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A story-filled animal house: Karin Jacobi bids farewell

Karin Jacobi has since 1992 headed the Animal Facilities at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). The veterinarian, a pioneer of modern animal facilities who began her career at one of the predecessor institutes of the MDC, is now retiring.

Karin Jacobi

There were times at the Berlin-Buch campus when goats grazed on the lawn. They were kept in an outdoor enclosure near Lindenberger Weg and used for immunization experiments. In addition, they were the target for cancer patients of the Robert Rössle Clinic on their walks. That was in 1985, and Dr. Karin Jacobi had just taken over as director of the Microbial Laboratory at the animal facilities of the Central Institute for Cancer Research (ZIK). It was not her dream job: “I moved to Berlin after getting married and finished my doctorate here. It’s been the best doctorate at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Humboldt-Universität. But I couldn’t stay there because I was a member of the church. My doctoral advisor had made that clear at the outset,” she says. Veterinary practices were rare in the capital city of the GDR. So she applied for an open position as a veterinarian responsible for the microbiological monitoring of laboratory animals at the three institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR located on the campus. After getting the job, she looked after mice, rats, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs – and the goats, who, however, were soon gone.

Today Jacobi’s pride and joy is concealed behind a white unlabeled door, slightly set back in the entrance hall of the MDC’s administration building. She only grants entry to those with authorized access. Behind the door is the MDC’s main animal facility: four elongated wings with facilities for breeding, holding, and experimenting as well as for administration, which are brightened by three atriums. From the start Karin Jacobi was involved in planning the building, helping to create ideal conditions for scientific research and animal care. The new building was completed in 2004.

Always had an open ear for staff

“Ms. Jacobi headed not just one but five animal houses, while also continuously modernizing them. Now, that is quite extraordinary,” says Karin Gluschke, the long-time secretary for the animal facilities director. She was routinely the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave, according to Gluschke, adding that she always had an open ear for staff members and tried to resolve any conflicts. “She wanted everything well sorted out,” says Gluschke.

Karin Jacobi has seen a lot of change during her time on campus . This is not only because she has been the animal facilities director since the MDC’s founding in 1992, overseeing its growth from only 16 employees back then to more than 90 employees and 15 trainees today. German reunification was a fundamental turning point. In 1990 the ZIK’s animal facilities had to be restructured to comply with the Federal Republic of Germany’s animal welfare laws. In the following years, animal care continued to be administered under stringent requirements in half of house 63 while renovations were been made to the other half: From installing an air-conditioning system to procuring new autoclaves – a type of sterilization equipment – to outfitting the building with new cages and new floor and wall coatings, house 63 underwent a major modernization. At the same time the institutes of the Academy of Sciences were being phased out, including the ZIK. They were merged into the newly established MDC. “It was clear that the animal facilities would be kept open for research purposes – but how and in what form was very much uncertain,” recalls Jacobi.

Hepatitis infection: 200 mouse strains are saved 

She wanted to continue at the MDC. She was keen on helping advance medical research. Karin Jacobi was appointed – initially for a fixed-term – head of the Animal Facilities Department as well as animal welfare officer. Genetically modified rodents were from the start the most important animal group for the campus’s researchers. As early as 1985 the first trangenic mice were being bred at the ZIK for cancer research. In 1998 the MDC’s research groups were working with nearly 200 mouse strains. In that year a delivery by a breeder caused a catastrophe at the animal facilities: The newly arrived mice were infected with hepatitis and gave the disease to the MDC’s entire mouse population. They had to be saved, not least because of their unique gene combinations. “It required lots of time and effort – it was two years before we completed the task,” reports Jacobi. “But we didn’t lose a single strain. I’m still very proud of that.” It was during this time that Karin Jacobi decided to switch to IVC cages. IVC stands for “individually ventilated cages,” meaning that each such cage has its own ventilation system and is therefore hygienically separated from other cages, which reduces the risk of diseases spreading. “Ms. Jacobi was the first in the Helmholtz Association to take this step,” recalls Karin Gluschke. Today almost all animal facilities use IVC technology. 

Time for a new animal house

Meanwhile, the demand for animal facilities grew constantly – due to there being more research groups and more laboratory animals. A larger building was needed, which provided the next challenge for Karin Jacobi: Construction on the new animal house began in 1998, and she helped shape it from the beginning. It was important that it adhere to the latest standards and be extremely versatile. The building also incorporated new technology such as automated cage and bottle washing equipment – known as the “Spulküche” (scullery) in German animal facilities jargon – as well as state-of-the-art storage and ventilation systems. Since 2012, even before an amendment to the German Animal Welfare Act entered into force, rodent cages have also been equipped with toys and private areas. The rodents have more room in the cages, and animal care staff check their well-being daily.

“The keeping and breeding of genetically modified laboratory animals has become more increasingly important in today’s research,” says Jacobi. The MDC’s research groups now have at their disposal more than 5,000 strains of genetically modified rodents, which help them in their efforts to unlock the molecular basis of health and disease. This is in addition to cryopreserved genetic resources, which are stored in liquid nitrogen.

Improving animal welfare through cutting-edge testing methods

Experiments have become much more animal friendly. Today, for example, researchers often use non-invasive procedures such as ultrasound or a technique that determines the metabolism of animals via air measurements. “These innovative testing methods mean that less mice have to be put to death, because they can be examined throughout the entire series of experiments,” says Jacobi. Surgical procedures have also become less harmful. It is now a matter of course to prevent and reduce pain, according to Jacobi. The MDC’s new In Vivo Pathophysiology Laboratory (IPL) is helping to further reduce and refine animal testing. Jacobi was also involved in the preparations for this new facility.

We are always alert to do everything we can to be more animal friendly.
Karin Jacobi
Karin Jacobi Head of the animal facilities at the MDC

Animal welfare, Jacobi stresses, is her central responsibility. “We are always alert to do everything we can to be more animal friendly,” she says. Jacobi and the MDC’s other animal welfare officers closely review every application to determine to what extent the planned experiments will place a strain on the animals’ health and disrupt biological functions. This attentiveness is already apparent at the front entrance of the facility. Here stands a steel table used for animal pickups. A slip of paper featuring a picture of a mouse in a cuddly coat urges lab workers to wrap up the animals warmly so that they won’t get cold and suffer stress.

Soon everything will change again – not just because Karin Jacobi is retiring. In 2019 the work on the new animal house will be completed and all experimental animal facilities will move to the IPL. “Our animal house will then only be used for breeding,” says Jacobi. But that’s the beginning of another story.

Author: Wiebke Peters