Answering your questions about the use of animals in research

I get a lot of questions about research, and especially about animal research. At the MS Society, we fund studies of all kinds, including those which involve the use of animals. When I was a graduate student at the University of Ottawa, I was involved in animal research, and know first-hand why this type of research is important. I thought this would be a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about animal research, and offer some perspective on the subject.

Is animal research necessary? What about alternatives?

Not all scientific research uses animals. Some research uses cells (you might have heard of in vitro research), some research uses computer modelling, and some research analyzes statistics and observations. So, is animal research necessary all the time? No.

When appropriate alternatives are available scientists have a moral and ethical obligation to use them. So if research can be done without using animals, it is. Besides that, animal research is expensive! Each animal must be bought or bred, fed, housed and cared for each and every day. It costs a lot of money to do animal research. However, there are some cases where animal research is the only method to answer a scientific question. Cells in a petri dish can’t provide us with the same information as a living organism. Animal research allows us to model human diseases such as MS, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Treatments for diseases or illnesses are tested on animals before testing is done in humans to determine their safety and efficacy, as well as to examine possible side effects. We can’t get the same kind of information from examining cells in a test tube. Although other methods may complement animal studies, currently, research in animals is a highly effective way of better understanding a particular disease and how it can treated.

Are there regulations on the use of animals in science?

The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) is an independent group created in 1968 that oversees the ethical use of animals in science in Canada. The CCAC sets standards on animal use and care which apply across Canada. Under the umbrella of the CCAC, each institution that carries out animal research has its own animal care committee overseeing the appropriate use and treatment of animals in research.

Any research project which intends to use animals must attain ethics approval from these boards, and each and every animal proposed to be used must be justified and accounted for. The guiding principles used by these ethics boards are called the Three Rs: Replacement alternatives to using animals, ways to Reduce the number of animals used, and how to Refine experiments to minimize animal pain and distress.

How are the animals treated?

Each animal’s welfare is of the utmost importance in research and each animal is treated with respect. Experimental procedures are modified to minimize pain and/or distress that the animal may experience. Animals in a research facility are cared for by not only the researchers doing the study, but an animal care team as well. If an animal falls ill, they are provided with appropriate treatment as assessed by a vet. Besides all of that, sick or stressed animals don’t make for good experimental subjects! Side effects from sickness could mask or convolute experimental outcomes. All parties involved benefit from healthy animals.

What types of animals are tested? Where do the animals come from?

In 2011, fish were most commonly used for research in Canada, accounting for 39% of total animals used. Mice represented 32% of the total and rats represented 6.8% of the total. Dogs, cats and non-human primates combined accounted for 0.6% of the total number of animals used. Mice and rats, the most common mammals used in science research are almost all raised and bred in specialized laboratory facilities with strict health and regulation standards.

How has animal research helped humans and other animals?

Animal research has been central in many scientific discoveries. Importantly, animal research has led to the development of vaccines and antibiotics. The discovery of penicillin, and the development of vaccines for smallpox, polio, and measles (and others!) has virtually eradicated some of these illnesses.

Animal research led to the use of insulin to control diabetes, the development of therapies for treating cancers, and treatments for stroke patients. The importance of vitamins in pregnancy, especially folic acid, stemmed from animal research. Ground-breaking work and cutting-edge techniques are often examined in animals before they are applied in human studies. For example, stem cell transplantation has been examined in animals to determine the effectiveness and safety of the procedure.

Much of our knowledge concerning how the brain functions has developed from animal research. Undoubtedly, animal research has benefited humans, but importantly, this same research has benefited animals. Vaccines and medicines are used to ensure an animal’s health, leading to longer, healthier lives for animals. For example, animal research has led to the development of vaccines for rabies and distemper as well as treatments for heartworm.

What about animal research and MS?

Animal research has been instrumental in enhancing our understanding of MS. Animal research has been able to replicate the demyelination and chronic inflammation observed in MS. As a result, animals have become important models of MS disease, and have been invaluable in developing therapies that control inflammation and slow progression. Animal models aren’t perfect, and their use in research has limitations, but they remain one of the most useful tools we have for studying MS. Animal research has been pivotal in permitting us to examine underlying processes occurring in the brain. We now know key players involved in important processes such as inflammation, neurodegeneration, and myelin repair. This kind of insight would not have been possible without animal research.

What is the MS Society funding that involves the use of animals for research in MS?

The MS Society is proud to fund high quality, innovative research that will significantly impact the MS field. Here are just a few examples of the ground-breaking research we fund across Canada that involves the use of animals.

  • Dr. Pere Santamaria and his team at the University of Calgary have discovered a new way to treat autoimmune diseases, including MS, by developing a ‘nanovaccine’ that can decrease autoimmune responses. Dr. Santamaria and his team are testing this ‘nanovaccine’ in mouse models of MS as an essential step toward human clinical trials.
  • Dr. Manu Rangachari at Université Laval is using a genetically engineered type of mouse that displays the transition from relapsing-remitting to secondary progressive MS. Using these mice, his research team will study the role of two genes which influence the activity of immune cells in MS. His hope is to shed light on molecular mechanisms which lead to the transition to progressive MS, and uncover new targets for MS treatment.
  • Dr. Dunn and her colleagues at the University Health Network identified a gene, PPARdelta, which makes microglia – immune cells which reside in the brain – less inflammatory and thus less able to damage nerves. This project aims to understand the role of PPARdelta in the progression of disability in an animal model of MS. They believe that increasing the activity of this gene may be one way of treating progressive MS.
  • Dr. Samuel David and his research team at McGill University are examining the anti-inflammatory properties of M2 macrophages. These researchers plan to transplant three types of M2 cells in mice with an MS-like disease to test which type improves clinical symptoms the most. The results from this study will provide evidence as to whether M2 cell transplantation is a viable therapeutic method of treating MS.
  • Dr. Marc Horwitz at the University of British Columbia is interested in examining the connection between Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and MS. By using an animal model of MS, this team of researchers has demonstrated that mice with an MS-like disease more closely resemble characteristics of human MS when infected with EBV, compared with mice that are not infected with EBV. By using animal models, Dr. Horowitz and team aim to develop therapeutics to prevent the indirect effects of EBV in individuals with MS and stop disease progression. This study will also provide more clear evidence of the role viruses play as a potential MS trigger.
  • Dr. Jennifer Gommerman at the University of Toronto is interested in determining the role B cells play in MS. Using a unique mouse model of MS, Dr. Gommerman and her research team have discovered that B cells accumulate in the brain and spinal cord in the disease model, and that these cells contribute to inflammation in the brain.  Dr. Gommerman has teamed up with other MS Society-funded researchers on a multi-million dollar collaborative grant to further explore B cells in MS.
  • Dr. Shalina Ousman at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute is interested in a molecule called Cystatin C. This molecule is increased in the brains of people with MS as well as in mice that exhibit a MS-like disease. Dr. Ousman and her research team are working to further understand the role of Cystatin C in hopes of developing novel treatments for MS targeting this molecule.
  • Dr. Fabio Rossi at the University of British Columbia has developed a novel experimental strategy to examine the specific role of white blood cells in the central nervous system (CNS) in MS. By surgically joining two mice in a way that leads their blood to be shared, Dr. Rossi and colleagues will determine whether incoming white blood cells play an active role in causing damage in the CNS or whether they are just attracted to clean debris caused by damage. Preliminary findings suggest blood cells infiltrating the CNS cause progression of an MS-like disease in mice.

To read more about these and others studies we fund, check out our MS Research Summaries!

Categories Research

National vice-president, research, past MS researcher, and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from University of Ottawa. Leads the MS Society's research program to find the cure for MS and improve the quality of life for people affected by the disease.

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