Philippe Bugnon

An Ambassador for Animals

Veterinarian Philippe Bugnon trains researchers who conduct animal testing – even as far away as South Africa.

Kurt Bodenmüller; English translation by Gena Olson

Philippe Bugnon is a veterinarian by training. As a young boy he spent a lot of time with animals – for example with cows on the farm in the village where his grandmother lived, or at home with horses, dogs and cats. The Freiburg native was passionate about riding, so after completing upper secondary school, he decided to turn his hobby into a career. “I wanted to be a veterinarian – or more specifically, an equine specialist,” says Bugnon. However, he couldn’t fulfill his childhood dream, as there were no open positions at the equine hospital during his studies at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Bern. So he went to Plan B, which took his career in a new direction.

“I was really interested in epidemiology, so I started working on my dissertation at the Swiss Rabies Center in Bern,” explains Bugnon. “And that was where I discovered my passion for research.” Veterinarians and biologists managed to eliminate rabies in Switzerland by the end of the 1990s, an achievement that left its mark on Bugnon: He realized how important research is for both human and veterinary medicine. After completing his PhD thesis, he joined the ETH Zurich in 1999 and started conducting fundamental research with mice. At the same time, he was in charge of the animals kept by the university for research and teaching purposes. Here he was able to pass on his knowledge about caring for and handling lab animals to researchers.

Sharing knowledge

Even though he was not active as a clinician, Bugnon found great pleasure in bringing his veterinary medicine knowledge into the realm of research. This led him to join the training and continuing education department at the University of Zurich's Institute of Laboratory Animal Science in 2007, where he took over as director three years later. It was the perfect job for him. “I was not only helping to drive research forward but also helping to ensure the well-being of the animals that were in our care,” he explains. The UZH founded the institute in 1999, shortly after Swiss legislation made external training for those performing animal experiments mandatory. Previously, researchers had been trained in laboratory animal science internally at their respective departments.

Bugnon, who has served as president of the Federal Commission on Animal Testing since 2015, is usually not in his office at Irchel Campus. Most of his work is done externally: In training centers at university departments, at research centers and at companies throughout Switzerland. “We go where the animals are, whether it's the Institute of Virology and Immunology in Mittelhäusern or the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach,” he explains. The mandatory basic education takes one week and includes both theory and practice on a wide range of topics such as how to keep animals, nutrition, health, transport, breeding, statistics, recognizing when animals are in pain, and administering anesthesia.

Replace, reduce, refine

One of the things course participants learn is how to skillfully take blood samples from rabbits or how to recognize when mice are in pain. Research project leaders who are responsible for planning and conducting animal testing receive additional training on top of the basic courses. There are also continuing education courses on offer that teach the latest techniques and research findings. Together with ETH Zurich, the Institute of Laboratory Animal Science conducts around 50 courses for 1,400 participants every year. “The basic principles of animal research are the 3Rs – replace, reduce, refine. Whenever it's possible, animal experiments should be replaced with other experiments. The number of experiments conducted should be reduced, and the methods that are applied should be refined to reduce the negative impact on the animals,” explains Bugnon, who also serves as president of the executive board of the recently founded Swiss 3R Competence Center. For Bugnon, optimizing the well-being of lab animals is not just a matter of ethics. It also has tangible scientific benefits. His approach can be summed up as follows: What's good for animals is also good for research. Numerous studies demonstrate that research results become even more meaningful when the well-being of lab animals is prioritized. 

Meanwhile, word about the good reputation of the lab animal training offered by UZH has spread beyond the borders of Switzerland. The courses are internationally accredited by FELASA (Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Association), with researchers from different countries taking part every year. One of these researchers was veterinarian Bert Mohr, director of the Center for Animal Research Excellence at the University of Cape Town, whose participation in the course in 2014 led to an exciting joint project three years down the line. Bugnon and one of his team members helped Mohr develop a teacher training course in laboratory animal science in South Africa. This past spring their efforts came to fruition, with 35 participants attending the training course at Wits University in Johannesburg. Their knowledge is now being spread to researchers throughout all of South Africa. According to Bugnon, plans for additional courses in Nigeria and Cameroon are already in the pipeline.