CHENNAI:Testing heart assist devices or artificial valves on animals like sheep are bound to draw ire from animal activists. Dr Richard Bianco, director of Experimental Research at the University of Minnesota, says that he’s had his fair share of experiences with them, but it’s a battle that he believes he’s learnt to deal with. “I’ve had my fair share of trouble with animal activists. I’ve been doing testing and experimental work for 35 years now,” he says with a laugh, a little before he undertook a workshop on large animal testing techniques at Frontier Mediville — the testing and research facility of Dr K M Cherian’s Heart Foundation on Friday. “But what I’ve realised is that you’ve got to open your doors to them, not too much, but enough for them to see that you’re not really hiding anything,” he adds. With Dr Cherian’s researchers actively working with heart stem cells, genetic research and indigenous heart assist pumps and valves, experimentation on animals is an automatic precursor to human trials. This is mandated by the ISO and the FDA before a process is mandated as safe to use. The advantage that they will have is that a wealth of pre-surgical prep, surgical techniques and data on post-implantation care will be made available to them by the researchers from Minnesota. “They’ll get a jumpstart on their programme and the use of animals for testing will be absolutely minimal. It may sound like humbug, but the truth is we do treat the sheep in the lab with a lot of dignity like they’re one of our patients,” he explains.
With mainstream heart valve research best done amongst sheep, with a few modalities preferring the usage of pigs, the usage of animals like monkeys and dogs is something that is strictly avoided. “Back in the US, we have breeders who grow the sheep we use for research separately. I suppose when there’s enough of a demand here, that could well become the case. The sheep that we utilise in our labs often live for six months to a year, which is usually longer than the life of regular sheep,” says Dr Bianco.