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Animal research key part of Tech work to aid humans

BY MARLENA HARTZ
AVALANCHE-JOURNAL

It's a lofty goal - stopping the problems that vex humanity.

But across Texas Tech, investigators are striving to do so. One is studying a parasite that has infected soldiers in Afghanistan. Another is studying the impact of exposure to radioactive materials.

The investigators have somewhat unlikely aides: Animals.

Joe Don Buckner / Staff

Amber Matthews, Texas Tech animal facility manager, checks on mice used for research at the university.

Behind a locked door in the basement of a building on Tech's campus, dozens of mice scurry around in their cages. They stick their pink noses through metal bars and nibble on biscuits.

The little rodents are healthy, but their grandfathers were exposed to radiation in an attempt to determine how many generations can be affected by a disaster like the one at Chernobyl, where millions of Ukrainians were exposed to radioactive material from an explosion at a nuclear plant in 1986.

There are 120 approved studies that involve animals at Tech and 10 facilities on campus that house research animals, said John McGlone, professor and director of the Tech Animal Care Resources Center.

Joe Don Buckner / Staff

One of the rats at Texas Tech used for animal research at the university.

The number of Tech studies that involve animals has grown in the past three years, and it likely will continue to grow as Tech officials have pledged to enhance research at the university, McGlone said.

But the sacrifice of animals to better human health is not taken lightly, officials said. Strict measures are taken to protect research animals and to ensure experiments like the one recently discovered at the University of New Mexico - in which mice were hung by their tails with adhesive tape, shocked with an electric current and forced to swim until they almost drowned - will not happen at Tech.

Before an investigator embarks on a study that uses animals, he or she must get approval from the Tech Animal Care and Use Committee, McGlone said. Obtaining approval is a lengthy process, he said. Investigators must:

• Justify their use of animals. For instance, could the same study be done using a computer instead of an animal?

• Justify the number of animals used. For instance, could the study be done using one animal instead of 10?

• Reduce pain inflicted on animals in research.

• Replace animals with lesser animals, when possible. For instance, "use a shrimp, instead of a monkey ... We're concerned about the cognitive experiences of animals," McGlone said. Primates are not currently used in Tech research, he said.

In addition to these rules, other protective measures exist for animals: The university voluntarily seeks accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International; it is regularly inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and it employs two veterinarians.

These measures reflect McGlone's philosophy.

"We have to be caring and responsible as human beings and have respect for other species. Animals, even plants, deserve our respect and care," he said.

On campus, McGlone is known as the 'pig man,' he admits with a laugh. The nickname stems from his research with swine. Since the 1970s, he's been looking for ways to make pigs, primarily those used in agriculture, happier.

Happier pigs, he explained, translate into more productive farms. That applies to animals used in research, too, he said.

"For me," McGlone said, "(animal research) is about helping people, and the best way to help people is to help animals."

The job of Amber Matthews: Make sure animals at Tech are happy.

"We try to keep the animals in the most natural environment possible," said Matthews, who manages Tech's 10 animal holding facilities, where temperature and humidity are controlled and other measures are taken to make the animals comfortable.

Mice, for instance, are given cotton pads for nesting material, and reptiles deep bowls of water. Some animals at the facilities were found in abused homes and donated to the center, Matthews said. Some, such as Elvis, the Burmese python, and Ruben, the monitor lizard, are named.

"Today's consumer," McGlone said, "doesn't just care about the fact they can go to a store and find drugs. They don't want animals hurt."