This post about the use of animal products or sacrificing animals in research first appeared on Expression Patterns, my Nature Network blog, and was featured in The Open Laboratory 2009, an anthology of the year’s best science blog posts.
Every summer, the cabal of Toronto lab equipment suppliers holds a two day event called Labfest. Members of downtown research labs emerge from their respective institutions, and, blinking in the daylight, make their way to a local hotel-turned-student-residence to attend the ritual.
Everyone loves going to Labfest – not for the sales pitches, and not even just for the lab-endorsed escape from work, but for the freebies. This past year everyone got quite a decent sports bag instead of the usual conference tote. That same fest, the (too) young sales rep who had a crush on me waved at me from across the crowded floor so he could give me some limited edition candy from his company, and a friendly older lady rep from another company, who leaned in too close and kept touching my arm, gave me not one but _two_ pens shaped like blood-filled syringes. But the best toy I ever received at Labfest was Squishy Cow, handed out a few years earlier by a guy dressed in a cow suit:
Squishy Cow is friendly and squishy, and traveled with me one year. Here she is enjoying a London summer, all six hours of it:
Squishy Cow may look harmless, but actually she is quite creepy. She is selling her own baby’s blood:
“Buy Canadian FBS!” commands Squishy Cow.
FBS, short for fetal bovine serum, is, as the name suggests, made from the blood of cow fetuses. I love the marketing person who came up with the idea to use squishy cows to sell this. Hilarious! But, on a more serious note, it’s also a good reminder of where reagents come from.
I feel guilty about things like FBS or antibodies – lab reagents for which animals have been killed. Even though we tell ourselves that our molecular biology research is done without animals, it’s not really – there just aren’t any animals in the lab. But there is no other available source for antibodies than animals, and even if there was a way to use synthetic serum in cell culture, it would probably be unaffordable. It’s not the same as using alternative sources of protein in your diet – those are just as easy to get as meat. It’s more like leather shoes: I’ve tried leather-free alternatives, and they were just not as _good_ as leather shoes in the same price range, so I’m back to leather, and just try to take good care of my shoes so they last as long as possible.
Speaking of things that last: here is Squishy Cow at the Olympic Flame in Lausanne
The only real alternative to using reagents from animals is to not do experiments at all, but it’s precisely these kinds of reagents that are needed in drug development and in non-animal drug tests. Without this work, drugs would go straight from the chemistry lab to animal injection or clinical trial without any testing for functionality. Eep! That’s exactly what cell culture work is good for, so we waste fewer animals. One argument against cell culture and animal research in general is that often animal systems don’t accurately represent how a drug works in humans. True, there could be side effects in humans that are not seen in mice, but if we don’t test in cells and animals first, there’s no way to even preselect the things that have the highest chance of working. Clinical drug trials would be like Russian Roulette with devastating odds, and nobody would consent to them, no matter how desperate they are. Of course computer models are getting much better at predicting function, but at some point everything needs to be tested in the real world, like it or not.
Squishy Cow in the real world, visiting the Lorelei. (Find her!)
And drug development is only an example of what cell culture is good for. I’ve been using it to figure out basic pathways involved in skin pigmentation, and other people are using it to find out how neurons work, or why cancer and other diseases occur to begin with. None of which would be possible without FBS or antibodies – in other words, without sacrificing animals. But it helps to be aware of where these materials come from, so we don’t use too many, and sometimes a squishy cow needs to remind us of that.
Squishy Cow would also like to remind you all not to binge on German microbrew