Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, are proteins that can bind to foreign molecules in the body. Discovered in the early 20th century, the incredible specificity with which they can bind to proteins became an irreplaceable tool in the repertoire of molecular biology. Because of this, scientists have been able to manipulate antibodies in a number of ways. For example, antibodies are used in immunohistochemistry, where they are made fluorescent and can be used by scientists to track the location of certain particles. Another technique, known as western blots, are used by scientists to separate proteins based on specific properties, such as hydrophobicity, pH, and electric charge.
In the early 1980s, due to the growing antibody demands in the ever-increasing number of research facilities around the world, biotechnology companies quickly commercialized the process. Today, antibodies are readily available to researchers online. For a fee, antibodies against nearly any molecule can be produced.
Currently, the majority of biotechnology companies use rabbits and goats to create these antibodies. The animals are kept in farms and are injected with proteins and pathogens to provoke immune responses. Companies then harvest antibodies from the plasma of these animals by extracting their blood. By then giving animals the time to generate more antibodies, companies can repeat this process over and over. In 2011 alone, biotechnology companies generated $1.6 billion in revenues solely from antibodies; however, the lucrative side of commercial antibody production is not the entire story.
While these biotechnology companies are convenient for researchers, they are also held to lesser ethical and animal rights standards. Since the relationship of research institutions to biotechnological companies is that of consumer and supplier, researchers are often unaware of—or sometimes even indifferent to—the animal rights violations of these companies.
As early as 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined Santa Cruz Biotechnology Inc. (SCBT), the world’s second largest antibody supplier, for a sum of $4,600. In 2012 alone, SCBT accounted for 53 per cent of global antibody transactions. The violations included problems with “animal sanitation, veterinary care, and personnel sanitation.” The company has since faced a slew of litigations from the USDA, with the most recent lawsuit due to resume on April 5.
For these corporations, any and all products procured or produced by animals have to adhere to strict humane and ethical conditions. In the United States, these requirements are outlined in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—currently the only Federal law in the United States to protect animals used for purposes of scientific research. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a US non-profit organization aimed at “[alleviating] the suffering inflicted on animals by people,” the USDA could face fines up to $10,000 per day for every violation of the Animal Welfare Act. Furthermore, the AWI indicated that SCBT is the only company have three separate complaints filed against them by the USDA, and—pending the trial—stands to have its commercial licence permanently revoked.
Despite two separate complaints filed by the USDA, animal rights watchdogs throughout the United States say they did not see any cessation of these violations.
In January 2013, taking matters into its own hands, the national non-profit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), on behalf of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), alleged that SCBT violated California legislature for the proper care of animals. The allegation was supported by numerous Animals Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspections.
“APHIS investigations have documented multiple violations over the past six years at Santa Cruz Biotech, and have repeatedly cited the corporation for unlawful neglect of goats,” the APHIS wrote in a press release. “Emaciated and severely malnourished animals were discovered with untreated skin conditions and painful respiratory ailments, and one goat had an untreated broken leg.”
Amidst this slew of ongoing litigations, SCBT is within legal boundaries to conduct its business uninterrupted. And on the side of antibody consumers, the facts are even more disheartening.
“[Nine hundred and one biomedical] laboratories—the vast majority of the estimated 1,100 in the US—violated the Animal Welfare Act in 2012,” SAEN stated in a press release in April 2013.
It seems that the majority of research institutions in the United States are either negligent or unconscious of animal welfare problems. Until very recently, McGill University was also unaware of the allegations.
However, on Feb. 8, 2016, McGill University Procurement Services sent a letter to SCBT enquiring into the allegations of animal rights violations. The letter required SCBT to inform McGill University of “any action, plan, or strategy […] to ensure that all animals under your care are treated according to these [USDA] rules and regulations,” and that “McGill University has already started investigating alternative suppliers.”
About two weeks later, on Feb. 22, McGill University issued a memo addressing the issue.
“Due to other negative findings related to Santa Cruz Biotechnology’s practices, Procurement Service is taking additional measures, [which include] redirecting an order to an alternative source of supply, where possible,” the memo read.
According to McGill University Project Manager of Sustainable Procurement, Stephanie Leclerc, the other negative findings include the disappearance of thousands of goats and rabbits from SCBT’s California facilities. On Jan. 12, 2016, USDA inspectors reported that no animals were present during the inspection. Cathy Liss, director of the AWI, suspects that the animals were killed, as research animals cannot be sold for meat. Furthermore, Liss doubts that “such a large number of animals bred for such a specific purpose would find a buyer.”
McGill is now taking the necessary steps to ensure the sustainability and accountability of its suppliers, which, according to current estimates, number at 20,000.
Previously, SCBT accounted for only $150,000 CAD of the $270 CAD million total that McGill University spends annually. After McGill University Procurement Service’s immediate response to redirect all orders, only three researchers continued to purchase antibodies from SCBT.
“[Their research is] already very advanced, which made it impossible for them to change sources,” Leclerc wrote in an e-mail to the McGill Tribune.
According to the McGill’s website, all research conducted on animals at McGill must “abide by guidelines established by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).” Currently, there is no regulation on the conduct and actions of McGill University suppliers.
In the past, McGill University has never taken actions against suppliers accused of animal rights violations. On a broader perspective, SCBT’s violations could be the driving force for research institutions to become more cognizant of animal welfare.
“[Hopefully] these allegations will prompt a cultural change among those involved in animal research,” Alice Ra’anan, director of government relations and science policy at the American Physiological Society stated.
At McGill, this appears to be the case.
“Procurement Services was already drafting a Supplier Code of Conduct with this issue came about,” Leclerc wrote. “Our draft initially covered ethical principles, social principles, and environmental principles, but did not cover animal welfare principles. Thanks to the alert […] we have now included a whole new section on animal welfare.”
When adopted, McGill University’s Supplier Code of Conduct will require all life science suppliers to the University to provide specific proof that laboratories are compliant or meeting recognized standards. And the university is taking steps to raise awareness across Canadian universities.
“[McGill’s Procurement Services] has alerted many other institutions across Canada, most of whom did not know about this situation either,” Leclerc stated.
Leclerc hopes that McGill researchers will go forward and only purchase from ethical sources.
“It implies a lot of research and work, but we believe this is the only way to go,” Leclerc wrote.