Frequently Asked Questions about VA Animal Research
1. Why is VA involved in animal research?
VA is committed to conducting research that is needed to improve medical treatment and provide hope for Veterans and their families. It is often necessary to work with animal models to provide the treatments and cures that the public demands to relieve their suffering. Our society accepts that medical progress depends on studies that involve human participants, and that it is unethical to try things on humans without first testing with animals. Animal research maximized the contributions that VA can make toward improved health for Veterans, all Americans, and people around the world.
2. Why can't this research be done with computer models?
Computer models can help to reduce the number of animals that have to be studied. But we can build accurate computer models only if we understand how living systems work, and much of what we need to know in order to build the computer models is still available only from animal research. Studying animals is still the only scientifically viable way to get some of the knowledge we need to improve human health, and indeed the health of other animals that benefit from veterinary care.
3. Why can't this research be done with just rats and mice?
Over 99 percent of the animals studied in VA research are rats and mice because these are good models for many questions. However, some questions that need to be answered cannot be answered by studying rats or mice alone. For example, life-changing medical devices sized for humans or larger animals cannot be evaluated in rodent models. Some aspects of how the bodies of rats and mice work are also different from how human bodies work, so it would not be sensible to study rats and mice to understand human conditions or disorders involving those known differences.
4. What good is animal research at all, if animals are different from humans?
The key is to learn from animals what we can, because of the ways that they are similar to humans, but to recognize the limitations. If we know that some animals have disorders that are similar to what humans have, and we can learn from those animals which potential treatments don't work, that narrows down the possibilities that should be tried in humans. Of course, it is critical to choose the best models for developing the cures and treatments that our Veterans depend on.
5. What about the statistics I read about that a lot of drugs that work in animals turn out not to be useful in humans?
That's why it's still necessary to test in humans after the animal research is done. But without the animal research, a lot more would have to be tested in humans, and there would be a lot more people who would get drugs that do not work or have unacceptable side effects before we could figure out which ones are safe and effective.
5. How do we know that the animal research being done really needs to be done?
Animal research is difficult to do, and requires large investments of time and effort, so researchers are willing to do it only if it really needs to be done. Researchers propose projects that they believe need to be done, and those proposals are reviewed by other experts in the field, who decide which proposals are most worth doing and therefore should get funding support.
6. How do we know that the animals are being taken good care of?
Many of the people who are involved in animal research are animal lovers who are passionate about making sure that the animals that we study are properly cared for. It is also in the best interests of good research for the animals to be healthy, comfortable, and content — pain and distress make the body function differently from normal, which makes it harder to understand how the results apply to humans. Every animal that is studied in VA research is under the care of an attending veterinarian who has postgraduate training and/or experience in laboratory animal medicine, which is a specialty area of veterinary medicine that deals with the needs of research animals. These veterinary specialists are also experts in the many regulatory requirements and standards that apply to the care and use of animals in research.
7. What are the regulatory requirements and standards that VA animal research has to comply with?
Ethical principles require research with human subjects to be based on appropriate animal research. These principles also require respect for the welfare of the animals that are studied. This respect is formally defined in federal law, regulations, and guidelines that apply to all federally funded animal research, including at private institutions such as universities. VA policy requires each VA station working with research animals to comply not only with the regulatory requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but also to meet the internationally recognized accreditation standards of AAALAC International — a voluntary accrediting organization that promotes "humane, responsible animal care" in research settings and accredits those that "meet or exceed applicable standards." (Click here for a January 3, 2019 report from the NIH on their inspection and evaluation of four VA stations where research was being conducted with animals.)
8. Who is watching to make sure that the care of the animals actually meets all these standards?
The animal research program at each VA station, like those at other research institutions in the U.S., is overseen by a local Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The members of this committee are required by federal regulations to include not only the attending veterinarian and someone with scientific expertise, but also at least one member whose primary occupation is nonscientific, and at least one who has no affiliation with the local station. This committee is responsible for thoroughly reviewing each proposed protocol for animal research at least once every three years, to make sure that the welfare of the animals is adequately addressed, before the committee grants approval for the work to go ahead. If the work is to be supported by VA funding, a secondary review is conducted at the national level before that VA funding is provided. The local IACUC is also responsible for generally monitoring the work as it is conducted, for annual continuing reviews of approved protocols (to make sure that any changes that are needed get made), and for an overall review of the local animal research program twice a year.
9. How do I know that the IACUC is doing its job?
The IACUC has to report routinely about its own work. It has to send a formal report of each of its semiannual evaluations of the animal research program to the local facility director and the office of the Chief Veterinary Medical Officer of the VA. It also has to report its activities annually to USDA, OLAW, and AAALAC International. To maintain AAALAC International accreditation, the facility has to allow AAALAC International experts in animal research to visit and inspect the facility, review documents, and interview personnel, at least once every three years. The VA's Office of Research Oversight also performs routine site visits, which also include facility inspections, document review, and interviews. The USDA, OLAW, and the office of the VA's Chief Veterinary Medical Officer may also conduct site visits, as needed.
10. What happens if something goes wrong?
When anything that has to do with animal welfare goes wrong, VA's first priority is to provide the animals with the care that they need. Then the IACUC must investigate what happened and decide on the corrective actions that need to be taken to keep it from happening again. The problem and the corrective actions get reported to OLAW, AAALAC, VA's Chief Veterinary Medical Officer, and VA's Office of Research Oversight, for the sake of transparency and accountability. Any of those has the authority to require the station to submit follow-up information, or to conduct further investigation, as necessary.
11. How can I tell what is being done with the animals?
Research is only useful if it gets published, so that the results can be used by others. And getting funding for further work depends on a researcher having a record of respected publications. Research will be published in respected journals only if it is scientifically valid, is conducted in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements, and describes not only the results but also how the work was conducted in enough detail for other researchers to be able to evaluate the quality of the work. This means that responsible researchers have every reason to strive for the highest-quality research, to comply with the regulatory requirements, and to publish their work in publicly accessible journals.
Work that is in progress with federal support is also described in various documents that are available to the public. This includes the proposals that were submitted when funding was requested and the protocols describing exactly how the animals will be studied. These documents are available on request to any American citizen under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
12. Why isn't the information just routinely made public, instead of making people submit special requests to get it?
The sheer volume of documents related to animal research means that there would be a significant cost to taxpayers to prepare all of the records to be routinely released to the public. Instead, the system in place focuses on the specific documents that are of interest to someone in the public, as indicated when a FOIA request is submitted. Use of FOIA requests are a standard way of sharing information with the public, not just in VA but throughout the federal government.