada were among the few voices to protest the airline’s change.

In letters from Queen’s University to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) in 2011, which were obtained by The Journal via a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FIPPA) request, then-Vice-Principal (Research) Steven Liss wrote to the CTA it was “unacceptable that Air Canada would make this request.”

In the letters, he argued the changes by Air Canada would “result in unnecessary stress, distress, and discomfort to the animals in transit which may potentially cause life-threatening conditions.”

Rather than shifting to non-animal research methods, the letters indicated Air Canada’s actions would force Queen’s to reroute the animals “from Shanghai to Beijing, a much colder city in the winter with increased risk of cold exposure.”

Alternatively, the animals could also be “rerouted up to 5,000 km by truck through the US.”

According to Liss, the non-human primates are extremely important in biomedical research. They still had to be used, regardless of their route to Kingston. The letters make clear “nonhuman primates are maintained under conditions of excellent care with high regard to their physical and psychological health.”
 
They also argue “nonhuman primates have been used to seek cures and treatments for a plethora of diseases that affect all human beings.” Among the listed diseases are Alzheimer’s, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.
 
Currently, animal subjects are used because of their potential to find cures in humans, according to Queen’s veterinarian Andrew Winterborn.
 
Winterborn said while the University focuses on following the three R’s of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement, it’s not possible for all animal research to be eliminated. As such, the University is working around the transportation changes.
 
To get the animals here, Winterborn said some airlines will still fly directly into Canada, particularly using Air France. He added Queen’s follows guidelines of “transporting animals the shortest distance possible, when they do have to be transported.” 
 
He couldn’t speak directly to the current route Queen’s uses.
 
Winterborn said all transportation follows several guidelines, including those from the United Nations and the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), prioritizing animal welfare. The letters The Journal obtained also profess prioritizing animal welfare in transportation and in research. “Research with nonhuman primates is highly regulated in Canada and animals used in research are protected by several national and international laws,” they state.
 
According to Winterborn, Ontario’s Animals for Research Act outlines this regulation. In enforcing the act, there can be unannounced facility inspections. Institutions must legally provide access to inspectors, and if they’re not compliant, can be shut down.  
 
All these regulations and laws are built on the idea that the use of animals, including non-human primates, is vital to finding human cures. 
 
Yet, scientists have already found many treatments for Alzheimer’s in animals. The problem is these developments haven’t always translated over to humans.
 
Winterborn said when proposing new models to the University, researchers must “indicate to the [University Animal Care Committee] why a non-animal model cannot be used.” 
 
He acknowledged animals and humans might not have a one-to-one relationship in terms of animal results working for humans. For animal successes to translate over to humans, it can take several animal models to “put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
 
Charu Chandrasekera doesn’t think using multiple animals is as effective as working towards non-animal models for research.
 
Chandrasekera runs the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM) at the University of Windsor. She said animals in research are “getting replaced at a global level” and cited a wider shift towards non-animal models.
 
“In many countries, they even have legislative mandates, and [strategic] road maps to shift away from animal testing,” Chandrasekera said.
 
In Windsor, the CCAAM has three main initiatives: “research, academic, and regulatory”. The pillars focus on developing human-based methods of research, educating a new generation “to think outside the cage,” and creating methods for toxicology testing, used for products like household cleaners.
 
Animals aren’t the only way to learn more about humans, according to the CCAAM.
 
“You can use many different methods to look at human biology without using animals. It’s a matter of being creative, being innovative,” Chandrasekera said.
 
Animal research faces its own hurdles. In terms of animal results working in humans, “the translational success rate right now is at an all-time low,” Chandrasekera said.
 
“Ninety-five per cent of drugs tested—and found to be safe and effective in animals—fail in human clinical trials,” Chandrasekera said. Of the five per cent that make it to the market, another 50 per cent per cent are withdrawn or receive black-box warnings.
 
The reason is an over-reliance on animal results, according to Chandrasekera.
 
While successes certainly have come from using animals to model humans, “scientists have a tendency to glorify these limited successes and completely disregard the colossal failures,” Chandrasekera said.
 
In terms of failures, Chandrasekera cites animal successes with Alzheimer’s treatment. Mice have been treated time and again, but humans still can’t be.
 
For Chandrasekera, it’s time to shift away from animals. While they may not be completely replaceable at the moment, researchers still “need to continue in the path forward.”
 
“I think animals have done their part, [and] served their purpose,” she said. To her, this change in research is comparable to cars replacing horse-drawn carriages.
 
Additionally, in 2014, The Kingston Whig-Standard reported on local animal rights advocates criticizing Queen’s, as there’s historically been little information available discussing its animal research practices.
 
In The Journal’s FIPPA request, the University denied providing “the quantity, species and purpose of all animals used for research testing purposes at Queen’s University.” They cite that this information could “endanger the life or safety of a person or endanger the security of a building or vehicle.”
 
In recent months, Queen’s has instead released information including the total number of animals used in 2017 research (23,544), the ratio of types of animals used, and the nature of experiments. 
 
According to the data, no experiments are conducted “which cause severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of anaesthetized conscious animals.” These guidelines are outlined by the CCAC. 
 
Based on the CCAC guidelines, the highest pain level experiments which could be conducted at Queen’s include forced radiation sickness, major surgeries under anesthesia or exposure to noxious stimuli with no escape. This level of experimentation makes up 21.8 per cent of Queen’s animal experiments.
 
Pain tolerance levels aren’t used at the CCAAM in Windsor, which focuses instead on eliminating any animal experiments. It was originally pitched to be at Queen’s, according to Chandrasekera, who runs the centre.
 
According to University vet Winterborn, “Queen’s was interested in moving forward with trying to develop a centre around the three R’s and alternatives.”
 
Ultimately, he said Chandrasekera’s team walked away. “[The CCAAM] were in discussion with other institutions, and made the decision to go elsewhere,” Winterborn said.
 
Chandrasekera instead said Queen’s had wanted a phenome centre, and hadn’t ever been open to a general alternative methods centre in the first place. “Other than walking away, there was nothing else to do,” she said, adding she was nonetheless pleased the centre ended up in Windsor. 
 
For the near future, it looks like Queen’s is still going to rely on its monkeys, while other institutions shift away from animals.
 

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