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NIEHS Recognized for Excellence in Animal Care

By Eddy Ball
May 2009

A photograph of Diane Forsythe.
“AAALAC accreditation is voluntary and is a symbol of quality,” Forsythe said. “It shows that we're willing to go above and beyond what the regulations and requirements are, that we're very committed to having an outstanding animal care program.” NIEHS research proposals undergo a detailed review by the Animal Use and Care Committee before any experiment using animals can begin. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Reviewers described the NIEHS animal care program as “exemplary” during a recent site visit by the Council on Accreditation of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC International). In a March 17 letter, the group officially notified NIEHS Comparative Medicine Branch (CMB) Chief Diane Forsythe, D.V.M., of the NIEHS program's full accreditation.

The decision by AAALAC ( NIEHS was based on the Institute's complete compliance with the very detailed Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals ( NIEHS (Guide), which covers every aspect of animal care. Prepared by the National Research Council in 1996, the Guide represents the gold standard of best practices for more than 750 AAALAC-affiliated government, university, hospital and private laboratories engaged in research using animals.

“This is what's called a 'clean' letter,” Forsythe said of the notification, “because there are no suggestions for improvement, [which is] very unusual” in this rigorous review process. “The use of the word 'exemplary' is also very rare,” she added, “and we're very happy about that.”

Mice make up the vast majority of the NIEHS animal population. “We have a small number of rats, a very small number of frogs and an even smaller number of fish,” Forsythe said. “We also use invertebrates such as nematodes and fruit flies.”

In his letter to Forsythe, Council on Accreditation President John Bradfield, D.V.M, Ph.D., wrote that reviewers were especially impressed by the Institute's knowledgeable and committed staff, well equipped and maintained facilities, inclusive occupational health and safety program, and comprehensive training. Forsythe shares praise for the high quality and outstanding efforts with her 22-member staff and 60 contractors who support the animal care and use program. She also readily acknowledges the significant contributions of many others in the Institute, including personnel in the National Toxicology Program (NTP), Health and Safety Branch, Facilities Management Branch, Operations and Security Branch, and Office of the Scientific Director for their “tremendous support of the program.”

Forsythe mentioned that in 1972 NIEHS became the first NIH institute to be accredited by AAALAC. The AAALAC organization was formed in 1965. The main NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. received full accreditation in 1993.

“We have a strong commitment to reducing the number of animals used in research,” Forsythe concluded, pointing to the strong support by NIEHS and NTP for developing alternative testing. “However, there are studies where animal models are the only appropriate tools to investigate mechanisms of disease. In these studies it is critical to be sure that research is conducted appropriately and humanely. AAALAC accreditation confirms that we are continually striving to have the best animal care program possible.”

Maintaining Optimal Animal Health and Wellbeing

As Forsythe explained, meeting the strict standards outlined in the Guide is not only humane— the most important consideration by far — but also practical. “Healthy, disease-free animals are going to give you the best research data,” she observed.

To that end, the living conditions of the animals at NIEHS are “monitored much, much more closely than we would monitor our own.” Room temperature, humidity, light cycles and air exchange rates are carefully controlled. The Comparative Medicine Branch lab analyzes all feed and bedding that is used in animal cages, including testing feed for pellet hardness and bedding for dust content. Feed and bedding are autoclaved to eliminate pathogens and analyzed to check for contaminants.

“The water is purified and quality is also closely monitored,” she said. The animals are kept free of a long list of specific pathogens, and the facility is secured to protect laboratory animals from diseases and parasites that may be carried by animals outside the walls of the building.

The constant effort to protect the animals from disease includes strict rules about protective clothing requirements for staff and visitors and about the acceptance of animals from elsewhere. “We don't bring in animals directly from unapproved sources,” Forsythe continued. “We re-derive them in using embryo transfer” — a time-consuming, but necessary process to make certain that new animals, including transgenic mouse models, meet the health standards of the facility.

“We're very careful to maintain our barrier,” Forsythe added, “and we're routinely testing our animals for the presence of pathogens. We transport animals in climate-controlled trucks and in shipping containers that are sanitized before entry into the animal facility.”

“By incorporating all these procedures into our animal care program and maintaining the high standards noted in our AAALAC site visit report,” she added, “we can assure our scientists and the public that animal welfare and animal health at NIEHS are of the highest caliber.”

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