When news broke of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa last March, it was the first time much of the public was confronted with the terrifying disease, known mostly as something strange and deadly affecting people very far away. But for Angela Rasmussen, it marked a turning point in her life’s work. A lead researcher for the Katze Lab’s Ebola team at the University of Washington, she’d been following the complex and—until 2014—largely isolated disease for going on four years.
Contrary to the horror stories that have surfaced in West Africa, not everyone who contracts Ebola falls ill and dies, Rasmussen says, which suggests genetic differences in susceptibility to the disease. It’s that revelation that scientists hope will lead to a cure. Rasmussen and microbiologist Michael Katze, in collaboration with the U.S. National Institutes of Health Rocky Mountain Laboratories and the University of North Carolina, tested Ebola in 47 diverse species of mice to map how the disease will manifest under controlled conditions. Rasmussen and her team also helped test experimental vaccines on nonhuman primates that have proven highly effective. In late March, similar studies orchestrated by an international partnership of companies and governmental health authorities ensured the start of human trials for a vaccine in Guinea, West Africa.
“I think the Ebola outbreak has shown the value of having these animal models, because if we didn’t have [this] data, there’s no way we’d be in human trials right now,” Rasmussen says. But, she adds, “I’ve sacrificed a lot of mice in my time. It’s not something you ever enjoy. It’s not something that ever becomes routine.”
While Ebola still seems like a fairly remote threat in Seattle, questions about how we find a cure and what role animals should play in that process are suddenly very urgent and close to home.
In April, the University of Washington broke ground on a $124 million animal research facility on the southwest corner of campus, overlooking Portage Bay. The two-level, 90,000-square-foot underground Animal Research and Care Facility (ARCF) will consolidate most of the university’s on- and off-campus holding areas for animals used in biomedical studies as well as expand capacity.
It’s that expansion, in particular, that is proving controversial. The new facility will be able to house 930 monkeys and primates, a potential 43 percent increase over the current volume; as well as 10–20 percent more rodents and nearly twice as many pigs. The lab will sit just east of the William H. Foege Building for bioengineering-genome sciences, a tunnel connecting the two. Pacific Street runs north of the construction site.
Administrators hope the new facility will secure the university’s status as a leading research institution both nationally and internationally. Between 1974 and 2009, the UW received more federal research funding than any other public university in the U.S. Since 2009, it’s been among the top two federally funded universities (second only to Johns Hopkins University, which is private), receiving $1.4 billion in 2014.
Last November, the university’s board of regents approved—for a second time—the new research facility during a meeting crowded with protesters. The lab will be funded by an internal lending system that allows the UW to issue bonds; none of it from tuition. Taxpayer money in the form of federal dollars, however, will continue to be used to fund research here.
“This building will allow us to support a new generation of research that is happening across the country, most specifically here,” says David Anderson, executive director of the UW’s Health Sciences Administration. “We’re on the cutting edge of research trends. Moving forward, [we expect] fewer animals to be used, but much more information gleaned from each one of those animals.”
But some animal rights activists, students and alumni, and members of the public say the new building is too costly an investment in an archaic and cruel research model, one they say is losing momentum across the country. On April 25, more than 500 protesters marched to the building site, some chanting, “U-Dub has blood on its hands.”
“The university clearly [knows] it’s a controversial topic,” says Amanda Schemkes, an animal rights activist. “Instead of really dealing with that and engaging with why animal research is not publicly popular anymore—it’s become scientifically dated—they keep trying to literally bury it.”
Despite the university’s ranking in the top tier of federal funding for research, its reputation is clouded by a history of Animal Welfare Act violations. Activists cite these problems when they protest expanded animal research here. As recently as November, the UW was cited (but never fined) for the deaths of three infant monkeys over the course of 2014. The young macaques were killed by older males, or injured so badly by those males that they had to be euthanized. Earlier in that year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, reprimanded the UW for causing unnecessary pain in a series of surgeries on rabbits and a guinea pig. The animals were never given a second dose of pain medication.
In 2006, the UW was placed on probation by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care for building and facility violations linked to poor upkeep. Two years later, the USDA cited the university for a series of unauthorized monkey surgeries led by a neuroscience researcher studying eye movement. Internal documents revealed that over four years, 16 monkeys had been subjected to repeated invasive surgeries. The UW was fined $20,000. The university suffered another blow when, in 2009, a monkey starved to death because of an apparent lapse in researcher protocol. Staff hadn’t weighed the 3-year-old macaque in six weeks.
And for every citation, there are many more accusations. In 2012, the activist group Stop Animal Exploitation Now filed a set of complaints against the UW, pointing to multiple instances of monkeys escaping from their cages, injuring fingers, toes or tails in the process, sometimes so severely that they required amputation. In response, staff for the UW’s Washington National Primate Research Center (WaNPRC) installed a board prominently listing when and who had last checked cage locks.
“Look at what UW is doing. What would it mean if they doubled the amount of animals being used?” asks Rachel Bjork, activist and board president for the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN). She’s been involved in the cause since 2000. “I’d like to see them use some of their grant money and brain power on developing more alternatives to animal testing. Or, heck, even using the alternatives that are already out there on a wider basis.”
Administrators say the new building will help reduce these lapses by centralizing services now scattered throughout the city and campus. They argue that many of the most egregious violations took place at satellite facilities, as in 1995 when five baboons died of cold-weather exposure at a primate-breeding center in Spokane.
Citations for animal research don’t always result in fines, Bjork says. And when they do, they’re a calculated risk. Fines are either too small to derail a study or computed into project budgets. Even abiding by institutional review boards, committees that scrutinize the ethical components of research before it proceeds, is an imperfect system. According to 2014 numbers, 97 percent of the animals used at the UW are mice and fish. Mice, as well as rats and birds, aren’t covered by the Animal Welfare Act.
Although the University of Washington may receive the most attention for its history of citations, there are a number of public and private animal research facilities in the state, including Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories of Everett, a Japanese company that tests pharmaceutical drugs on primates and breeds monkeys for use and sale to other research institutions. Both have histories of complaints, ranging from dead test subjects—a monkey killed during standard cage cleaning—to reports of unnecessary pain during surgical procedures. It’s difficult to quantify and compare incidents between institutions because of the huge variations in budgets. The USDA doesn’t compare facilities to one another; it only ensures that each is compliant with the Animal Welfare Act.
But Anderson notes that the UW has a huge task in managing a research facility of this size. “It’s a significant challenge to be perfectly honest,” he says. “We’re world experts in animal care…but it’s a big program, and we’re constantly evolving every single day.”
Activists have periodically spoken out against the UW’s animal research, organizing protests outside its Belltown primate center and circulating petitions. So when news broke about the underground facility, the troops were already staged, and the response was multigenerational, even global in its reach.
Schemkes is somewhat of a career activist. Now a law student at Seattle University and cofounder of the No New Animal Lab campaign, she participated in multiple causes as a student at the UW, including a local chapter of the Campus Animal Rights Educators.
“After graduating, I got involved with other local animal rights stuff,” she says. “I didn’t do a lot that was UW-focused. But last year I heard that the [board of] regents were voting to approve a new lab and I figured since I’m local and I’m an [alumna], I [should] attend.”
Schemkes was appalled that the university hadn’t conducted a more open and critical conversation about this investment and the unpopularity of a research model rapidly losing public momentum across the country. On this latter point, researchers and activists don’t see eye to eye. Researchers accuse the media of cherry-picking incidents and conflating shrinking research dollars with disinvestments in animal research.
And yet, research institutions, like the UW, have grown more aware of public perception. A Pew Research study published earlier this year found that less than 50 percent of U.S. adults support the use of animals in research. These attitudes are helped along by devastating images taken undercover in labs by animal rights activists, as well as moving videos of rescued lab animals, experiencing their first days walking in grass, feeling the sun on their fur, etc., that are shared and forwarded on social media.
When Schemkes learned that the regents had held a dinner meeting at UW President Michael Young’s house before the public vote on the lab, Schemkes sued the university, claiming failure to comply with Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. For Schemkes, this dinner meeting suggests there may have been a more involved discussion about the lab during which the public—and opponents to the facility—were not permitted to participate. On April 24, King County Superior Court ruled that these regents meetings had violated the Open Public Meetings Act 24 times. As a result, they now take place at the University of Washington Club.
“A lot of our work has been regional and national networking to connect the dots between otherwise disparate animal activist communities, to get them to support one another. We have limited resources, like any social movement,” says Justin Kay, a biology graduate of Portland State University and an animal liberation activist for eight years who has helped organize a number of the protests against the UW. “We’re traveling when necessary, sharing skills, providing information as more experienced organizers to folks newer in the movement and building strong networks of activists.”
The movement embodies a new breed of activism: diverse, mobile and pragmatic, compared to the emotion-fueled campaigns of generations past. Within 30 days of the regents’ decision, Schemkes and her peers had launched a campaign against Skanska USA, the construction company building the facility. Schemkes and her peers hope to challenge the stereotype of animal rights activists as anti-science and anti-progress. She says that citizens in more than 15 cities have participated in protests against the lab, including in Los Angeles, San Antonio and New York City, with actions also taking place in Finland and Sweden. There have been the usual tactics—bullhorns in front of the residence of Skanska’s regional director—but also tactic training workshops and information sessions, a boot camp of sorts for activists.
Kay says the movement follows broader shifts in thinking about animal research. The Gateway to Hell campaign, for instance, is a global effort to end the transport of animals for research. Protesters have successfully encouraged dozens of airlines to ban the lucrative business. Schemkes points to the closure of Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center, which was slated for May 2015. The problem-plagued center had been in the headlines for the deaths of four primates since 2010.
Whether protests and public attitudes influenced that closure is debated. “The issue with Harvard’s center has nothing to do with the trend away from animal research and everything to do with organizational decisions and financial impact,” says the UW’s Anderson. “In fact, the investigators doing the research are still doing research, but they’ve been removed to other institutions and are doing it there. So Harvard is still doing animal research.”
“There are so many alternatives now that more and more scientists are starting to embrace computer models, stem cell [research], different options that can get more accurate results,” Schemkes says. “The public, over the years, has become more aware of alternatives and of the nightmares that happen in labs.”
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced it was retiring hundreds of research chimpanzees and ending its breeding program for biomedical studies, citing an Institute of Medicine study that determined chimpanzees are largely unnecessary for most biomedical and behavioral research. In addition, activist Rachel Bjork points to several independent reviews that suggest animal research fails to predict health outcomes in more than 90 percent of clinical trials.
David Anderson at the UW’s Health Sciences Administration disagrees that animal research is outmoded and unnecessary. As a veterinary student, he became interested in the neuropathology of HIV infection. Initially, his research focused on human cognitive abilities, but as the HIV epidemic raged on, he began studying the primate equivalent of the infection, the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Although he no longer conducts animal research, he understands its value to science.
Anderson notes that the type and scale of animal research at the UW is misunderstood. Animals are used in only 30–35 percent of the university’s research portfolio, although that percentage fluctuates year to year. And researchers are required to use the lowest animal species possible. Higher species are only used if they’re likely to be a successful prelude to human clinical trials. Research initiatives have spanned everything from the most effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and brain cancer to AIDS vaccines, vision research and emerging diseases. And though it is not a measure of the success rate of its animal testing, the UW claims that in 2013, the university was one of the top five nationwide for technologies licensed and commercialization agreements executed.
“What you hear a lot in the activism community is that you don’t need animal models anymore; everything you need to know can be understood from computer models,” Anderson says. “And it’s just not true.” The challenge is understanding how an action or a drug is going to affect a whole body—trillions of cells, billions of interactions. “At this point, if I want to understand the complete biological system, I have to put it at some point in another biological system,” he adds.
Anderson stresses that the UW’s biomedical research has the potential to revolutionize science and care. In one ongoing study using nonhuman primate models, stem cells are used to repair damaged heart muscles. Anderson speculates that the research could someday be used, along with transplants and drugs, as treatment for cardiovascular diseases.
Meanwhile, the UW is engineering technologies that might help to eliminate the need for some animal testing in the future. Dr. Ken Thummel, professor and chair, Department of Pharmaceutics, School of Pharmacy, sees promise in what he calls a “research organ on a chip.” In 2012, the UW team’s project was among 19 research projects chosen by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to use small, three-dimensional silicone and glass chips to grow tissue cells. The eventual goal is to simulate the entire human body. The UW’s team has the task of re-creating a kidney microphysiological system on a chip in the hopes of mimicking the organ for drug testing.
“We already have models where we study cells in a 2-D format,” explains Thummel, referring to the traditional method of growing cell cultures in flat, plastic dishes. “We quickly found out that if we take the exact same cells…they assume more appropriate cell characteristics in 3-D culture. We think that’s important, because cells normally live in a 3-D environment.”
Thummel says the biggest challenge lies in integrating the multiple cell types of the organ and replicating (with quantitative accuracy) the kidney’s ability to transport drugs and react to the drugs with beneficial and adverse effects. There are three remaining years of research funding, and Thummel says the team is finally at a stage where its model has begun to show the characteristics of a real kidney.
“I think the academic community has definitely been trying to turn inward and to think about what we do and to be mindful of disagreements that people in the public have,” says Dr. Thummel. “But I wouldn’t agree that [animal research] is disappearing.”
A look at the renderings of the new lab seems to prove his point. A second underground site just south of the ARCF is already marked for future expansions. Using animals in biomedical testing and the debates over the ethics of that testing will continue—with the public scrutinizing ever more closely what happens in Seattle.