A peek into the Central Animal Facility, which supports research in almost 70 labs
Prashant and his three colleagues set out for work in the small hours of the morning. Gauribidanur, their hometown, is 80 km from Bangalore, and the train ride and the short walk after that to reach the Central Animal Facility (CAF) at IISc can take up to two hours. Once here, they are joined by others including Chikanna, who travels about 25 km from Rajankunte, and Gundappa, who lives on campus. They clean up and change into comfortable lab shoes and fresh uniforms. They don PPE, hair covers, gloves and masks, and pass through an ‘air shower’ into the inner corridors with animal rooms on both sides.
Gundappa has worked here for 33 years. He is an attender at CAF and, together with his colleagues, is responsible for the upkeep of the living quarters of the ‘small animals’ (rats, mice, rabbits and hamsters) used for research at the Institute.
Animals such as the ones Gundappa tends to are indispensable to scientists who seek to understand how biological systems work. Vertebrates like mice and rats are similar to humans in many ways, and help scientists in deciphering fundamental processes, from the workings of various organ systems to processes underlying memory and behaviour. These animals are used to understand how our bodies may respond to diseases or environmental stresses. Small animals are also used to test the safety and efficacy of chemicals, drug-delivery systems and implants. Primates, like macaques, are also used nowadays to study brain function.
According to the IISc Annual Reports, laboratory mice have been used for experiments at the Institute since 1951, when MR Sirsi, a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology, started working on chemotherapy for tuberculosis. In 1965, NR Moudgal, Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, established a Primate Research Lab (PRL) to study reproductive biology using bonnet macaques. By 1971, both small lab animals (such as rodents) and large ones (such as goats and monkeys) were being used at IISc. The current animal facility was built in front of PRL in 1990. A huge modern building for the facility is currently being constructed next to it.
In IISc, it is not just biologists who use model organisms, but also engineers, chemists and nanoscientists. In the 20 years since the turn of the century, the number of animals used for research has gone up from 336 to almost 19,000. The number of departments using them has also shot up from four to 20. Having a common facility like CAF, where animals can be housed in a clean and controlled environment, is therefore critical.
Having a common facility like CAF where animals can be housed in a clean and controlled environment is critical
SG Ramachandra, a veterinarian and Chief Research Scientist, runs CAF along with HA Ravindranath, Principal Research Scientist. There are two other young vets, Rekha and Thirumala, who monitor the health of the animals and assist students with their experiments. Rosa Samuels, a project assistant, supervisor and caretaker, all rolled into one, keeps everything and everybody in line.
A typical day
Mornings at CAF start with the attenders making rounds of the 50-odd rooms. Each attender is responsible for a different set of animals. They go from room to room, checking the temperature and humidity, noting down births and deaths of animals on cards hanging from each cage. The animals that are scheduled for a bedding change are moved into clean cages. All cages and materials that need cleaning and autoclaving are brought down to the three huge autoclaves on the ground floor. The attenders spend the rest of the day washing, cleaning, autoclaving and sterilising. Material that needs to be discarded is collected in huge bags, and handed over to the waste disposal van that comes by every alternate day.
The two vets, on their rounds, track the health and behaviour of the animals closely. Some research labs at IISc have their own attenders and vets, but most others require help from the CAF staff. Activity increases once students start coming in for work on their individual projects. All experiments using animals are expected to be conducted at CAF.
The vets also help with surgeries and collection of blood and tissue. Rekha takes care of the ‘nude mice’, a laboratory strain of mice that have no hair, and are useful for cancer research. They carry a mutation that makes their immune system extremely weak. Strict sterile conditions have to be maintained in the rooms where they are housed. Even their feed is sterilised using gamma radiation. Only designated personnel are allowed to enter these rooms.
At around 4.30 pm, each attender takes a shower, changes into their own clothes, and leaves the uniforms to be washed, sanitised and ironed before they are used again. Lakshmi, the helper, is responsible for taking care of these uniforms.
When the pandemic hit
Work at CAF is complex, but it is run like a well-oiled machine. It provides an essential service to IISc, and is the only section that is fully functional every day of the year, even on weekends and public holidays. So,
how did the lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic affect the facility?
“All experiments stopped. We were running using a skeleton staff,” Rosa remembers. “But the animals still had to be watered and fed, and cages had to be cleaned. For close to three months, I cleaned the cages myself with some of the attenders. It was exhausting physical work, and my respect for the boys who do this every day went up.”
One attender also shared his pandemic story: In the early days, he was caught by the police on his way to work. One of the policemen told him, “If you insist on going to work, be prepared to go to jail.” The man, who had already travelled for two hours, was not going to be dissuaded so easily. He apologised, but as soon as the policeman was out of sight, he slipped into the bylanes of Mathikere and reached CAF through one of the back gates. Soon after this incident, security passes were arranged for all of them by the facility.
Involvement in research activities
About 180 new students will use the facility this year. Every user, even faculty members, must pass the ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ exam to be allowed to work with animals, the cut-off for which is 90%. The veterinarians at CAF train new students to handle the animals humanely. With growing awareness about animal rights and ethics, regulations on experiments using animals have become more stringent. The Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA) was formed by the Government of India under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of CPCSEA, together with the Institutional Ethics Committee, evaluates each project that uses animals every three to four months.
CPCSEA constitutes representatives from 16 departments of the government, and Ramachandra represents the Ministry of Education (MoE) on this committee. He helps evaluate the 1,700 animal facilitiesin the country. When asked what sets CAF apart, he says, “Every year, I submit a report on our contribution for the IISc Annual Reports. While CAF staff rarely get authorships, they are often acknowledged based on their contribution. I comb through PubMed for entries from IISc. Every year, some 70 to 80 papers come out of IISc that have used CAF for their work.”
“Every year, some 70 to 80 papers come out of IISc that have used CAF for their work”
The effectiveness of the facility depends on the efficiency of its staff. Sathees Raghavan, Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, took over as the Chair of CAF in October 2020. Some of his first actions were toward making the working conditions of the staff more comfortable. He acquired new PPE and lab shoes, and introduced a ‘Work Appreciation Award’. In addition, during the lockdown, when the eateries on campus were shut, he made sure that coffee was available for the staff at the facility itself.
Raghavan believes that having a facility like CAF on campus is a great boon. He says that he wants to make it world-class by introducing modern methods of staff training and improved professionalism. “With so many new users joining each year, and with the new building coming up,” he adds, “CAF is well on its way to becoming the largest animal facility in the country.”