Back in 2019, The Mancunion was given a tour around the University of Manchester Animal Research Unit (ARU). Over three years later, we were invited back inside the Stopford Biological Services Facility (BSF).
Animal research – how does it work?
The BSF establishment license allows them to house seven different species of animal which are split between the Stopford and Michael Smith buildings. These species are mice, gerbils, rats, Rhabdomys mice, sheep, zebrafish, and Xenopus frogs. The facility currently houses over 31,000 animals, with the majority of these being mice and zebrafish.
In addition to the establishment license, the researchers require both a project license (which means they have given scientific rationale on why animals are required for their research to the Animal Welfare Ethical Review Body (AWERB)) and a personal license (which covers training in the welfare and safety of animals). These licenses are only granted if a harms/benefits analysis of the work can justify animal use, ensuring animals are only used in necessary instances where in vitro studies are not feasible.
Into the BSF
Once we had made it through the Stopford maze to the BSF entrance, we were greeted by their reception staff and, after a short introduction, given shoe covers, a hazmat suit, and a hair net. It was hard not to feel apprehensive preparing to see what animals we might see (I’m sure everyone has heard the rumours), but we were put at ease by our guide Rachael, one of the staff at the facility.
The mouse’s house
We first visited the mouse and rat surgical suite, which is a sterile-looking room used for surgeries, various treatments, scans, and euthanasia. Mice are kept at the facility for six months before being euthanised and all researchers are required to learn two methods of euthanasia. Most opt for CO2 asphyxia: the CO2 concentration is increased until the animal is rendered unconscious, like drifting off to sleep, and then their necks are broken to confirm death. An overdose of anaesthesia is often used for larger animals.
There are masses of research behind these methods, which have validated the incredibly low stress and pain levels of the animals during these methods. Whilst this part of the tour was perhaps a bit intense, the area was incredibly clean and well looked after, and there was definitely no glossing over the truth.
One of the staff said, “Yes, it is sad that the animals die, but no one is taking their lives for granted at all which is why we all make an effort to get to know and care for every single rat, mouse or sheep that is here.” I think it’s important to think about this before jumping to conclusions about this area of research.
Meeting the mice
The next part of our tour was meeting the animals themselves. We looked in at the mice and Rhabdomys who were, as you’d expect, adorable. They’re housed in state-of-the-art plastic cages with all sorts of small toys thrown in. Filled by a robotic hand machine, fine sterile sawdust and hay are their bedding and, to be honest, they look like regular pets.
As soon as the light was turned on, they were jumping into the cages hoping for a few seeds. I’m not exactly sure what a happy mouse is supposed to look like, but these mice looked happy to me. These mice were being used for circadian clock research and tumorigenesis of breast cancer. Science has improved so much that you can now develop a model mouse that would naturally grow a tumour at a specific point in its growth, which is quite amazing if you think about it.
The Rhabdomys were especially cool. Bigger than the regular mice, they have very similar eyesight and circadian rhythms to us. Stopford is currently the only centre in the UK that houses these animals but they are beginning to be used more and more, particularly for research into nightshifts.
Lab rats and lab zebrafish
Moving on, we saw rats who were taking part in behavioural studies looking at mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia or depression. Rats are put in a large metal cage (sort of like the one you’d have at home for your pet rabbit) full of toys for a couple of hours a day. Research has found that rats require more stimulation than mice and so giving them things like old tissue boxes or balls is important.
Our next stop was the zebrafish, kept in large tanks. These tiny fish are being used more and more for research into strokes and early development and it’s amazing to see how this works. They share 70% of our genes and hatch from their eggs after just 48 hours so this makes them an ideal model organism. Once adults, their neural structure can be analysed pre- and post-stroke, which can be hugely beneficial in improving stroke treatments in humans.
Ewe won’t believe it
Now the moment you’ve all been wanting to hear about – yes, there are sheep at the top of Stopford, 25 to be exact. Walking into this room feels like entering a farmyard barn, with metal gated pens, and hay and sawdust lining the floor. Not only this, but classical music was playing in the background. Apparently, John Williams improves and settles the mood of sheep and humans!
The sheep were extremely inquisitive and instantly recognised the scientists who were accompanying us (apparently most of them go and sit with the sheep on their breaks). Armed with handfuls of sheep nuts we were able to touch and stroke them and it was like we’d completely forgotten where we were.
Sheep are used for cardiac research and all of them had pacemakers implanted. It was hard to believe that these bouncy, excited sheep were all in end-stage heart failure, which showed off this incredible research. All of these ewes had lambed at least three times and were now ‘retired’, hence why they were now at BSF. They live at the facility for six months before being peacefully euthanised. This process occurs away from the other sheep so as not to cause distress.
The truth about the BSF
So no, there is no secret cow or alligator at the top of the Stopford building but there are still a lot of other animals. I think it’s easy to say things like “how terrible” and “those poor animals” when you haven’t visited the facility. However, we’ve all experienced disease in one way or the other that has required the use of animals in its treatment research.
Finding new treatments for a disease such as breast cancer or diabetes or heart failure needs animals unfortunately and that is the truth. There is no way humans would be this advanced in medicine if it were not for the sacrifices of these animals. I think it is important to note that the Stopford workers all do the work they do because they love animals, and they make an effort to not shy away from the truth. Every room is looked after at all hours of the day and every animal is cherished. I think the openness and transparency that Stopford has is commendable.