Andreas Teubner, head of the Animal Research Facility at Maastricht University

“Less stress for animals and better research in the new building”

The mice have a hiding place in their cages, sheep walk around in the meadow as much as possible and rabbits share an office-like room with a group. “It’s like a full-package service for animals”, says Andreas Teubner, head of the Animal Research Facility at Maastricht University. He is keen on showing how lab animals are really housed and treated, to put all the ‘sometimes horrible ideas people have about that’ into perspective. The current facility meets all the legal requirements, but improved conditions will enhance the quality of life of the animals as well as the quality of research. That’s why Teubner is happy with the new Biomedical Centre (BMC) that is being built.

Trained as a biologist, Andreas Teubner has first-hand experience with conducting animal research, but for the last 20 years he has mainly held management positions in this field. Before he came to Maastricht in 2017, he worked at the Institute for Laboratory Animal Science at RWTH Aachen University for thirteen years. “As team leader and animal welfare officer for rodent breeding, I was responsible for the husbandry and well-being of mice and rats. So, I discussed experiments with researchers, tried to limit the amount of animals being used, and attempted to reduce the stress and burden of animals in the experiments according to the ‘three Rs’ policy:  Replace/Reduce/Refine.”

The quality improvements of the future facilities
Teubner is responsible for the daily operations and compliance with legal regulations at the Maastricht University facilities and he also focusses on organisational improvements. A major quality improvement will be realised with the new BMC building. “Our current facility is in an old building, where workflows are not always optimal. For example, we have several decentralised labs where highly specialised interventions (cardiologic, oncologic etc.) are performed on our animals. For this, the animals have to be transported from the Central Animal Facility to these labs. This may result in added stress for the animals. In the new BMC, nearly all activities that are now decentralised will come together in one building, resulting in tremendous improvement with respect to the pre-/post-interventional care and wellbeing of the animals.”

The three pillars of the new building
It’s not that the current building is not functioning, Teubner stresses. “It’s fully operational and complies with the laws, but since its start the field of Lab Animal Science has developed quickly. For example, nowadays so-called air showers ‘clean people off’ when they enter a lab animal facility, and help maintain the facility’s high health and hygiene standards. These cannot be implemented in the old building due to technical constraints. So with the new building, we can increase the efficiency and the quality of work, and can decrease the amount of stress on the animals. Those are the main three pillars for the new building.”

How housing conditions really are
The housing of lab animals has been a subject of research for many decades. Starting from a situation where husbandry was characterised by more or less empty cages and boxes with the fewest number of distractions, nowadays lab animals can live according to their species-specific habits in cages or stables that contain nesting material, hiding locations, and also toys at their disposal.

“Most lab animals are social animals and, according to the law, have to be and are housed in groups, except when there is a very good reason not to, like after an operation. Of course, such a life is not as challenging as in nature, but having food and water, nesting, shelter and environmental enrichment at their disposal, lab animals can live a life that fulfills all their basic needs. I think it’s not as bad as some people apparently think! We’re open to showing how our animals live here at the Maastricht Central Animal Facility. Employees from UM and MUMC+ are welcome to take a tour, since there’s nothing to hide.”

Compared to animals killed for meat consumption
In discussions about animal welfare, Teubner often compares the number and the quality of life of animals sacrificed for scientific research to those killed for consumption. “In Germany, where I’m from, about 3 million lab animals used for scientific research are euthanised each year. 85% of these are rodents. On the other hand, 60 million pigs are killed annually for food production in Germany, and about 720 million chickens. They are sometimes housed and killed under terrible conditions. In comparison, our lab animals have privileged living conditions”, he says.

Why it is necessary to use animals in research
Every year, all institutions that use animals for research are required to report how many animals of each species that have been bred, used and euthanised. The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (nVWA) publishes those numbers in official publications like ‘Zo doende’. In Maastricht, mice, rats, rabbits, pigs, sheep, goat, zebra fishes and sometimes guinea pigs are used in experiments.

For Teubner it’s clear, that you cannot perform research on humans to the extent that you can on animals. “Besides the ethical discussion regarding experiments on humans, the genetic diversity of human society doesn’t allow for systematic research, for example, of genetic diseases. With animals, you can have groups with the same genome, like identical twins, which makes it much easier and more reliable to discover and describe the function of a specific gene or medication.

Besides the significance of lab animals in basic research”, Teubner adds, “think about the animals that are used to test new surgical techniques, new supporting devices like heart pumps and new medications. This field of translational medicine often better mirrors the dilemma we are in: Who wants to take the untested medication first? Who wants to be the first patient in which an untested device will be used?”

Why research does not have to have an immediate application per se to be valuable
Of course, he says, you can’t mirror a human in a fruit fly, and maybe not in a mouse either.  “Most often we cannot recreate human disease 1:1 in rodents. But the mouse or rat, as a model, allows us to get a glimpse into the function of a special gene, for example, if it plays a role in liver cancer. The simple rationale is to identify the mechanisms through which molecules and genes normally function when it comes to certain diseases.” According to Teubner, the positive results of animal research have not been stressed enough in public debate thus far: all the medicines, new surgical techniques, or even ‘just’ new knowledge that have been developed. “The things scientists discover today may have no apparent relation to a current problem, but maybe they will in 20 years. I think it’s a danger to biomedical science and science in general to expect all research to be of direct benefit to us.”

He gives the example of the British scientist John Gurdon, who received the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work on frog eggs. In 1962, he cloned frog egg cells, after which molecules were able to be identified that were important for the development of the cells into a living frog. These studies laid the groundwork for the discover of many molecules that are important for the development of cancer. “But back in 1962, people thought Gurdon was crazy. ‘What is he doing with those frog eggs?!’, they said. Therefore, we should keep in mind that the value of research should not only depend on the possibilities for immediate application, but that scientific success builds upon earlier results, and also asks for patience.”