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Animal keepers are vital to lab research

Caretakers at the U of I make sure the 34,000 study subjects are kept in stable and sterile conditions

August 17, 2003
By Colleen Krantz
Register Staff Writer
The Des Moines Register
Coralville, Ia.

Vickie Knepper reaches into the shoebox-size, clear plastic container and picks up a recently weaned mouse.

With practiced efficiency, she holds the rodent by the scruff of its neck, punches a tiny hole in its ear as an identifier, and snips off the tip of its tail for later genetic analysis.

She repeats the procedure over and over, mouse after mouse, inside a locked portion of a building at the University of Iowa's Oakdale campus in Coralville.

"If I'd known how much I enjoy animal care, I would have been here right after graduating from high school," said Knepper, 44.

The Harper woman is one of 35 animal caretakers at the U of I, those whose behind-the-scenes work is vital to experiments involving animals but whose names won't show up when findings are published in medical journals.

The job of animal caretaker has evolved over the past few decades. It now requires much more than just "changing dirty cages and feeding and watering animals," said Dr. Paul Cooper, a veterinarian and director of the U of I's Office of Animal Resources.

The full-time caretakers must be experts in maintaining sterile conditions. They keep track of breeding schedules and hormone injections. They carefully label tissue or blood samples. They watch for malfunctions of the equipment that circulates fresh air through the cages and provides a constant supply of clean water.

"It's very important that we get everything right . . . because the researchers get their findings from this," Jim Hynes, a caretaker supervisor, said as he watched Knepper move on to another mouse cage. He said the hole punch in the mouse's ear hurts the rodent as much as it would a person who was getting an ear pierced.

More than 34,000 animals are housed at the university, of which more than 32,000 are mice. The rest include everything from cats to hamsters to monkeys. Most are used for medical research.

Iowa State University has 21,000 animals on or near campus used in research or teaching. It has the equivalent of 23 full-time workers caring for those animals, officials said. The University of Northern Iowa has a minimal number of animals, most in its biology department.

The animals at the U of I live in a variety of medical buildings on central campus and in the highly secured building on the Oakdale campus.

Every day just before 6:30 a.m., the caretakers file into their assigned buildings to begin the tasks that go into providing a stable environment for the animals.

In the nondescript white building on the Oakdale campus, they don gloves, masks, booties and aprons before entering the rooms filled with hundreds of cages.

As Hynes opens a door to one such room, he points out that the space is designed to have positive pressure - the air flows outward so viruses don't flow in.

Each individual cage also has positive-pressure air flow and a filter that can block viruses. The university has spent about $5 million over the past 15 years or so on these special containment cages, Cooper said. They require fewer cleanings because they have a steady supply of fresh air. Some savings resulted from the lower labor requirements.

The rooms full of cages are monitored by a computerized alarm system that will automatically call a supervisor - night or day - if the air-circulation system malfunctions or a single water dispenser begins to leak. The U of I spent about $350,000 to install the systems throughout campus.

"Research animals have second priority only to hospital patients," Hynes said.

Cooper added: "If (U of I President David) Skorton's air-conditioning quits working and ours quits working, and we only have one guy to work on them, we get to supersede."

The mice also drink better water than students or professors who sip from campus water fountains.

Why such high priority?

A disaster in one building - whether the spread of a disease in the mouse population or a flooded lab - could set dozens of research projects back years. That could mean a loss in money or a delay in reaching conclusions that might help in the treatment or prevention of some disease. The research might focus on anything from multiple sclerosis to high blood pressure.

The Oakdale building alone houses about 9,000 mice. Many of those have had altered genes introduced or genes removed so they express some ailment or disease that afflicts humans. Offspring of the mice that carry the altered genes are often used in the research as well.

The average genetically altered mouse might be worth as much as $1,500, Cooper said.

With that kind of money on the line, the university is careful in selecting its animal caretakers.

"We can't just hire someone off the street for a few hours a day," Cooper said. "These are full-time workers who are required to go through training."

Mikhiela Sherrod, a U of I graduate student in genetics who uses mice to study high blood pressure, said the caretakers must follow the rule: First, do no harm.

"The basic thing for them is to be clean and make sure the mice are fed. They keep them contained and keep them in a stable and consistent environment," said Sherrod, 29.

"That's pretty much the key so that when you manipulate things, you can say the changes you see are the result of changes you've introduced" and not because of other environmental factors.

Knepper, whose salary is about $24,000, often gives a vague answer when people ask her what she does, because she'd rather not debate animal-rights activists.

"You never know," she said. "I don't want to offend them or get into an argument."

Cooper, however, said he is open to discussing his job and explaining how regulations dictate what can and can't be done with lab animals. He'll gladly describe how a committee reviews proposed experiments to determine if the possible gain is worthwhile.

"It's important to talk about where research has gone," he said. "I don't think a lot of people understand that it's a very highly regulated enterprise."

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