The ethics of research supply purchasing in the life sciences

When people think about animal use and testing as it applies to research, especially in the life sciences, typically they imagine a scientist in a lab coat, running some experiment on a mouse or a rat. While this scenario is certainly a big part of animal involvement in life sciences research, another big part that often goes unnoticed or under-discussed is animal involvement in production of lab supplies.

For example, although some proteins can be non-invasively isolated or synthetically produced, many still have to be made in an animal and later isolated from them, commonly from serum, but quite possibly from other sources as well. Collagen, for instance, is a fibrous protein that makes up 25 to 35 percent of whole body content, and it can be used in many biological coatings because if its ability to crosslink and the fact that many cell types have a high affinity with collagen. When cultured on collagen, cells are more likely to stick.

In our lab, collagen is commonly used in the production of the microfluidic device that is being developed to mimic the properties of the blood-brain barrier. The collagen that we often purchase and use is rat-tail collagen, that is, collagen that has been isolated from the tendons found in the tails of rats. Other products include cell lines isolated from animals, and serums isolated from their blood.  Fetal bovine serum is also very commonly used in cell culture media, without which, cells would not survive in culture.

Another animal-derived lab product are antibodies. Antibodies are produced in animals by exposing them to a target protein. After the animal’s immune system recognizes the foreign protein, it produces antibodies against it, which can then be isolated and purified. Rabbits, goats, mice, rats, horses, and dogs are specifically bred for the production of antibodies.

Unfortunately not all antibody production facilities are kind to the animals they use. Recently, the USDA investigated Santa Cruz Biotechnology, one of the most prominent suppliers of antibodies for research purposes. SCBT has had 31 animal abuse violations filed against it in the past, but when the USDA sent a team to investigate in January 2016, thousands of rabbits and goats were gone, leading some to suspect that they may have been killed. (See story from Nature here.)

In many labs, antibodies are widely used. Decisions on where to buy antibodies are usually based on price and quality, because some antibodies will have higher affinities to the target proteins in question than the same antibody from another supplier. We don’t always consider ethics and company practices when we make our buying decision, but perhaps we should.

These days, since many alternate suppliers of antibodies exist it stands to reason to bring issues like animal treatment into the equation. This applies not just in the case of antibody purchasing, but in any situation where a supply is purchased for everyday lab use after having been produced by an animal. Unethical behavior that can exist behind the scenes in science and research will force researchers to do their due diligence when considering their sources for laboratory supplies. We do have a choice, and we can exercise it.

About the author: Luisa Russell is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Searson lab and also in the NTCR training program, whose research focuses on developing new strategies for cancer drug delivery using nanoparticles.

Media inquires should be directed to INBT’s science writer Mary Spiro,

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