Military seeking to lessen its use of animals in labs

May 28, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Responding to criticism of its extensive use of animals in scientific tests and research, the military is undertaking to use fewer animals in its laboratories, officials say.

At Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Detrick alone, Maryland's two major military research centers, nearly 50,000 test animals were used in the fiscal year that ended last October, records show.

That is about 9 percent of the animals -- from mice to monkeys -- used by the entire Department of Defense during fiscal 1993.

Recognizing the issue's sensitivity, Aberdeen was host this week to more than 300 researchers at a symposium where they discussed ways to reduce the use of monkeys, rodents and other animals in studies of battlefield trauma, poisoning and diseases.

The symposium, sponsored by an arm of the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command, was part of an effort to counter charges that the military has made little movement away from allegedly inhumane and unnecessary experiments.

"We are all looking for alternatives," said Dr. Harry Salem, chief of the chemical command's Life Sciences Division.

"We are making progress," added Dr. Salem, who chaired the committee that organized the symposium, which was attended by military scientists and researchers from industry and academia.

Little public discussion of the issue has occurred locally since controversies over the use of beagle puppies in chemical warfare research at Aberdeen during the mid-1970s and over the use of monkeys in similar research there in the early 1980s.

Reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in December show that four Army agencies at Aberdeen used about 11,500 animals during fiscal 1993. About 75 percent were mice and rats. The rest were monkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets, cats, pigs and pigeons.

Some examples of current research:

* At the Army's Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, which develops antidotes and treatments for chemical warfare agents, the work includes studying how monkeys perform various tasks, such as using computer screens, after being exposed to a particular chemical then treated with an antidote.

* At the Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center, rabbits, rodents and ferrets are being used to study the hazards of various chemicals and to test battlefield protective gear.

* At the Army Research Laboratory, cats connected to brain-wave monitors are being exposed to noise from M16 rifles to study hearing loss. The experiment, which researchers say does not cause permanent harm to the cats, will help validate a computer model designed to reduce human and animal testing.

In Frederick, at the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about 37,800 animals were used in fiscal 1993.

The bulk of the Fort Detrick animals were rats, mice and other small mammals; 262 were monkeys, about 60 were goats and sheep, and the institute used 89 horses for serum extraction related to vaccine development.

Experiments do not result in death in all cases, particularly in tests with larger mammals.

"We don't allow death as an end point in our studies unless it is absolutely necessary," said Col. Jerry Jaax, chief of veterinary services at Fort Detrick's medical institute, which conducts research into vaccines to counter biological weapons and diseases that threaten troops.

Spot checks of technical journals show that Aberdeen's medical institute recently used rhesus monkeys to determine the acute toxicity of a nerve agent called CMPF and to determine the effectiveness of the drug diazepam, also known as Valium, to reduce convulsions and brain damage after exposure to the nerve agent soman.

In the diazepam tests, some of the monkeys recovered within six days after treatment, while others that did not receive treatment experienced "severe convulsive episodes" and required 15 days recover.

In the two series of tests, it is difficult to tell from the literature how many of the monkeys died or were euthanized.

In some of the CMPF tests, researchers were trying to determine the lethal dose.

Officials at the Aberdeen agencies and Fort Detrick say they have steadily decreased animal use in recent years and found ways to refine tests, replace higher mammals with lower organisms such as earthworms, or use such things as cell cultures and computer models.

However, comprehensive data on long-term trends are not readily available or do not exist.

In some cases, the use of certain species has increased. Aberdeen's medical institute, for example, used 89 monkeys in the last fiscal year, three times as many as in 1980.

In testimony last month before a House of Representatives' subcommittee on military research and technology, two animal-protection groups chastised the military for resisting full public accountability on animal testing and research, which cost $172 million and involved 553,000 animals in fiscal 1993.

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