In conversation with the head of the rodent facility
Before patients can take a pill, scientists often spend years in the lab developing and testing a candidate drug. That often includes experiments with laboratory animals. As head of the rodent facility, Ilze Bot and her colleagues ensure that these experiments are conducted in an ethically responsible manner. ‘We only perform an animal experiment if there really is no other option to answer the research question.’
As a researcher at LACDR (Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research), Ilze Bot has been working with laboratory animals since her PhD. ‘I investigate the development of atherosclerosis. This a disease that involves a number of organs and tissues, including the heart, liver and blood vessels. That makes it difficult to simulate this disease in a computer model or petri dish.’
Bot explains that research involving laboratory animals only occurs when there is no alternative. ‘We also often perform cell culture experiments or work with human material that we obtain from hospitals after surgery. That is very suitable to study a particular cell type, for example, but if you aim to investigate the effect of a drug on the development of a complex disease like atherosclerosis, there is often no way around using animals.’
However, Bot does think it is important that animal testing is done in a responsible and ethical way. Since January 2023, she is head of the Animal Research Facility (ARF) at the Gorlaeus Building. ‘With my experience as a scientist, I know what conducting research with animals entails.’
Can't it be animal free?
Working with laboratory animals is a societally complex topic. ‘People often think negatively about the use of laboratory animals. But if you ask a little deeper in a conversation about the subject, everyone uses medicines from time to time. And they wouldn't be there if we didn't use laboratory animals to develop and test those medicines.’
'There wouldn't be medicines if we didn't use laboratory animals to develop and test them.'
Yet, scientists do not take experiments with laboratory animals lightly either, says Bot. ‘Animal experiments are prohibited by law unless you have a project license. This requires that there are no alternative methods and that the societal impact of the research outweighs the discomfort of the animals,’ Bot explains. ‘It is always very carefully considered whether it is necessary to conduct an animal experiment at all.' Various control steps are also involved. ‘For example, an animal ethics committee always assesses every research project from an ethical point of view first.’ In addition, scientists from different fields are working to develop alternatives for animal experiments. Also within the LACDR. ‘But it is really a challenge to find an alternative for every kind of scientific research.’
Optimal care for the animals has priority
As head of the ARF, Bot visits the rodent facility every week. ‘We have a manager on the floor and a team of animal caretakers who are with the animals every day. Together we discuss how things are going and check if everything is in order.’ She also has to deal with the bigger picture. ‘Such as keeping track of costs and checking whether we comply with all the rules. That involves a lot. For example, the ambient temperature and light intensity must always be right. and all the equipment to regulate the environment in the facility must work properly.’
Trainings and skills to work with animals
In order to be accountable as a facility to the various authorities, proper record keeping is also incredibly important. ‘We register all animals and determine in advance what is allowed to happen to them and what is not. After a study, we evaluate for each of the animals whether they have experienced any discomfort. We then have to pass this on to the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.’
Bot also regularly meets with the Animal Welfare Body. ‘They help to implement new laws, regulations and advice from the government to ensure that the animals receive the best possible care. In addition, they check whether our facility complies with animal welfare regulations.’ Bot is also involved in training programmes for new employees. ‘You are not allowed to work with the animals if you have not been trained. And you have to keep training those skills in order to handle the animals responsibly.’
'You are not allowed to work with the animals if you have not been trained.'
'Doing this job well, that's my mission'
As long as animal testing is required, Bot is committed to ensuring that this is done responsibly. ‘The welfare of the laboratory animal really is a top priority for us. We are aware that these animals contribute to human wellbeing. I therefore think it is really important that we do this carefully: good care for the animals, which in turn leads to high-quality science. Doing all this in a responsible way is my mission.’