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Under the Knife

19 July 2016

It is estimated that seven million animals, ranging from mice to primates, are used as research subjects each year in Australia. When compared to other nations, Australia is the fourth highest user of animals in research in the world. In 2015, multiple organisations received funding from the Federal Government to breed and supply primates for research institutions.

Animal testing has long been conducted in universities across Australia and the University of Melbourne is no exception. It is an unspoken truth that the University relies on animal subjects to advance research in a range of disciplines.

Late last year, the University was forced to defend itself when it became known to the public that greyhounds were being used for dental research.

A study conducted in 2014 by students and staff of the University of Melbourne involved removing the teeth of greyhounds and replacing them with implants in order to observe the healing process. The greyhounds were then put down via lethal injection after a three-month analysis so that the researchers could analyse the jaw through a biopsy.

According to Chief Executive Officer of Humane Research Australia (HRA), Helen Marston, the use of greyhounds was unnecessary. Marston claims that similar studies had already been conducted on humans. Furthermore, the study notes the aesthetic benefits of the research. The HRA sees animal testing for cosmetic surgery, or as Marston puts it, ‘vanity’, as unethical.

According to a spokesperson, the University has a strict criterion that determines when animals can be used for research. In order to use animals in research, a proposal must be submitted in front of the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC), which must include a veterinarian, a scientist, an animal welfare representative and a layperson on any given occasion. The decision must be unanimous.

Animal Ethics Manager at the University, Tim Anning, says testing on animals for cosmetic purposes is technically allowed at the University, although it is highly unlikely that testing for these purposes would ever be approved by the AEC. Anning has never seen this type of testing done during his career. Furthermore, a spokesperson from the University assured Farrago that the testing conducted on the greyhounds does not fall under this category. They also cited the ethics guidelines that the University abides by, which stipulate that animal testing may only be used for scientific purposes. However, HRA notes in their critique that the 2014 study focuses slightly too much on the aesthetic outcomes of the implants for it to be justified.

HRA also questioned why the dogs were not re-homed at the conclusion of the study, however the research explicitly notes that the dogs’ jaws were removed, making euthanasia at this point humanely necessary.

Farrago reached out for direct comment from the researchers involved in the study as well as the Animal Ethics team at the University. Apart from Anning’s comments on cosmetic testing, they all declined to provide further statements. A statement provided by the University reads that “the results have the potential to enhance patient care and simplify treatment for patients undergoing such procedures in the future”.

The University also claims that the use of greyhounds in particular was necessary due to the similarity of their jaws to those of humans. Marston fundamentally disagrees with this claim and argues that the number of successful clinical trials do not justify the number of animals used.

“The [US Food and Drugs Administration] has confirmed that nine out of ten drugs that are deemed successful in animal tests actually fail in human clinical trials… which clearly means we need to reassess the way we conduct medical research in Australia,” says Marston.

The rationale in the study notes that the tests were “designed to compare the effect of sub-merged and non submerged healing on hard tissue alterations at the facial surfaces of immediate implants”. In simpler terms, the test was conducted to compare the healing process after different oral implantation methods.

HRA notes that a similar study was conducted in 2010, which was not cited by the authors. The body also strongly suspects that the greyhounds were leftovers from the racing industry. The greyhound racing industry is renowned for its cruel treatment of dogs. Racing dogs regularly sustain injuries due to being overworked and therefore, there is is an extremely high euthanasia rate industry-wide.

When contacted by Farrago, Greyhound Racing Victoria (GRV) firmly denied supplying any research institute with greyhounds.

“GRV is completely opposed to the use of greyhounds in medical training and research and anyone adopting or fostering a greyhound through [the Greyhound Adoption Program] must sign an agreement that it will not be used for experimental or research purposes of any description and that the custodian is not a dealer of an agent of a dealer,” said a GRV spokesperson.

GRV also has no knowledge of any greyhounds from the Greyhound Adoption Program being sold to research institutions. Brokers and individuals who have sold greyhounds to medical and research institutions have been asked to stop.

Mr Anning has assured Farrago that the greyhounds are provided from “approved sources” in which the greyhounds are supplied to the University with the express consent of the original owner.

The standards by which the AEC at the University abide are listed on its website and whilst there are standards stipulating best practice for euthanising pigs, sheep, goats, mice and rats available publically, no such standards seem to be publically listed with regards to dogs at the time of publication.

In 2014, Farrago reported on the animal experiments conducted on the Parkville campus, namely in room ‘B112’ of the Zoology basement. The room does not exist on any official University plans and is ‘classified’. The room number yields no results when typed into the search bar of the online Room Search on the University’s website. However, it was reported that B112 is home to sheep and other livestock for the purpose of agricultural studies. It is not known where the greyhounds used for the dental school are kept.

Staff have continued their hesitation to discuss the operations involving animals undertaken at the University. This is despite suppliers delivering livestock to the campus in broad daylight.

According to statistics taken by the University, the two most approved studies either fall under the categories of “understanding human/animal biology” or “understanding human/animal health”.

The greyhound racing industry has recently been under fire following an investigation conducted by Four Corners which demonstrated the use of live baiting to train the dogs. When asked where the greyhounds were sourced, the University declined to comment. An article written for The Age by University of Melbourne tutor, Marika Dobbin, notes that most of the greyhounds used by universities around the country are from racing backgrounds.

During this year’s election campaign, the Coalition promised to ban cosmetic animal testing in Australia by July next year. The Australian Labor Party promised to do the same if elected.

The University has stated that where possible, they aim to cut out the use of animals in any medical testing researchers undertake. It remains unclear where the greyhounds are sourced, given the dogs are not sourced from Greyhound Racing Victoria. Where the greyhounds are kept and in what conditions is also still unclear.

Update: In the Edition Five print version of ‘Under The Knife’, we did not acknowledge Vanessa Di Natale’s assistance in collecting information and we wish to express our gratitude for bringing this topic to our attention.