‘It’s my purpose’: Laboratory animal technician reflects on her calling

They say you should never meet your heroes, but Angela Asch works with hers every day.

As a laboratory animal technician for Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Comparative Medicine, Asch cares for more than 1,500 research mice daily.

Angela Asch

Angela Asch

“I joke with my husband that I live with my mice, and I come home sometimes,” Asch teased about her profession. “We spend our lives taking care of them, and that takes a lot of passion and love.”

An animal lover since childhood, Asch always knew she would wind up working with them.

“I remember in first grade we were going around the room, playing a game where we all introduced ourselves with our name and something we liked that started with the same letter,” Asch recalled.  “And I stood up and blurted, ‘I’m Angie, and I like animals!’

Before coming to BCM, Asch worked in both wildlife rehabilitation and private practice veterinary medicine. Then she discovered research animal medicine.

“Once I learned about this field, I just had to be here,” Asch explained. “Not only do I get to take care of the animals that I love, but by serving the animals here, I’m also helping to progress treatment options for pets in veterinary medicine and helping human patients by supporting basic science research.”

Asch understands better than most just how vital animal models are to human medicine. Battling lifelong health issues, she recognizes that basic science research is her best hope for future treatment.

“My most noticeable physical disability is my severe atopic dermatitis, which is treatment resistant. It’s something that a lot of people notice when they see me. I have large red marks on my hands, face and chest,” Asch described. “I get a lot of questions and comments, which is okay – it gives me an opportunity to talk to people about the importance of our animals.”

Asch uses conversations about her atopic dermatitis to teach people that mice and dogs also struggle with the same condition.

“Atopic dermatitis happens in a mouse’s body the same way that it happens in ours, which means that there is an ability to study this disease in real time in a live model,” Asch explained. “Our mice are directly responsible for helping us discover exactly how this disease works on a cellular level and how we might intervene in the future to reduce the pain of flare-ups for patients.”

Recent research has led to a better understanding of Asch’s condition. A significant development is an effective treatment for dogs with atopic dermatitis, which Asch hopes may one day translate to humans.

“Within the last decade, research has shown that atopic dermatitis isn’t an allergic response, but a complex autoimmune condition,” Asch said. “Research is currently delving into exactly what cellular processes might cause a flare-up and how medications could reverse the resulting symptoms.”

Asch acknowledges that many of her fellow animal lovers don’t understand animal research. As a professional in the field, she feels compelled to explain its purpose.

“A lot of people suggest only using alternative models like computer algorithms or in vitro cell cultures. And in some cases that works. Whenever it’s possible to use alternatives to live animal models, that is what research studies are designed to do,” Asch explained. “But in a lot of basic science research, we don’t know enough about the disease process to create a comparable alternative model. We have to study these illnesses in a living being before we can understand a way to go forward. In those cases, research animals are crucial members of our research team because of their biological similarity to humans.”

As she speaks about the animals in her care, Asch’s voice catches. Her respect and passion for them is unmistakable.

“All of the animal caretakers on my team, and in every research facility at Baylor, we’re here intentionally. We’re here because we care about the animals we serve,” Asch said. “We dedicate our lives to this. We’re proud to support and love our animals because they’re changing the world.”

By Bethany Strother