If you work with antibodies, you’ve probably heard about Santa Cruz Biotech (SBC) and hence you’re probably aware by now of the storm that is carrying its name right now related to USDA violations of animal welfare. What you might not be aware of is that the company has been under investigation for over 5 years now. The first inspection pointing at problems with “veterinary care, personnel qualifications, and primary enclosures” of the animals used by the company to produce their antibodies took place back in February, 2011.
Now, independent on your experience with the company (personally I find that their antibodies are very hit or miss and prefer to work with other companies), this situation is utterly wrong from several points of view. I will not deal with the policy violations, because I don’t have enough background on it, but I would like to discuss the animal welfare part.
As a researcher, I know that certain experiments can only be done in animal models, ranging from roundworms, to flies and up to primates. While a lot of questions can be answered in petri dishes or even with the appropriate software, there’s still a panoply of studies that would not yield the proper answer unless their hypothesis is challenged in vivo, and that’s when animal models come to play.
In the case of antibody production, there is always the possibility of recombinant antibodies which uses different organisms (like yeast) to produce the antibody, often called monoclonal antibodies. Both monoclonal and polyclonal (those produced in animals) have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the application, but at the end of the day, you might not necessarily replace one for the other.
So, you see, this is one particular side of research that you need to use animals. However, all animal work has lists and lists of regulations. You cannot just choose any animal you want and order any number of them. Most importantly, there are regulations as to how the animals must be treated, enclosed and eventually, disposed. For example, you cannot sacrifice a primate even if your research has finished. You have to maintain the animal until the end of it’s days, meaning feeding, healthcare and proper environment. These animals, while bred exclusively for research, are supposed to be maintained appropriately and to work with them you have to present and keep a proper experimental protocol. Any research or biotech facility is supposed to adhere to a complex set of protocols. So what happened in this case?
Once again, what worries me more than anything is the fact that it has taken 5 years for this to be investigated; 5 years when these animals were most probably mistreated to say the least; 5 years where that company most likely benefited greatly and instead of addressing the violations, resolved to make the animals vanish.
This piece of news is starting to go “mainstream” for lack of a better term, where the story has been (IMO) over simplified and closing with a dangerous “would you want to eat a medical research animal?”. For the record, some animals used in research could be apt for consumption, but that’s a different story. Sadly, it is news like this that make people angry at research and end up with animal right groups bursting into universities and “freeing” animals…animals that were never in the wild, that are actually harmful for the local fauna. What SCB has done didn’t only hurt the lives of thousands of animals, but has also affected the image of animal research which, let’s face it, isn’t great. And now we are left with the disappearance of almost 5000 animals and a lot of “#notallanimalresearchers” conversations to come.