'Smart Vivarium' Could Enable Better Care of Laboratory Animals
San Diego , Tuesday, February 10, 2004 -- Computer scientists and an imal care experts at the University of California , San Diego (UCSD) have come u p with a new way to automate the monitoring of mice and other animals in laborat ory research. Combining cameras and distributed, non-invasive sensors with eleme nts of computer vision, information technology and artificial intelligence, the Smart Vivarium project aims to enhance the quality of animal research, while at the same time enabling better health care for animals.
The pilot project is led by Serge Belongie, an assistant professor in Compute r Science and Engineering at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. It is funded e ntirely by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Techn ology [ Cal- (IT)²], a joint venture of UCSD and UC Irvine . "Today a lot o f medical research relies on drug administration and careful monitoring of large numbers of live mice and other animals, usually in cages located in a vivarium, " said Belongie. "But it is an entirely manual process, so there are limitations on how often observations can be made, and how thoroughly those observations ca n be analyzed."
Belongie put together an interdisciplinary team to develop the hardware and s oftware for automated, 24-hour-a-day monitoring and archiving of a continuous st ream of measurements on animal behavior -- rather than periodic observations by a lab technician. So far, Belongie has demonstrated his computer-vision and patt ern-recognition software with data from a single cage, but the deployment inside a full-scale vivarium is still in the proposal stages. Noted Belongie: "We are now hoping to embark on a multi-million-dollar project that would allow us to de velop and deploy the technology for two key areas -- medical research, and emerg ency response."
UCSD is a major biological sciences research center, and animal-care speciali sts believe the technology under development could dramatically improve the care of research animals. "The Smart Vivarium will make better use of fewer lab anim als and lead to more efficient animal health care," said Phil Richter, Director of UCSD's Animal Care Program, who is working with Belongie on the project. "Sic k animals would be detected and diagnosed sooner, allowing for earlier treatment s." The technology would also help to reduce the number of animals needed in sci entific investigations. "In medical research, experiments are sometimes repeated due to observational and analytical limitations," said Belongie. "By recording all the data the first time, scientists could go back and look for different pat terns in the data without using more mice to perform the new experiment."
For many of the same reasons, the underlying technology could be useful for t he early diagnosis and monitoring of sick animals in zoos, veterinary offices an d agriculture. ("Early detection of lameness in livestock," noted Belongie, "cou ld help stop the transmission of disease.") The computer scientist also intends to seek collaboration with the San Diego Zoo and other local institutions for pr actical field deployment of the monitoring systems as part of an upcoming study.
A possible ancillary use for this technology could be for emergency response, specifically, for monitoring so-called 'sentinel' cages. "This is the modern-da y version of the canary in a coal mine," said Belongie. "Animals can be very sen sitive to chemical or biological agents, and sentinel cages have already been de ployed at potential bio-terrorism targets and chemical research facilities to wa rn operators of gas or other leaks. Instead of requiring that a human watch each animal in each cage for early warning signs, the Smart Vivarium technology woul d automate the process, resulting in reduced need for such sentinels."
As for improvements in medical research from the continuous monitoring of lab animals, Belongie expects at least an improvement of two orders of magnitude in the automated collection and processing of monitoring data. "Continuous monitor ing and mining of animal physiological and behavioral data will allow medical re searchers to detect subtle patterns expressible only over lengthy longitudinal s tudies," noted Belongie. "By providing a never-before-available, vivarium-wide c ollection of continuous animal behavior measurements, this technology could yiel d major breakthroughs in drug design and medical research, not to mention veteri nary science, experimental psychology and animal care."
Apart from Belongie and officials from the UCSD Animal Care Program, two Jaco bs School of Engineering faculty members are collaborating on the project: Bioen gineering professor Geert W. Schmid-Schonbein, a leader in microcirculation rese arch, who is providing input on how to maximize the utility of the design of the Smart Vivarium; and Computer Science and Engineering professor Rajesh Gupta, wh o is leading the effort to create a distributed, embedded platform that will int egrate all of the functions in a tiny silicon-based package that could be mounte d on existing lab cages without requiring a wholesale redesign of cages used by vivarium operators. "This project typifies the interdisciplinary nature of our r esearch," said Ramesh Rao, UCSD Division Director of Cal- (IT)2. "Professor Belo ngie and his colleagues are working to produce a practical system that will requ ire overcoming huge research challenges in areas as diverse as computer vision, bioengineering, embedded systems design, and animal care protocols. And based on the pilot project so far, they are off to a good start."