I’ve had a busy few months with moving and changing jobs, so a lot of my mail has been waylaid. I dropped by the old research facility this past weekend and found that I had some mail waiting for me, including the September issue of Lab Animal.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but my favourite part of the magazine is the “protocol review” section. There are always good ethical issues being raised (though I don’t always agree with the conclusions of the people who write in!) This month was no exception.
The article describes a researcher who submits a protocol to his local animal committee for review. His protocol involved the testing of a drug which prevents hearing loss associated with age. The animal committee suggested the researcher use the same animal for both testing and control (ie. drug in one ear, saline in the other) as this would reduce the numbers of animals required by half. The researcher complied, and had good results from his preliminary study. So he submitted a grant application to the NIH, using a similar study design. However, the NIH argued that he should use separate animals for control and treatment because the drug could have migrated through the blood stream from one ear to the other, thus affecting the “control” ear. The animal care committee still argued for using the same animals for both control and treatment. So what does the researcher do?
The answers given in the magazine is the usual mix of scientific righteousness and idealism. The answer favoured by most respondents was that the animal care committee should not be dictating scientific protocol. Ouch. So we should let science, untempered by ethics and humanitarian concerns, run it’s course? I would disagree.
It’s hard to judge the case because not a lot of detail is provided about the study itself. However, it did say that the study looked at whether this drug could improve hearing as animals age. So, instead of having a side by side comparisons, could they have instead quantified the animal’s hearing before administering the drug and then quantified it again after administering the drug? Improvement in hearing could still be detected then. Or, perhaps the drug itself needed to be improved before further experiments. For example, did the investigator know how long the drug could persist before decaying? If it decayed rapidly, it may not even be possible for it to reach the other ear, thus rendering the issue moot. Or, could the drug be applied topically, somehow?