Animals Research at UBC

Why animal research is more essential than ever

John Hepburn, UBC Vice President Research and International, makes the case for animal research in the Vancouver Sun of Monday, March 12th 2012 (page A-7)

This week, local animal activists leveled serious allegations of misconduct against an internationally respected UBC neuroscientist who has dedicated her career to saving lives (Vancouver Sun, March 7, SPCA investigates UBC’s treatment of monkeys). Her research seeks to investigate and treat Parkinson’s disease, a fatal brain disorder, and the debate centres around four monkeys that were humanely euthanized following an approved research procedure.

The activists have called for an investigation by the BC SPCA. Our university has a collegial relationship with the SPCA, and they do important work. Their inspectors are welcome to visit our animal care facilities anytime because we are proud of the highly regulated, world-class research conducted there.

Is research with animals no longer necessary, as the activists believe? Can we rely exclusively on other methods to treat heart and lung disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that threaten the lives of thousands of British Columbians? Should we simply make a quantum leap from computer models to human subjects?

The truth is that research with animals is complex, expensive, and ethically challenging—but it is absolutely necessary to save lives and treat diseases. Computer models, cell cultures, and tissue samples are not an acceptable substitute for a complex living organism. We fundamentally disagree with those who believe we should experiment directly on human beings before determining whether potential treatments are effective in animals.

This is precisely why macaque monkeys are so valuable in developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease, which threatens 1 in 100 people over the age of 60. Following strict approved protocols and under the supervision of a veterinarian, our researcher injected 18 monkeys with small quantities of a drug that induces Parkinson-like symptoms. Her results showed that monkeys can be reliably used to test the effects of promising new treatments for Parkinson’s disease. This single study has accelerated a massive global research effort in Parkinson’s disease.

We regret that four monkeys lost their lives in the course of this study, despite our best efforts to save them. We also regret that five million people worldwide are living each day with the terrifying effects of Parkinson’s disease. Is this an easy ethical decision to make? Not at all, and there are widely conflicting opinions on the value of a life. For those interested in a third-party analysis of the activists’ allegations, I recommend Paul Browne’s article on

Imagine for a moment what our lives would be like without animal research. We would not have antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplants, blood transfusions, or insulin. Chemotherapy for cancer would not exist. Severe birth defects would be commonplace because we would not know that folic acid helps to prevent them. And pandemics such as avian influenza would claim many, many more lives than they do.

There has never been a more critical time for animal research. The world’s half-billion Baby Boomers are entering the prime stage in life for brain disorders, heart and lung disease, stroke and cancer. If we do not do everything we can to address these grave health issues now, they will extract an unprecedented toll in lives and place an enormous burden on caregivers, families, and our taxpayer-funded health care system.

We have a choice. We can stand by and wait for technological solutions that might allow us to completely remove animals from the research process. Or, we can exercise the duty of care we have to our relatives, friends and neighbours who are suffering now, and use all available means to find solutions now—by using animals in research ethically, humanely, and in full compliance with the law. As a civilized and enlightened society, the choice is ours to make.

UBC will continue to support the courageous and dedicated scientists who are willing to conduct this research to save lives, in spite of the public harassment they face. I hope you will support them, too.

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia


Animal Research

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