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Animals in research: A lifesaver

As a leading American research institution, the University of Wisconsin–Madison has many basic and biomedical research programs that require the use of animals. Animals are used to model human disease and explore basic biological processes, and are integral to studies in the agricultural, behavioral and biological sciences, and in human and veterinary medicine.

A recent UW–Madison study compared the environmental and genetic causes of aging. A normal mouse (at left) is joined in a lab by a mouse engineered to age rapidly. The mice have similar ages, but the mouse at right shows all the symptoms of aging, including graying, hair loss and loss of muscle mass. Studying aging in mice gives clues on how to slow aging in people.

This university accepts responsibility for the stewardship of all animals under its care. Because animal models are used only to answer questions that cannot be answered in any other way, experiments are not approved unless the lead investigator can show that no effective alternatives exist.

For many years, animal research at UW–Madison has paid high dividends for human and animal health, ranging from the discovery of vitamins A and B complex and the elimination of rickets and pellagra, to the stunning promise of stem cell research. Today, we conduct research on cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart and kidney disease, transplantation, diabetes and many other topics. Indeed, induced pluripotent stem cells, discovered through primate research at UW-Madison and elsewhere, are already being used to accelerate medical progress while reducing our need for lab animals (see “Stem cells”).

This research is part of a worldwide investigation of basic biology and disease that seeks to improve the human condition. Nobel Prizes for Medicine or Physiology routinely recognize research that relied on animal models. The 2008 prize was awarded for discovering the human immunodeficiency virus, based on work with monkeys, chimpanzees and mice. The 2007 award, for the technique of “knocking out” specific genes, was based in part on mouse work performed here at UW-Madison.

Animal Care and Use at UW–Madison

To ensure proper conduct of research, teaching and outreach, our Animal Care and Use Program

  • encompasses all people, places, procedures and materials needed to support humane care and outstanding research;
  • ensures that all animal research follows federal laws and guidelines;
  • regulates buildings, enclosures, veterinary care and training;
  • receives support from dedicated human and institutional resources;
  • is comprehensively reviewed twice each year.

The ethics of animal research

Research with animals, like research with people, must pass rigorous scientific and ethical review. The ethical foundation is the philosophy of utilitarianism, which deems an action acceptable only if potential benefits outweigh potential  harms. Animal research ethics are applied and taught at multiple places within the university and are built into the review of every proposed use of animals.

Eric Sandgren and Rob Streiffer discuss the ethics of non-human primate research at UW–Madison.