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A Closer Look Briefs
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Veterinarian is Vital Voice for Humane Research
by Gary Jahrig
Don’t confuse Dr. John Weyhrich with Dr. John Dolittle. Dolittle, of movie and children’s literature fame, talks to the animals. Weyhrich, the director of Laboratory Animal Resources at The University of Montana, talks for the animals.
“I’m a veterinarian. I love animals. But I also believe in the merits of well-conducted biomedical research,” Weyhrich says. “My job is a dual role. I’m both an animal advocate, as well as an intermediary between researchers and animals.
“If I’m doing my job right. ... Hopefully through the process we will come up with a research method that will be satisfactory to all: the researcher, the regulators and anyone else in between.”
Weyhrich’s job entails overseeing the operation of UM’s animal research lab, which is tucked away in the basements of two buildings on the Missoula campus. Home to a variety of mice, rats, fish, birds, monkeys, sheep and other species, the animal research lab provides a testing ground for researchers from academic disciplines such as biological sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, pharmacy and psychology.
“The makeup changes frequently, depending on the research being conducted,” Weyhrich says.
Access to the buildings is strictly monitored, and visitors must follow health guidelines when entering the lab. Some animals carry contagious viruses, and others are highly susceptible to human diseases.
Animal research, while deplored by some as unethical and inhumane, is considered a vital component of academic life by scientists who spend their working hours trying to find cures and antidotes for an array of human diseases ranging from the common cold to diabetes to cancer — in an ethical and humane manner.
A quality animal laboratory is viewed as essential by researchers in most scientific fields.
“I wouldn’t have been able to move here without a good animal facility,” says Andrij Holian, a nationally known pharmaceutical sciences professor who came to UM more than a year ago to head the school’s newly created Center for Environmental Health Sciences. “I had to check out the facility before I agreed to come here,” he says.
“It’s a critical, vital aspect to any university that wants to do cutting-edge biomedical research. In order to study human diseases, you have two choices. You can work on humans or work on animals as surrogates for humans. ... The bottom line of all biomedical research is to understand the mechanisms of the disease — initiation and progression and genetic base for disease susceptibility.”
UM President George Dennison lauds the lab and the research it supports.
“They take a great deal of pride in following the code of ethics,” Dennison says. “And students benefit both directly and indirectly from the research. ... Research attracts grant money that buys equipment that is used by students. We’ve got world-class research going on in there.
“I’m proud that we are fully accredited and doing the work we are doing here at UM.”
The current resident list in the facility is dominated by rodents — rats and mice. “Most biomedical research takes place using mouse or rat models,” says Holian, who uses a special breed of genetically raised mice to study lung fibrosis and asthma.
Mice of a variety of sizes and large white lab rats are housed in several of the animal lab’s research rooms. Researchers such as Holian have their own private areas where their specimens are housed in specially designed cages.
Research projects involving rats and mice include studies looking into respiratory diseases, neurological disorders, reproductive systems, cancer and HIV.