Animal House: What goes on at the Animal Resource Center

C57 Black 6 mice are the most common strain of research mice. Photo by Matt Williams.
C57 Black 6 mice are the most common strain of research mice. Photo by Matt Williams.

A sign announcing “Tietz Hall” sits outside of a small, inconspicuous brick building attached to Lewis and Cooley Halls. This widely unknown campus building is home to the Animal Resource Center (ARC), where researchers have conducted studies on animals related to medications, vaccinations and basic understandings of the physiological behaviors of animals with regard to humans.


The majority of animals housed in the center are mice, said program director and veterinarian Dr. Christine O’Rourke. Other animals include two rabbits, a few rats and three rhesus monkeys, with frogs housed in Leon Johnson Hall. In the past, the lab has held the likes of hamsters, ferrets, chickens, goats and alligators.


The facility is equipped with a full operation room, making it capable of supporting a veterinary program in the future, and O’Rourke has considered getting the pre-vet club on campus involved at the ARC. She is hopeful that if the cooperative veterinary program between MSU and Washington State University is realized, first-year vet students will utilize the lab.


The ARC also hosts a graduate level course of about six students called Microbiology 501, which focuses on techniques in animal experimentation.


Scientific advances


A typical mouse living environment.  The cages are fully washed and sterilized every week (to the dismay of mice, who are territorial) Photo by Matt Williams.
A typical mouse living environment. The cages are fully washed and sterilized every week (to the dismay of mice, who are territorial) Photo by Matt Williams.

The type of animal research at MSU has been heavily focused on basic science and understanding, said Jean Kundert, ARC manager. Cell Biology and Neuroscience Professor Charles Gray is currently working on these kinds of studies with the rhesus monkeys, and is focused on understanding the vision and memory cortex of the brain.


Additionally, “we are learning about the immune system on a more molecular level,” O’Rourke said. “This will hopefully result in more targeted and successful vaccines and treatments.”


Studies at the lab have resulted in the creation of the LigoCyte norovirus vaccine which is currently in human clinical trials. Noroviruses are the most common cause of inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract in humans, and in large cities are the cause of numerous emergency room visits each day.


In addition, former MSU professor Jean Starkey conducted research focusing on photodynamic therapy to treat cancer, which is now being used in treatment for humans and dogs, O’Rourke added.


MSU conducted research using rabbits several years ago, Kundert said, which contributed to the creation of the inflammatory-disease medication, Enbrel. This drug is currently on the market and is used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory autoimmune diseases.


Ensuring quality of life


O’Rourke acts as “the voice of the animals” and is responsible for giving guidance and help to researchers, while also enforcing the rules and regulations of the center, she said.


Animal research centers must follow a multitude of regulations, she explained. These rules ensure the quality of life for each animal is not jeopardized, as animals cannot speak for themselves. The USDA annually sends an unannounced inspector to review the center and confirm that regulations are being followed.


Additionally, the MSU lab is overseen by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which consists of O’Rourke, seven research scientists, a member from the Office of Sponsored Programs and two community members. According to O’Rourke, the campus research center goes beyond standard regulations in ensuring humane treatment of its animals, and is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. This association reviews and visits the ARC every three years to established continued accreditation.


A private veterinarian at one time, O’Rourke has been at MSU for nine years and previously worked with animal researchers at other locations. “I have never seen an abused animal in research, but have in practice, as privately owned [pets],” she said.


When conducting experiments it is important to control the variables, she continued. The health of an individual animal is considered a variable, so the lab wants each animal to be at its healthiest.


Center staff widely supports the use of “enrichment” activities for its animals. Sitting next to a secured entrance into the center is a hamper to collect paper, tissue and paper towel rolls. Anyone can drop off supplies as donations to the center, and after undergoing sterilization the items are placed in cages for the animals to play or bed with. Other enrichment items include tunnels and treats.


The high security of research laboratories can give them a reputation as being secretive, O’Rourke said; however, there are reasons for the security. The lack of windows at Tietz Hall is a result of strict light schedules needed in order to have a breeding colony, she said, adding that they keep the mice on a 12-hour light and 12-hour dark schedule.


The secured entrances ensure the lab can control what comes into the facilities. Everything is kept very clean, O’Rourke said, so as to limit germ exposure to the animals. Thus, the locked entrances and strict policies are in place to ensure the health of the animals.


Progression of a study


The number and type of animals housed at the research center vary from year to year, and are based on the proposals and grants for various research projects. Recently, MSU received a shipment of four transgenic mice from Japan to be used to establish a new breeding colony. Each mouse cost $1,000.


“Animals used for research are always bred for research,” O’Rourke said. As a result, MSU orders animals through suppliers in order to establish breeding colonies. As a way of controlling variables, breeding stock have undergone extensive inbreeding so as to ensure animals in an experiment have nearly identical genomes. Then, depending on the research to be done on each animal, the genes might be altered.


However, the change in genes normally “does not alter outward appearance,” said O’Rourke.


Research proposals must be submitted to the IACUC. They must be very detailed, outlining the exact number and species of animal, statistical justification for the number requested and details concerning each animal’s life during the experiment. Any injections or surgeries must be discussed with O’Rourke before approval.


At the end of a study, most animals are humanely euthanized, as research animals cannot be used for other studies and are unfit to be released into the environment, O’Rourke said. She compared them to domesticated animals, both of which may not have an understanding for basic survival in the wild, and an introduction of synthesized genes could be hazardous for the ecosystem.


“With regard to contributions animals make to research, universities usually perform the more basic physiologic research,” O’Rourke said. That means that animal research at universities such as MSU has a major role in laying the foundation on which to build more advanced studies, and O’Rourke is proud that MSU has been so involved in such activities.