KILLING IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE
Countless animals are sacrificed for advances in health and medical research. Science Reporter CLARE PEDDIE talks to a young scientist who chose to lift the lid on the animal house and write about his personal experience.
AS a PhD student at UniSA, Jackson Ryan killed 563 mice over four years. This week he broke the scientists’ code of silence and described how it feels to kill in the name of science.
“No one talks about this stuff, you know,” he told The Advertiser.
“You don’t know that scientists are sitting there in a tiny shoebox room killing mice for three to four hours a day. So just being able to raise awareness in a way and say ‘Hey, this is what happened to me’ is a good enough reason to write about it in the first place.”
His 1500-word feature on the consumer technology website CNET is a revelation, a window on a world that is off-limits to the public.
“While the mice themselves had it much worse than me, a heavy gloom hung over every single ‘kill day’,” he wrote.
“An overbearing weight. It sapped my energy. In the evening, I’d scrub my skin hard enough to leave red flushes, just trying to get the smell of anaesthetic off me.”
Countless animals are sacrificed for science but their short lives are rarely acknowledged in the news, aside from a passing reference to animal studies or preclinical trials.
Dr Ryan is not calling for change to the well-established practice of using animals for scientific purposes, as he understands their importance, but instead presents an opportunity for all to reflect.
“How does someone wrestle with the fact that they do this as their job and what does that actually mean at the end of the day?” Dr Ryan told The Advertiser yesterday.
“If I had stayed in science would I still be killing mice?”
“I’d probably try not to. I just didn’t like that process, it is a very clinical, very cold process.
“You have to remove any sort of an emotion, not just because they are other animals (like us), but just to get through the day, when you get up and you know you have to go and kill 15 mice.
“It takes a long time and throws you out of rhythm a bit.”
As a boy from Parafield Gardens, Dr Ryan was encouraged to pursue science by an inspirational Year 11 biology teacher, Mr Bulling, at Thomas More College in Salisbury.
He went on to study for a PhD at UniSA under Professor Howard Morris and Associate Professor Paul Anderson in the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, from 2012-16.
When he agreed to do a project on vitamin D metabolism, he knew it would involve animal models of bone disease.
“You can’t just sacrifice human beings, remove and study their bones, but, with ethics approval, you can do so with mice,” he said.
“So, every few weeks, I’d head to the university’s animal housing facility, carrying a bucket of ice and surgical tools.”
Vitamin D is metabolised by the skeleton to promote growth and strength in adulthood.
Dr Ryan’s PhD project involved comparison of genetically modified mice to normal mice.
He needed samples of blood, bone and organs.
The CNET article describes the process from start to finish, from the clothes he wore to the sights, sounds and smells of “animal urine and musk”.
Anaesthetic gas numbs the pain but also enables scientists “to extract blood from the heart while the mouse is still alive, giving us a more accurate picture of the concentration of minerals present in its blood at time of death”.
In graphic detail that Dr Ryan warns “may be disturbing to some readers”, he describes strapping each mouse down before opening up its chest cavity. it
“Still beating, a heart pulses in front of you, no bigger than the fingernail on your pinky. Upon seeing it for the first time, all the air in your lungs rushes out of your mouth,” he writes.
“Seeing it for the 400th time the edge is dulled, slightly, but you never get comfortable.
“Your hands don’t shake anymore, but your chest still tightens.”
He goes on to describe drawing 25mL of blood with a syringe and delivering the final blow, intended to cause a rapid, painless nless death. Then it’s a matter of f harvesting organs and disposing ng of the hollowed-out corpse in a snap-lock l kb bag. “As the final mouse is anaesthetised, it became routine for our laboratory to play Jeff Buckley’s song Hallelujah. By the time Buckley croons of the secret chord that David played, our surgical tools are pinching and pulling organs from the last rodent’s body and placing them on ice,” writes Dr Ryan. “For the first time in hours, you remember to breathe.” Mice, rats, guinea pigs and sheep are most commonly used in South Australian research and teaching. Their use is regulated by the South Australian Animal Welfare Act 1985. Universities are licensed under the act to acquire and use animals for their research and teaching purposes. Experiments must meet strict standards and can only proceed with approval from in-house animal ethics committees. The standards are set down in the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes from the National Health and Medical Research Council. Dr Ryan understands that mice and other animals are crucial to the medical research that saves human lives. “They’re biologically very similar to humans, sharing an extremely similar set of genes … You can easily manipulate their genes to switch molecular pathways and proteins on or off,” he writes. “You can interbreed mice to achieve genetically identical strains.
They’re They indispensindispe able and yet, disposable. “We “W need d th them t to understand d t how drugs work in the milieu of chemicals, molecules and proteins that make up a body. Mice teach us how different systems respond to threats or treatments, something cells in a Petri dish simply cannot do. We’ve already learned a lot from them.
“Genetically modified mouse models have shown us how tumours progress and metastasise, highlighted more effective ways to treat autoimmune disease and, in my own research, elucidated how vitamin D interacts with specific bone cells to modulate bone turnover.”
Yet in a moment on stage at an international vitamin D conference, sharing his research with his peers, Dr Ryan realised he didn’t want to work in a laboratory any more.
He’d rather tell stories as a science communicator.
He found work as a children’s television show host, originally on Game Fest and then Hanging With on the Disney Channel.
He performed a few “cool science experiments” along the way and started writing for Allure media, then gizmodo and now CNET in Sydney, where he started work as associate editor just last week.
“It’s not mice that led me away from science,” Dr Ryan told The Advertiser.
“But when you reflect on it they definitely contribute to a real malaise, the weight of having to do science for the rest of your life,
“The processes I enjoyed more were not sitting at that lab bench or killing those mice.
“It was actually writing about those stories instead.
“When I had the chance to write journal articles and write about my research, that’s when I was most happy to go to work.”
And he’ll never forget those 563 mice who died to bring you this story.