Office of Research & Development

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Animal Research in VA: Overview

VA's first priority is to provide the best care and services to our nation's Veterans. VA research helps to make that possible through life-changing and lifesaving innovations. From the implantable cardiac pacemaker to the nicotine patch, these fruits of VA research improve the lives of not only Veterans, but people all around the world.

To conduct the research needed to improve medical care, we sometimes have to work with animal models. Animal research has been involved in the development of almost every modern drug. It has also been important to many lifesaving discoveries, such as insulin use in diabetes; vaccines that protect us from polio, meningitis, and measles; and the heart pacemakers and kidney dialysis that keep many people alive.

More than 99 percent of the animals used in VA research are rats and mice. But rats and mice are not useful for some research because they are too small or too unlike humans. For example, devices like pacemakers, which are about the size of a bar of soap, can't be tested in animals as small as mice or rats.

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.

To understand the value of studying animals, we have to think about the costs of failing to conduct that research. If we as a society choose not to do the research with animals needed to better understand the neural mechanisms of coughing, then we have to accept that we won't be able to help people who can't cough normally, such as people with spinal cord injuries, and that this will leave them at risk of dying of pneumonia. If we choose not to do the research with animals needed to develop better insulin delivery systems for people with diabetes, we have to accept that we can't reduce their risks for nerve pain, kidney failure, heart disease, impaired vision, and severe infections. If we choose not to do research with animals needed to understand the electrical properties of the heart, we have to accept that we won't be able to improve how we treat people when the electrical properties go haywire, and people will continue to die when that happens.

Generally, if we choose not to study research animals, we must accept that medical progress will be limited. Or we must accept that research will have to be done with human subjects, and accept that many more results that we don't want will happen in people. The knowledge that we can gain from responsible studies of animals can protect people from harm.

Oversight and Guidelines

VA allows research with animals only if it is scientifically necessary and if the welfare of the animals is taken care of. There are a lot of rules about how to take good care of the animals, and VA requires anyone studying animals in VA research to follow all the ones that most universities and federal research institutions follow. These include the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Act regulations and the National Institutes of Health's Public Health Service policy. All VA programs also have to be accredited by AAALAC International, which is the accepted international standard for showing commitment to responsible animal care and use. In addition to those rules, VA has some more of its own. VA takes seriously any reports of nonadherence to standards and immediately reviews and corrects processes if and when those issues arise.

The World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki serves as the foundation for the rules protecting human subjects of research in place today. It states, "Medical research involving human subjects must conform to generally accepted scientific principles, be based on a thorough knowledge of scientific literature, other relevant sources of information, and adequate laboratory and, as appropriate animal experimentation. The welfare of animals used for research must be respected."

The first step, deciding what animal research is necessary, involves getting each proposed project reviewed by other scientists. If they decide that the work is worth doing, the proposal is checked to make sure that it will be done in a way that safeguard the welfare of the animals. This is done by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which each institution that does animal research has to have. The committee can, and almost always does, insist on some improvements in the protocol before it grants approval for the work. In the VA system, there is another level of review, performed by the office of the Chief Veterinary Medical Officer. This review happens before any VA funding is approved. This secondary review will also be performed on all research that involves large animals (larger than rabbits), even when VA money not involved.

Besides reviewing the protocols, the IACUC also evaluates the entire animal research program at the institution twice every year. Every three years, each VA animal research program has to get inspected by AAALAC International, which determines whether its accreditation will continue. VA also has an extra mechanism for making sure that everything is working the way it should: periodic inspections by the VA Office of Research Oversight.

In the event that questions about VA animal research come up in any of these reviews and inspections, or if anyone else notices anything worrisome, the IACUC has to investigate right away. The committee is expected to move as quickly as possible to correct any deficiencies in the care and use of the animals and to take steps to prevent the problem from coming up again. And then VA reports what the IACUC found, what caused the problem, and what has been done to correct it and prevent it from happening again. The reports go to NIH, AAALAC, the VA's Office of Research Oversight, and the VA's Chief Veterinary Medical Officer.

All this is to make sure that the animals that are studied in VA research are treated as well as possible, while our researchers do the work that is needed to improve the lives of our Veterans and others.

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For Researchers

Overview

The use of animals in VA research is a privilege granted to those investigators and programs that commit to meeting the highest ethical and regulatory standards. VA animal care and use programs must follow VA policy on the use of animals found in Handbook 1200.07, "Use of Animals in Research", which incorporates compliance with USDA Animal Welfare Act Regulations and PHS Policy. All VA animal care and use programs are accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC, International). VA places great emphasis on the importance of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) in self-regulation and accountability of local programs. ORD support for field animal care and use programs is coordinated by the office of the Chief Veterinary Medical Officer (CVMO).

Mission and Activities

The primary mission of the CVMO's office is to provide professional and administrative guidance and support to VA field animal care and use programs. This is accomplished by phone and email consultations, periodic training sessions, and development of web-based support systems. IACUC support and training site visits to local programs can be arranged. A variety of representative documents are available, including memoranda of understanding with affiliates, VMO and animal facility supervisor position descriptions, and animal facility standard operating procedures. The CVMO provides a yearly summary of VA animal research issues at the annual meeting of the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), typically at lunchtime on the Tuesday of the meeting at noontime. The office also provides support for research staff experiencing difficulties using the CITI website for research compliance training.

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Contacts

CVMO:

Michael T. Fallon, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, CPIA
Atlanta VA Medical Center
Research Service- 508/151V, Room 4A106
1670 Clairmont Road
Decatur, GA 30033

michael.fallon@va.gov
404-327-4964 (FAX)
404-728-7644 (Ofc)

Staff Scientist and Deputy, IACUC Guidance:

Alice Huang, PhD, CPIA
Atlanta VA Medical Center
Research Service- 508/151V, Room 4A107
1670 Clairmont Road
Decatur, GA 30033

alice.huang@va.gov
404-327-4964 (FAX)
404-417-1823 (Ofc)

Assistant CVMO:

Joan Richerson, MS, DVM, MS, DACLAM, CPIA
Tennessee Valley Healthcare System
Research Service- 151, F-201 ACRE Bldg.
1310 24th Ave South
Nashville, TN 37212

joan.richerson@va.gov
615-752-5018 (FAX)
615-574-8198 (Ofc)

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Any health information on this website is strictly for informational purposes and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any condition.