Five-Star Care for Creatures
Great and Small
Not only is this type of treatment good for the rodents, it also preserves the quality of critical research designed to ferret out the mysteries behind Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, spinal cord injury, addiction and countless other conditions.
Overseeing the animals is Lindsay Barnes, director of laboratory animal management, who arrived last April brimming with the desire to make Johns Hopkins the cleanest, most humane and efficient animal care center in the country.
The demands of her newly created position, born out of a renewed and aggressive commitment to animal care and welfare, include developing standardized husbandry practices (food, water, bedding and sanitation), promoting top-quality physical and social environments for the animals, and keeping meticulous records.
Barnes is now instrumental in upholding Hopkins’ animal welfare accreditation from the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International, a voluntary body that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science. (JHM’s animal research program received full accreditation this year and is now preparing for the next site visit in 2006.)
She brings more than two decades of diverse animal research experience honed at academic institutions such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and federal bodies such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here are excerpts from a conversation in which she outlines her vision for laboratory animal care.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced when you arrived last year?
A: Johns Hopkins has many satellite facilities sprinkled over East Baltimore, Homewood and Bayview Medical Center, plus a farm in rural Maryland. As a result, there has been some variation in husbandry practices. I wanted to develop standard operating procedures for all animal caretakers, whether they’re working in the Broadway Research Building or at the Asthma and Allergy Center at Bayview.
An even greater challenge has been eliminating conventional facilities and educating the research community about the importance of doing so. For decades, many investigators have done their research with conventional animals, or those whose health is unprotected. We’re working to abandon the antiquated facilities that offer no health protection barrier between the animals and the outside environment.
A third challenge has been building a community that includes investigators, veterinarians, animal caretakers and Facilities, so we can all work together to improve animal care, produce top-quality research and develop future animal facilities. The ultimate goal is to have investigators conduct their research in central, disease-controlled environments that are maintained with the trained expertise of our animal caretakers and supervisors.
Q: How have you promoted animal health?
A: I’ve been reaching out to the researchers and encouraging them to adhere to strict sanitation standards in their labs. We have packets of information outlining good housekeeping practices in labs as well as ways to continue their research while they transition from conventional rodents to hearty, healthy research stock.
Then, they can replace their conventional colonies with clean mice from our newly established clean facilities. The mice we keep there are certified clean by the vendors and receive sterile feed, water and bedding. Our caretakers change the cages in a sterile hood and spray disinfectant between each cage change.
Once the clean mice have been in an investigator’s laboratory, they don’t return to the clean facility. They go to our new high-risk return room in Central Animal Facilities. Because we can’t be certain that labs are truly disease-free even after investigators have cleaned them, we consider the mice high-risk. In the high-risk return room, each lab group has its own section of mouse cages. There, we can monitor the mice for contamination without exposing them to other groups’ clean mice.
More and more, we’re discouraging investigators from keeping animals in their labs. I’m asking them for input on how Central Animal Facilities can accommodate their specialized needs and equipment—huge sound chambers, vibration free tables, certain microscopes and the like—so that ultimately, they can conduct their research within our environmentally controlled areas.
Q: How are you standardizing care practices?
A: We use the Guide for Care and Use of Lab Animals (published by the National Research Council) as a guideline for the basics. It covers the cage space requirements, numbers of animals per cage, square footage for the larger species, feedings—everything. Our accreditation is based on the same standards.
Q: What about open communication?
A: It’s important that the animal caretakers know what the investigators are doing, and what signs and symptoms they’re looking for, so they can notify the investigator or their supervisor when they see it. After all, the caretakers are the first line of defense—they spend significant time observing the animals on a daily basis.
Our 80 caretaking and cage-wash personnel participate in American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) certification classes and special topics training each week. I conduct weekly meetings with our 10 supervisors, four postdocs, four veterinarians and two veterinary technicians, plus Chris Newcomer, the associate provost of Animal Research and Resources. That way, everyone hears everything firsthand to minimize miscommunication through word of mouth.
Q: What’s a chief goal for the future?
A: I’d like to have my 10 animal care supervisors teach the husbandry staff even better attention to detail. With more than 18,000 mouse cages in the BRB alone, it’s hard to examine each cage for health status, food and water. But we have to apply this kind of detail every single day. Successful research depends on it.