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Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public HealthCAAT

CAATALYST: A Student Newsletter

Volume 1, Number 3


CAATALYST \kat-l-est\ n. (1981): 1) An individual or organization working to reduce, refine and replace animal use in the life sciences; 2) an agent that provokes significant change.


A Student's View of the Laboratory

By Jaina Hirai

The use of animals for medical or scientific research is an issue that all of us must face. Is it worth the sacrifice of animals now to possibly find a cure for diseases tomorrow?

Nearly all of today's medicines and medical treatments were first tested on animals. I visited a laboratory to see what goes on and to find out if the three Rs of CAAT were really being used in science. The laboratory, or "lab" that I observed for three days is a toxicology lab at Johns Hopkins University. I talked to the researchers, observed their experiments and sometimes assisted them.

When I arrived my first day, I knew that some of the experiments in progress used the livers of rats and I was hoping that I wouldn't walk in on a rat execution. Instead, the lab was nearly empty, rock music played on the radio and Snoopy and Far Side comic strips decorated the walls. There were shelves of chemicals, and machines to shake, heat and cool ingredients, but no rats. The researchers were working quietly, looking through microscopes or making notes on graph paper. There were pictures at each researcher's lab table of their families--parents, children, husbands and wives.

Jin, a researcher visiting from China, showed me how to make media, or liquid food, for the bacteria he was growing. He used biochemicals from plants and seaweed, and I wondered when I would see an experiment using rats. Jin explained that he was trying to find out how to prevent or cure cancer using microorganisms for research instead of rats or other animals.

Andrew was looking at how estrogen, a hormone that is naturally in the body and also often prescribed by doctors, could cause cancer. He wasn't using rats either. A third researcher, Thayer, was using human tumor "cell lines" that he received from hospital after an operation. The cells were removed from the cancer patient's body in order to help the patient get well.

Finally I found a researcher who was using rats. Mamata was conducting a study to determine how long liver slices can be used in experiments after they are removed from the rat. She provided different foods and different amounts of oxygen to see what keeps liver usable for the most hours. In order to accomplish this goal, she had to collect hundreds of samples of liver. This is where all the rats go, I thought. But when I assisted Mamata with her experiment, I realized that she didn't use whole rat livers. She used what researchers call "slices," tiny pieces about the size and thickness of a hole made by a hole-puncher for notebook paper. Mamata informed me that at least one hundred slices can be taken from one liver. Very few rats had been sacrificed for this experiment, because the liver was used so economically.

David, a student at Hopkins, took me to see the rats. They were albino, white with red eyes, and most were sleeping when I opened the door to their room. At the sound of my entrance, they woke and scurried around in their cages, some pushing their noses through the bars to be stroked. There were three rats to a cage, and a few were sleeping in a heap together. At one time, each rat was kept separately in its own cage, but when it was discovered that rats were happier together, the lab began to house rats in small groups.

Over the course of three days, I saw all three goals of CAAT demonstrated in this lab. The animal use was reduced constantly, as when Mamata used the liver slices instead of whole livers. The lab had refined the conditions under which the rats were maintained by group-housing them. Finally, I had seen the replacement of animals by in vitro studies in Thayer's experiment when he used the cells from a human tumor to conduct research.

Still, I remained concerned about the use of animals in science, so I asked Andrew how he felt about killing rats to gain knowledge. He replied that he did not like having to use rats, but that there wasn't any other way. Not all experiments can replace animals and still give the information that is needed. Andrew mentioned the thousands of rats that are killed every day by exterminators, and how those rats suffer much more than the lab rats, which are put to sleep quickly and painlessly--another example of refinement. Andrew feels that one day we will not have to experiment on animals any more, but that today it is still necessary. He is confident that scientists will discover what causes liver cancer and find a cure. He said that if a few rats die now, many lives will be saved later.

My time in the lab definitely changed my view of the use of animals in science. I had always been against animal use, thinking it cruel, painful and pointless, but now I see why there is not yet a way to completely replace animal use in research.

Jaina Hirai is currently a freshman at Goucher College in Baltimore. She spent three weeks at CAAT in May, 1995 as her senior project for the Bryn Mawr School.