Inside the Berman Zebrafish Lab, Jason Berman and his team work to discover new and improved treatments by studying diseased zebrafish cells. It’s a useful tool in trying to design better therapies.
“Zebrafish have very similar genes to us and have very similar cells to us,” says Berman. “And they’re also transparent, which means we’re able to see what’s going on inside the embryos as they’re developing in a way that would be very difficult to do in mice and other animal models.”
Marine animals, like the zebrafish studied by Berman’s IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie Medical School collaboration, are subject to the most recent policy review about animal maintenance by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. But some of the other guidelines used for research animal care have not been revised since 1999. The CCAC’s ethics of animal investigation document goes back further, unchanged since first being published in 1989.
Health Canada states that all medicine must go through testing on animals before it is considered safe for consumption. That testing is crucial to human health, but often covert. Millions of animals are used for research purposes each year in Canada. All federally-funded research initiatives are done in collaboration with the CCAC, which gives federal grants to any institutions complying with their protocols
Reports from the CCAC, conducted every three years, are by default confidential. Unless the institution decides to waive the confidentiality agreement, no one outside the CCAC and the institution’s head of research can access the report. Only the University of British Columbia publishes its CCAC reports, demonstrating a commitment to transparency. Dalhousie University’s reports remain confidential.
The organization publishes annual reports, however, the most recent statistics of animal use they reference are from three years ago. The peer-review process is a slow one, says Dr. Mark Torchia, chair of CCAC’s board of direction, so changes to CCAC documents take time.
“The CCAC has modernized its methodology for data collection and analysis in order to enhance its accountability to the Canadian public,” he says. The CCAC says it will publish the annual data for 2012 and 2013 in 2015.
Every scientist involved in research at a CCAC-approved institution must go through training, the completion of which awards them with a Good Animal Practice certificate. Each institution involved with the CCAC must also have its own animal care committee. Committees the CCAC uses to judge institutions are made up of a mix of professionals responsible for ethical animal treatment, and approval is “generally by consensus.”
“Basically the committee acts as a collective conscience for the institution regarding the humane use of animals in research on this campus,” explains Chris Harvey-Clark, director of animal care at Dalhousie.
Eileen Donovan-Wright, an associate dean at Dalhousie and member of the CCAC’s board of directors, says the group does good work.
“I have been on assessments across the country and am always impressed and humbled by the dedicated work of animal care staff, veterinarians, community volunteers, local animal care committees and each volunteer who donates time.”
The CCAC’s reports state there are around three million animals used in Canadian scientific study annually. Fish are the most popular animals for research in Canada, with an average of over one million used each year. They’re often less expensive to purchase and maintain than other animals.
“There are some occasions where important, often life-saving, research requires the use of animals in research studies,” says Harvey-Clark.