The University of Louisville’s health sciences campus has thousands of rats and mice—and officials are not only OK with it, but they’re planning to soon get the rodents new homes through an allotment from the Kentucky General Assembly.
That’s because medical breakthroughs that have come from the University of Louisville were due, in large part, to those rats and mice.
So rodents are often associated with filth and trash, but the nearly 25,000 rats and mice used for scientific study at UofL are housed in a pristine environment. You would be hard pressed to find a smudge, scuff or speck of dirt at the downtown Louisville research center.
Just stepping into a room where a portion of the animals are kept, I was required to don shoe covers, a smock, rubber gloves and a bonnet.
“We go through great pains to make sure that the animals are not exposed to any bacteria or viruses,” said William King, the director of research resources facilities at UofL and an attending university veterinarian.
One of King’s responsibilities, he said, is to ensure every animal used for laboratory tests is treated humanely.
“Special clinician scientists say there are more regulations that involve the use of animals than there are in the use of human subjects. In some cases, that makes sense, because humans can sign a consent form,” he said.
All of the rodents are purchased for pre-approved research projects and housed in plastic cages, each of which is inspected daily for cleanliness, King said.
Though much of the process is made easier through the use of automated cage washing systems and bedding placement operations, it is still time-consuming and King said the animal research program isn’t cheap, either.
The recently-approved Kentucky state budget allots UofL nearly $400,000 to purchase new rodent cages and just more than $400,000 for cage washing equipment. But, King says, it takes much more money than that to run the program.
“That wouldn’t buy enough cages for all the animals we have. Our expenses are over a $1 million a year,” he said, adding that technicians salaries, food, bedding, disinfectants and gloves add up.
The research that helps humans but began in rodents includes the ability to reverse the adverse effects of heart failure through stem cell transplants, and the development of an electronic stimulator that can give mobility back to patients with spinal cord injuries.
When considering the costs, Gary Mans, a spokesman for UofL, said he thinks of a heart failure patient who used to struggle to get out his front door but can now play basketball with his grandchildren because of stem cell research that included the university’s cache of rodents.
“I don’t know if you can put a dollar amount on that,” Mans says.
The animal research program at UofL has been accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International since 1965 and is one of only two institutions that has continuously maintained that accreditation, King said.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything possible to keep the animals as healthy and happy as possible. Not only for an ethical reason, a humane reason, but for a scientific one as well,” King said. ”Nothing will mess up a study more than an animal that is in pain or distress.”
King said scientists are always looking for ways to conduct research without live animals, but a Petri dish can’t always provide the feedback researchers are seeking.
“Do I envision a time when the use of animals in research would no longer be necessary, not in our lifetime or in generations to come,” King said. “Until we cure cancer or cure heart disease, we will always need a whole animal model to be able to understand all the intricacies that are involved in that disease.”
And until that day comes, King says the thousands of rodents in downtown Louisville will remain one of the most important tools in medical research.