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Lab animals grounded

Animal-rights activists’ success in convincing airlines not to ship lab animals is troubling the US biomedical community. Rebecca Trager reports.

Experimental animals are regularly flown between labs in the US and beyond. But the number of companies willing to carry them is shrinking. Researchers fear that studies might ultimately be damaged or stopped because the necessary model animals can’t be transported to labs.

The latest move came on 19 September, when the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced that it has convinced the world’s largest cargo airlines, including FedEx and UPS, to state in writing that they won’t ship animals to laboratories.

“UPS has a policy of not shipping live mammals of any kind, including those going to research laboratories,” says UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg. She notes that the company is considering extending the policy beyond mammals, but any formal changes will not be announced until next year.

FedEx has had an unofficial policy of not shipping animals to research labs for about five years. After talks with PETA, it has put this in writing.

“This is an issue for the research community,” says JR Haywood, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s assistant vice-president for regulatory affairs and a pharmacologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“When investigators move from one institution to another, they need to ship their colonies,” he explains. “Also, when they want to exchange research models with collaborators elsewhere—which the National Institutes of Health promotes—they have to be transported somehow.”

Many commercial airlines, including Delta, American Airlines, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas, already refuse to transport some experimental animals, such as primates. Continental, which is merging with United, appears to be the only major US carrier that will ship nonhuman primates, and the only large European airline that will do so is Air France. All of the airlines’ policies on mice, rats, cats and other animals destined for research remain unclear.

“This could very well be problematic for the research enterprise,” says Benjamin Corb of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. If researchers cannot send animals by air, then long delays in delivery may prevent labs from conducting research on a healthy specimen, he suggests.

Some scientists are angry that airlines have acquiesced to PETA, which has a history of confrontational tactics such as ads suggesting milk causes autism. But the situation might also represent an opportunity for research groups, scientific societies or small companies to develop a business that specialises in transporting animals for research.

“It is a problem, but it may not be an insurmountable problem,” says Haywood. “In the free market, it’s an opportunity for smaller companies to step up and fill these needs.”

The transportation difficulties are one aspect of what many observers see as a general withdrawal from animal research. For example, the two major US federal funders of health research, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are cutting back on chimpanzee studies.

Last month, NIH announced that 110 of its chimpanzees, housed at a research centre in Louisiana, are “permanently ineligible” for research. NIH said the move stems from an Institute of Medicine report released last December, which concluded that use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is mostly unnecessary. The agency retains about 450 chimpanzees eligible for use in medical and behavioural research.

Meanwhile, Tanja Popovic, the CDC’s deputy associate director for science, confirmed that the agency no longer funds any chimp research in a 10 September letter to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a not-for-profit organisation promoting alternatives to animal research. The letter was responding to PCRM’s concerns about three protocols that the CDC had recently funded involving collecting blood and liver biopsies from young female chimpanzees for viral hepatitis research.

Popovich said the protocols cited by PCRM refer to only two studies, both of which are now closed and inactive. She noted, however, that the IOM committee said there was no suitable animal model besides chimpanzees in which to test a preventive hepatitis C virus vaccine. She also pointed out that the IOM committee’s members were unable to reach consensus on the necessity of chimpanzee research for the development of such a vaccine.

Although alternatives such as computer modelling are growing in importance, finding the right animal in which to test a hypothesis remains an essential part of biomedical research. “Every time we lose an important animal model, science is set back a little bit,” warns Haywood.

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