The commercial antibody market is already a mess, although that’s not a new development, but it’s gotten messier. Santa Cruz Biotech, one of the big suppliers, is getting out of a big part of the business. Actually, “being forced out of the business through their own actions” is probably a better description. The company has been hit with a $3.5 million dollar fine over its treatment of its goats and rabbits, and has to give up its license under the Animal Welfare Act. That means they can continue with mice, rats, and chickens, but the rabbit and goat antibody production is now shut down.
The USDA had found evidence of mistreatment at the company’s facilities in California, and (in a bizarre development) also found an entire goat facility that the company had not been reporting. The current settlement includes the “neither admits nor denies” language about the company’s culpability, but you don’t give up a big piece of your business and agree to the largest animal-welfare fine in USDA history if you think you have a good case. You also don’t suddenly cause 4,000 animals to vanish right before an inspection, which is what apparently happened a few months ago
Using animals in biopharma research is still unavoidable (go find another way to make antibodies, for example). It’s true that monoclonal antibodies are produced in cell culture, but that process still begins by injecting a mouse. Meanwhile, polyclonal antibodies, of the sort that Santa Cruz was producing, use animals directly for production. You inject a mouse, or a rabbit, or a goat (or what have you) with your antigen of choice, let their immune system reaction to it, and draw blood to harvest the resulting antibodies. Animal care and use committees come in because all of these steps can be run humanely, or not so humanely. In addition to basic standards for keeping lab animals, there are regulations about how strongly you can challenge their immune systems, how often you can draw blood (and how much), and so on, and Santa Cruz appears to have been accused of violations up and down the list.
As human beings, we have a responsibility to treat our research animals as befits a species that can understand the consequences of its own actions. Losing Santa Cruz Biotechnology’s rabbit and goat production is going to disrupt the work of a number of research labs around the world, and not in that hot, happenin’ Silicon Valley sense of the word. But it still sounds like a fair trade. There’s enough pain and suffering in this world already – creating more of it just because you can’t be bothered is not an acceptable way for human beings to act, not towards animals and not towards other humans.