Spotlight on FMIers: Gisèle Ferrand

To discover the molecular mechanisms of health and disease, some FMI researchers use animals such as mice and fish. This animal research will help to understand the causes of conditions including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and psychiatric disorders, paving the way to new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. As head of the FMI animal facility, Gisèle Ferrand leads a large team of experts looking after the wellbeing of mice and fish used in experiments. In this Q&A, Gisèle talks about her career trajectory, how her team cares for lab animals, and what will happen if Swiss voters approve a referendum calling for a ban on animal experimentation.

You’re a veterinarian by training. How did you end up working in an animal research facility? I attended vet school in Lyon, France, where I did an internship in internal medicine of small animals, such as dogs and cats. I wanted to work in a vet practice, but I was disappointed that people didn’t take good care of their pet animals. Having a friend working in lab animal medicine, I realized that the ethical standards in the field were excellent and people cared for lab animals more than most people would care for their pets. So, when I was offered a job as responsible of the animal facility at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC), I moved to Lausanne. There, I also worked as a clinical vet at the école polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne.

What do you like the most about your job as head of the FMI animal facility? I love taking care of animals but also helping researchers to plan experiments and monitor the animals. Scientists are very interested in doing better animal research, so they come to me for advice, and I regularly discuss with the institute’s animal welfare officer Birgit Heller on how to improve the animal wellbeing — it’s a very interactive job.

How do you look after the wellbeing of animals at the FMI? In the team we are 18, including more than 10 caretakers who check every animal in every cage or tank, seven days a week. If something is wrong, for example if a mouse is sick, they immediately inform the researchers, who decide on the necessary action — for example, treating the animal. Researchers also come frequently to check the general conditions of animals under experiments. Mice are social animals, so we make sure that they live in groups of two to five, and we give them cotton pads to build a nest and a "mouse house" where they can hide. We also have different types of food for mice: standard food pellets and a special food for the more fragile animals.

What’s your typical working day like? Every day, I visit one of our animal houses and I discuss with caretakers about any issues they may have. Sometimes I show them new procedures to improve the animals’ wellbeing: for example, I’ve recently showed them how to trim the mice’s nails. (The cantonal vet require that we trim the nails of the mice’s rear paws, so that itching mice don’t injure themselves when scratching.) After visiting the animal house, I go to my office to do some paperwork, as we are in close contact with federal and cantonal authorities to make sure that animal research at the FMI complies with the Swiss law in relation to animal welfare. Then I may have a meeting with researchers and staff involved in animal experiments to advise them, for example on how to minimize the stress on the animal during an experiment.

What are FMI researchers expected to do before starting an experiment with mice? Switzerland has one of the strictest animal-welfare laws in the world. Researchers can’t do experiments on animals without an authorization from the Swiss authorities. Before doing any experiment, they must justify why the use of animals is required to answer their research question, and they must weigh up whether the potential benefits of the scientific knowledge gained will outweigh any potential harm to the animal. Then, the researchers send the application for authorization to the FMI animal welfare officer, who checks that it is compliant with the law and then sends it to the cantonal authorities. From there, the application goes to the cantonal vet and then to an ethical committee composed of lawyers, veterinarians, researchers and animal-rights campaigners. The committee evaluates the application and gives its recommendation to the cantonal vet, who decides whether the experiment is approved. Once we have all the necessary permits, our researchers can begin their experiments.

On February 13, Swiss people will vote on a referendum calling for a ban of all experiments on animals and humans in Switzerland. What will happen if the referendum is approved? All animal research in Switzerland would stop within two years, so many scientists will have to find other ways to do their research. But current alternatives aren’t good enough: a handful of nerve cells in a dish can’t reproduce the complex workings of the brain or the interactions between the brain and other organs. There’s more: if the initiative is approved, sick people won’t be able to participate in clinical trials, meaning we won’t have new or improved treatments against diseases. The initiative also bans the trade, import, or export of products for which animal testing or clinical trials have been carried out. Because all drugs have to be tested periodically in animals and humans, this means that people in Switzerland eventually won’t be able to get any medication. This will be a huge problem for human health but also for animal health, because we won’t get drugs for treating animals such as cattle or poultry, and Switzerland may no longer be able to produce meat or milk. If the initiative is approved, we will be in serious trouble.

About Gisèle Ferrand Gisèle Ferrand was born in southern France and attended veterinary medical college in Lyon. In 2019, she became head of the FMI animal facility. Before joining the FMI, she worked as a clinical veterinary at the University of Lausanne and as responsible of the animal facility at ISREC and EPFL. She lives in Basel with a Labrador named Dana and two Golden Retrievers, Cooky and Gibbs. Gisèle’s favorite activity is taking her dogs for long walks — and the occasional run.

Gisele’s dogs Dana, Cooky and Gibbs posing for the camera (left); the trio, all rescue dogs, loves to roll around in the snow on the Swiss alps (right).