Monthly Archives: June 2012

Position and State of Position Statements on Animal Research: Health Charities’ Websites

Welcome to the second in a series of posts where we look at the statements that companies, universities and charities have regarding animal research. Each statement will be given a star rating out of 4 (where 4 is the best) according to the following system:

for ease of finding the statement

  • = statement does not exist or I could not find it
  • = it was difficult to find, either I needed to use the search tool or it was buried several layers deep in the website
  • = easy to find statement that is just one or two layers deep into the website.

for the quality of the statement

  • = statement does not exist or it is very poor (e.g. “we do animal research because it is the law to ensure drug safety”)
  • = an average statement which might explain why the charity uses animals, but not why they are important in general
  • = a good statement which explains the role of animal research in medical developments, preferably with accompanying material about animal research.


I will look at those five Health charities which Forbes says has over $200 million in private support. I will not include the American Kidney Fund as it (according to PCRM) does not carry out or fund any animal research, which is hardly surprising since its focus is on preventing kidney disease and providing treatment and care for patients rather than on research and development of new treatments, and it only has a relatively small clinical research program.

1. American Cancer Society

 - There is no statement on the website. I phoned the organisation and was told that, although they have a statement for when people phone (which was broadly positive, if a little apologetic), they do not have anything on their website. I will be following this up in the coming week, but for now I award the largest health charity in the US, with a total revenue of close to $1 billion, zero stars.

2. American Heart Association

Healthcare / Research -> Statements / Guidelines -> Research -> About Our Research -> Our Research -> Research Standards

Research Involving Animals

For research involving animals, the American Heart Association requires all awardees to provide proof of unqualified institutional accreditation by the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care or accepted U.S. Public Health Service Animal Welfare Assurance.  The awardee must also have the approval of his institutional animal care and use committee.

 - Having found nothing on the website, I phoned up the AHA and was directed towards this page of the website. Had the AHA staff not been pointing people towards it on the phone I probably wouldn’t have bothered including this statement – it has little to do with their position on animal research, and is still embedded 6 layers into the website. Another poor showing.

3. Susan G. Komen for the Cure (Breast Cancer organization)

 - looked through the website to no avail. Tried the search bar for a number of terms (“animal testing” / “animal research”/ “animal studies”); still nothing. Tried calling – not open on weekends.

4. Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

 - This is getting depressing. The LLS also have no statement or position on the use of animals in research. However, using the search bar, I came across a e-newsletter from 2006 which mentioned the importance of mouse models. This is a great piece for explaining aspect of research using animals. I have given LLS one star for having this piece on their website – it’s a pity they don’t just call it their position statement and make it easier to find.

Animal studies are critical to research advances because cancer is a complex, three-dimensional disease that changes as it grows, interacting with normal cells and processes within a patient’s body. Cells in laboratory dishes cannot adequately model this complexity and computer models, although more and more promising, are still a long way from teaching us what we need to know. Cancer patients need answers now.

Much of what we know about cancer comes from mouse studies, in particular, and developing therapies are usually first tested in mice. Mice are easy and fast to breed and share enough biology with us to make useful studies possible. But mice are not men (or women). Differences exist in cancer formation and particular genetic alterations can produce different tumor types in human and mouse. Early mouse models were frequently disappointing.

In recent years, the mouse genome has been completely sequenced and researchers have developed tricks to genetically engineer mice so that mouse cancers can accurately represent human cancers. More than ever, mice help us understand the molecular mechanisms of tumor formation because researchers can now control when and where cancer-causing changes occur. In “transgenic” mice, cancer-causing genes are abnormally turned on; in “knock-out” mice, tumor-suppressing genes are abnormally turned off.”

It’s not a position statement, but I’ll give them one star for trying. I should probably give the NMSS a low rating for their minimal statement, but because of their openness in discussing and explaining animal research elsewhere on their website I’ll give them a better score on quality.

5. National Multiple Sclerosis Society

 - while the Policies and procedures page has reference to animal research being done under strict guidelines, there is no statement on the use of animals in research. This is a pity since the NMSS website frequently discusses the use of a wide variety of animal models in different areas on multiple sclerosis research, for example on its Collaborative Research Centers pages and in “Research Now”,  a quarterly feature of the NMSS national magazine.

Overall – depressing doesn’t even begin to make the situation clear. The five largest health research charities, which fund millions of dollars on animal research every year, have no clear statements on the use of animals in research. For a couple of them it appears that they may simply not have got around to drafting a strong statement yet, as they are happy to discuss specific examples animal research they fund,  but others risk giving the impression that their reliance on donations is at the source of this choice. Such unwillingness to be open about animal research carries significant risks. One risk is the public will be led to underestimate the contribution made by animal studies to past medical achievements and ongoing research (anyone reading the American Heart Associations Research Accomplishments page will see little indication of the crucial contributions animal studies made to most of these accomplishments) which can only serve to undermine public support for research that these charities clearly consider vital.  They also risk being accused by animal rights supporters of concealing the nature of their research from potential donors.  

These 5 – and other major US research charities – could do worse than to follow the example from the UK, where several important research charities have begun to change their approach and become more onen about the need for and importance of the animal research they fund. The top 4 medical research charities in the UK, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Reserch UK, British Heart Foundation and Arthritis Research UK all have strong statements on animal research, and indeed we have blogged on the willingness of Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation to pubicize research that requires the use of animals. While there is no doubt that many medical research charities in the UK still need to do a lot more to explain to the public why the animal research they support is vital to medical progress, and what  policies are in place to evaluate and regulate it, they have at least made a good start.  Will US charities follow their example?

The American Cancer Society at least had a phone statement ready, I will be following up with all five societies to find out why there is no online statement – expect to hear more from Speaking of Research soon.

Position and State of Position Statements on Animal Research: Pharmaceuticals’ Websites

Welcome to the first in a series of posts where we look at the statements that companies, universities and charities have regarding animal research. Each statement will be given a star rating out of 4 (where 4 is the best) according to the following system:

 for ease of finding the statement

  •  = statement does not exist or I could not find it
  •  = it was difficult to find, either I needed to use the search tool or it was buried several layers deep in the website
  •  = easy to find statement that is just one or two layers deep into the website.

for the quality of the statement

  • = statement does not exist or it is very poor  (e.g. “we do animal research because it is the law to ensure drug safety”)
  • = an average statement which might explain why the company uses animals, but not why they are important in general
  • = a good statement which explains the role of animal research in medical developments, preferably with accompanying material about animal research.


I will look at the five largest pharmaceutical companies in the world (by revenue).

Johnson and Johnson

Our Company -> Our Citizenship -> Ethical Research & Development -> Policy on the Humane Care & Use of Laboratory Research Animals

It is the policy of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies to use animals in laboratory

research to the minimum extent necessary to assess the safety and efficacy of our products for use in humans and animals. Consistent with this policy, Johnson & Johnson laboratory research animal care and use programs and facilities meet or exceed inspection agencies standards; all animals are treated humanely and cared for in accordance with the local regulations governing humane care and use of animals in research including the Animal Welfare Act (7 USC 2131), the National Research Council Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the EU Commission, and the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Although in vitro systems have contributed to reducing animal use, they cannot at this time

obviate the need for animal studies. Testing in animals is required to understand the complex interactions between the body’s organ systems and the physiological and pathological consequences of exposure to drugs, chemicals, vaccines and medical devices. The use of animals, therefore, remains an essential element in the conduct of biomedical research and development.

– Difficult to find (I had to use the search bar) this position statement, but it is well written and goes on to discuss the ethical framework under which research is done. Would be useful if they explain the importance of animal research to medical progress as a whole.


Research & Development -> Conducting Research & Clinical Trials -> Policies, Positions and Case Studies -> Pfizer Guidelines and Policy on Laboratory Animal Care

Pfizer is dedicated to helping people and animals live longer, healthier lives through the discovery and development of breakthrough medicines and therapies. Animal-based biomedical research in the pharmaceutical industry remains a vital component of the discovery, evaluation and regulatory processes, which lead to the development of products that save or improve human and animal lives throughout the world.

Pfizer’s Animal Care and Use policy reflects our absolute commitment that animals used in research are treated humanely. This means that any research involving animals is conducted only after appropriate ethical consideration and review. This review ensures that we provide a high level of care to experimental animals, and that there is no scientifically appropriate and validated alternative to the use of animals that is acceptable to regulators, where relevant.

 - Difficult to find, I had to use the search bar to work out where it was – this was made more difficult as “animal research” was not in the title. The statement is ok, but lacks any information about the importance of animal research, or any extra material on animals in biomedical research.


Corporate Responsibility -> R&D -> Animal Welfare -> Animal Research

Roche’s Mission. As an innovation-driven global healthcare leader, Roche aims to improve the quality of human life by providing products and services for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Roche’s goal is to help alleviate human suffering caused by diseases.

Responsibility and Standards. At this time, the use of animals in basic research and in them development of drugs and technologies is an indispensable part of biomedical research, both for scientific and legal reasons. In particular, like all healthcare companies, Roche is required by regulatory authorities to test the safety and efficacy of new drugs in animals, before they may be introduced to humans.

Therefore, Roche is committed to using animals appropriately and responsibly, and complies with international, regional and national laws and regulations, as well as meeting or exceeding industry standards (for further information see “Animal Research – Principles of Care and Use”). All employees within Roche, and all external contractors who perform animal research for Roche, are required to obey these laws at all times and to conduct their research by applying high standards of welfare and respect for the animals in their care.

 - The position statement wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but could be worked out through the links. The statement itself could be a little stronger, but given the extra materials that Roche have. such ast heir FAQ about animal research, which provides answers to many typical questions people have about this issue, I gave them both stars for the content. Furthermore, the page from which the position statement can be downloaded has a video which talks about the importance of animal research (we well as other, complementary, methods).


Research & Development -> Our use of animals

Many diseases that cause suffering or death – including HIV/AIDS, cancer, malaria, and Alzheimer’s – are in need of new, more effective treatments. At GSK, our aim is to discover and develop medicines and vaccines that can help alleviate the pain and distress caused by such diseases.

At present, this goal would be unattainable if animal research were not an option. Animal studies remain a small but vital part of our research, as they are the only method that can show the effects of a potential new medicine in a living body before it is used in humans. Furthermore, animal research can provide vital information about the causes of diseases and how they may develop.

 - Easy to find this succinct, but effective position statement. This web page also provides useful information on animal research. Top marks.


Corporate Responsibility -> Responsible Business Practises -> Responsible R&D -> Animal Research

Animal research comprises an essential part of modern drug and medical therapy research and development. Despite encouraging methods for computer and cell-based culture research there are still many areas where better understanding of disease mechanisms cannot be achieved without the use of animals. The knowledge acquired through such procedures is essential for the development of innovative treatments for unmet medical need.

Novartis supports the use of animal procedures in our medical and biological research, where such procedures are scientifically necessary and alternative approaches are inappropriate.

 - This was fairly easy to find (or I’m getting better at looking for them), but was too deep in the website for both marks. The statement itself is probably the best statement of the five, and goes onto include information about animal welfare, and even a statement condemning the use of violence.

Overall, we are glad for the fact that all five firms did have a statement – some easier to find than others – and generally what was said was positive. Novartis, GSK and Roche provided the best information on animal research, with Novartis getting our first prize for the statement itself. Nonetheless, the overall winner is GSK, who’s easy to find, effective statement should be taken as a model for other companies.



Part 2: Many voices speaking of research

We recently wrote about the many existing venues, activities, and materials designed to encourage public dialogue and informed discussion about animal research.  Many individuals, institutions, and organizations contribute to public outreach and education efforts, and also take active roles in dialogue about continuing changes in practice and policy concerning animal welfare and the conduct of animal research.  This post is the second in a series hosted by Speaking of Research to highlight a wide range of individuals and groups devoted to consideration of animal research.

American Association for Laboratory Animal Science Foundation

I remember interviewing for my first job in an animal research facility. I didn’t know what to expect. Like many people, I had weird images in my mind and wondered what I would encounter. Would there be crazy experiments going on? Would the people be caring? What was I getting myself into?

The interview process was detailed. I was asked a comprehensive series of questions relating to my behavior, values, and animal care experiences. It was clear the facility where I was applying to work placed a great deal of importance on the hiring process, even for an entry level position providing basic animal care.

During my training period, there was so much information to digest and memorize! It seemed like everything we did had a standardized process to ensure we were exceeding animal care regulations and standards. The people I met were diverse, but they all had one thing in common: they deeply cared for the animals involved in the research projects. They connected the importance of what they did to the success of the research study.

Since then, I’ve had many roles in the animal research community. In those roles, I realized it was important for me to dedicate my time and energy to educating the public about the importance of quality laboratory animal care and research. This was often just a result of talking with people I met about what I did for a living. It was clear to me that many people really didn’t know what happened in a research facility, just like I didn’t when I started.

AALAS pamphlet on animal research

After getting involved with the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), I eventually joined the AALAS Foundation Board of Directors. The board oversees, develops, and implements projects to help the general public understand that laboratory animal science professionals care for animals, so progress can occur for both animals and people.

The Foundation has approached this goal from multiple directions. There are websites, like, that provide information for teachers and students about the care and study of animals in research. We have a series of games in the virtual community of Whyville where students care for animals.

Both of these ventures are aimed at connecting with schools so students, teachers, and parents get an in-depth look at the concerns, the solutions, and the professionalism that goes into working with animals.

We also annually conduct the Animal Research Education and Awareness program, an enlightening and entertaining event that introduces science students to laboratory animal science and the vast array of career opportunities in laboratory animal science. The program model has been expanded so that individuals or institutions can create and conduct their own version of the AREA Program in their communities.

These efforts have been successful, as the resources produced by the AALAS Foundation and other research advocacy organizations positively influence public perceptions about animal research.

A New Direction in Outreach

We all know that, on some level, work involving animals has resulted in numerous cures and breakthroughs benefiting people and animals. What most people don’t know is that providing the best care environment for these animals, including access to 24/7 veterinary care, is the basic building block for these success stories.

The AALAS Foundation is leading efforts to adopt a new approach to increasing awareness about the caring, compassionate, and extensive training that is involved in our profession.

A public awareness campaign is being developed to connect the importance of the care we provide laboratory animals to the medicines and medical procedures that have bettered our lives.

The video portion of the campaign will focus on the people who care for laboratory animals and their passion for making sure animals are treated in a respectful, responsible way. This will help the public understand that care, compassion, and commitment are very much a part of animal research.

The campaign will also highlight how people who work in animal research are motivated for a variety of reasons.

For me, my mother died from breast cancer. It was hard to watch the strong woman I knew slowly succumb to this horrific disease. Luckily for us, she was able to receive treatments for the cancer. It gave her more quality time. She got to see her granddaughter.

My mother benefited from treatments initially developed with animals. Although she eventually lost her battle with cancer, she participated in some early human clinical trials with a breast cancer treatment that is widely used today.

In supporting research involving animals, it’s possible that I will assist in helping a scientist discover the cure for devastating diseases like breast cancer. In addition to my work, sharing my story with the public is another way to ensure that responsible research moves forward.

Get Involved

You, too, can contribute to the public’s understanding by getting involved with the many advocacy organizations that promote the responsible care and study of animals needed in research.

Whether you’re a research professional seeking public outreach materials, a student writing a paper on animal research, or a teacher seeking educational resources, the AALAS Foundation has a wealth of outreach materials you can order from the AALAS bookstore for free.

With your help, the AALAS Foundation and our research advocacy partners can continue to produce and distribute powerful public outreach resources that educate students, teachers, and the public at large about the importance of quality laboratory animal research.

And we can continue to share the stories of caring, compassionate research professionals who are working every day to advance human and animal health.

Stephen J. Durkee

Steve is a member of the AALAS Foundation Board of Directors.  He currently serves as IACUC Administrator for Oregon State University. To learn more about the AALAS Foundation’s public outreach efforts, please visit the AALAS Foundation Public Outreach Page and the AALAS Bookstore.

Millenium Technology Prize 2012: Mouse stem cell research heralds a new era in biomedical research

Every year since 2004 the Technology Academy Finland has awarded the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize as a tribute to life-enhancing technological innovations, and the list of past winners includes some of the world’s leading technological innovators. This year the Grand Prize is for the first time being shared between two innovators, Linus Torvalds, who created the open-source Linux operating system, and Shinya Yamanaka, who created the first induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

The discovery by Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University that it was possible to transform adult cells into stem cells that had the ability to then develop into any cell type – an ability only previously observed in embryonic stem cells – by inserting 4 genes associated with embryonic development, has electrified the scientific community, with many groups around the world now working to improve the technique and apply it to medical research and medicine. The Millenium prize notes that Prof. Yamanake first identified the genes required to transform skin cells to pluripotent stem cells through studies in mice.

In 2006 his research team successfully generated mouse induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) cells with self-renewal and pluripotency (the ability to develop into different types of cell), which are almost equivalent to ES cells. The following year they established human iPS cells, by transducing the same four genes used in their earlier breakthrough, in human adult skin cells.”

The work briefly described above was a technological tour-de-force where Prof. Yamanaka and his colleagues selected 24 genes which had previously been identified as having key roles in mouse embryonic stem cells, and developed a screening method using skin fibroblast cells derived from mice that had be genetically modified with an antibiotic resistance gene that was only expressed in embryonic cells, so that only cells that were in an embryonic state would survive in a culture containing the antibiotic. Different combinations of these 24 genes were screened for their ability to induce to the production of colonies of embryonic -like cells from adult fibroblasts.  They eventually identified just 4 genes – Oct3/, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc – that together could reprogram adult mouse fibroblast cells to a pluripotent embryonic-like state (1), and subsequently demonstrated that these iPS cells could give rise to a wide variety of  tissue types when incorporated into mice, either by subcutaneous injection into adult mice or incorporation into early mouse embryos. By modifying their method slightly to also include expression of an important developmental gene named Nanog  they were then able to generate chimeric mice (mice whose tissues are made up of a mixture of cells derived from their own embryonic stem cells, and cells derived from iPS cells) which were capable of transmitting the iPS cells to the next generation of mice (2).

Soon after this Prof. Yamanaka succeeded in generating iPS cells from human fibroblasts, using the same techniques used for the mouse cells, and a whole new and exciting field of biomedical research was born.

Paul Browne

1)      Takahashi K, Yamanaka S. “Induction of pluripotent stem cells from mouse embryonic and adult fibroblast cultures by defined factors.” Cell 2006 Vol. 126(4):663-76. PubMed: 16904174

2)      Okita K., Ichisaka T., Yamanaka S. “Generation of germline-competent induced pluripotent stem cells.” Nature Vol. 448:313-317 (2007). PubMed:17554338

Cat Helicopter Exposes Moral Confusion Among Animal Rights Activists

Animal rights theorists argue that our moral consideration for a living being must rest exclusively on its intrinsic properties — the notion of moral individualism.

I explained earlier that accepting such an idea would imply our use of human or animal remains for an art project in school would be equivalent to using play-dough or collage paper — all of these items being inanimate objects with no interests of their own.

Such hypothetical scenario became a reality when Dutch artist Bart Jansen used his dead, pet cat, Orville, to build a flying helicopter.  People gathered and chanted Orville’s name as the dead cat took off for the firs time.

Of course, animal rights activists that subscribe to moral individualism are not expected to object to such use of the cat but, as it turns out, the opposite was the case.

Animal rights activists showed their displeasure of his work by writing “Kill the animal killers” and “Shame” in graffiti letters on the side of the RAI convention center, which hosted the fair where Jansen was displaying his piece. The Dutch Party for the Animals plans to file a complaint to the festival organizers. And according to festival organizer Liesbeth Hemelrijk  “[...] people declare him [Jansen] the worst person in the country.”

This is a very clear illustration of how morally confused animal rights activists are. They subscribe to the notion of “moral individualism” which they use to challenge scientists on their use of animals in biomedical research, but when it comes to applying the same concept to their own behavior they fail miserably.

So, what can a growing fly teach us about skin cancer?

Back in April we welcomed launch of the Golden Goose Awards , an annual prize awarded to honor federally funded research  “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.”.

The Golden Goose award was developed in response to attacks on basic research by politicians who fail to appreciate the value of basic research, and it is not difficult to imagine that a research project begun back in the 1980’s which sought to determine the role of a gene named “hedgehog” during embryonic development in fruit flies would have been greeted with derision by the usual suspects .

D. melanogaster, an organism whose small size belies its huge contribution to medical science. Image courtesy of André Karwath.

Any such derision would have been badly misplaced. An article posted last week on the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog reveals how studying the hedgehog gene in the fly Drosophila melanogaster ultimately led to the development ofVismodegib, a drug recently approved for the treatment of advanced basal-cell carcinoma by the FDA, noting that:

 For us, the hedgehog’s tale is a testament to the beauty and potential of basic biology. It’s certainly not the first time that our basic research has helped set the stage for a new drug that can help cancer patients, and – given the progress we’re continuing to make in our research centres across the country – we doubt it will be the last.”

I encourage you to read the full CRUK Science Update Blog post “High-impact science: Hedgehogs, flies and skin cancer – the story of vismodegib” , it’s an excellent example of how research on flies, rodents and a range of other organisms combined with studies of cancer genetics in humans to enabled the development of an innovative therapy.

Paul Browne

Many voices speaking of animal research

We recently wrote about the range of existing venues, activities, and materials designed to encourage public dialogue and informed discussion about animal research.  Many individuals, institutions, and organizations contribute to public outreach and education efforts. They also take active roles in dialogue about continuing changes in practice and policy concerning animal welfare and the conduct of animal research.  This post is the first in a series hosted by Speaking of Research to highlight a wide range of individuals and groups devoted to consideration of animal research.

American Psychological Association:  Committee on Animal Research and Ethics

Scientific societies are sometimes portrayed as being loath to openly advocate for animal research. It’s time to lay that myth to rest.  A wide range of scientific societies actively support and advocate for the animal research conducted by its members, including the American Psychological Association (APA), of which we are members.

APA has one of, if not the oldest, governance groups dedicated to safeguarding and promoting ethical research with nonhuman animals. The APA Committee on Animal Research and Ethics (CARE) was established in 1925 by psychologists who were also animal researchers and were concerned about animal welfare during surgical experiments.

For over eighty years, CARE (or one of its precursors) has played a leading role in promoting and supporting ethical research with nonhuman animals in the behavioral and psychological sciences. As early as 1925, many research psychologists recognized both the need for attention to animal welfare and the need to participate actively in public discussion of this work.  They also recognized that psychologists have appropriate expertise to make unique contributions to each of these goals.  The early membership of CARE reflects this expertise and the range of research areas represented by the committee, including for example:  Edward Tolman, Robert Yerkes, Frank Beach, Harry Harlow, Neal Miller, and Paul Thomas Young.

American Psychological Association Committee on Animal Research and Ethics brochures

In keeping with its mission, CARE advocates at the federal level by promoting evidence-based legislation and regulatory proposals that enhance animal welfare while at the same time support valuable research.

Recognizing the need to maintain the public’s trust in science, in general, and animal research in particular, CARE’s educational and outreach activities focus on disseminating accurate information about nonhuman animal research in psychology, including a brochure and a DVD series for classroom use at the high school and early college levels.

CARE also takes an active role in science education. CARE encourages teachers at the K-12 level to expose their students to the responsibilities and obligations that are integral to conducting research with nonhuman animals. One way to accomplish this is by involving students in science fair projects that include animals. To assist these teachers, CARE developed and routinely updates its Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Behavioral Projects in Schools (K-12).

CARE provides valuable resources for researchers.  These include developing and updating a set of guidelines for ethical conduct in the care and use of animals. Adherence to these guidelines is a requirement of all research articles published in APA scientific journals. Furthermore, the APA recognizes that ethical standards and guidance for treatment of animals in research are not static and evolve with new scientific evidence. As a result, the society maintains a dynamic process for continuing evaluation and updating of the guidelines.

Finally, CARE provides resources for researchers who are targeted by anti-animal research groups.  Support and encouragement is extended to institutions to maintain their animal research programs and to continue supporting their faculty who conduct such research.

Contrary to the misperception that scientific societies do little to advocate for animal research, even a brief review of the APA CARE history and current activities demonstrate a long-standing and effective commitment to this goal.  But more importantly, psychologists recognized and acted decades ago to strongly support the ethical use of animals in research and to consider the balance of animal welfare and scientific progress.  CARE’s activities support not only the APA membership of over 154,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultant, and students but the field of psychology as a whole, as well as all scientists who conduct research with animals.

Barbara Kaminski, PhD, APA CARE member, (2008-2011), Division 25 and Division 28

George F. Michel, PhD, APA Fellow, Division 3 and Division 6

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, APA CARE member (2011-2013), Division 6

Bridging the gap: Monkey studies shed light on nature, nurture, and how experiences get under the skin

“Is it nature or nurture?”

“How does that work? How can social experiences actually change someone’s brain?”

“So early experiences matter, but how much?  Is it reversible? How long does it last? Is there a way to change the course?”

All of these are popular questions that I hear from students, community members, clinicians, and other scientists when I talk about my research with monkeys.  The nature vs. nurture question is one of high public interest.  It is one that is at the center of our understanding of who we are and how we come to be that way.  And it is a very old question.  Yet it is also one that continues to resonate and become even more intriguing as new discoveries rapidly change what we know about biology and genes, and illuminate with increasing specificity the ways in which nature and nurture together play dynamic roles in shaping the development of each individual.

For example, through research with humans, monkeys, rats, mice and other animals, we know that genes are not only involved in differences between individuals’ behavior, health, and biology, but also that an individual’s social environment and childhood experiences can actually change how genes behave and, in turn, have biological consequences.  In other words, those previous gray areas surrounding exactly how nature and nurture work together are now being filled in with a more specific understanding.

Why does this matter? There are many important reasons. Among them, it is this specific information that allows us to develop better prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies for those negative health outcomes that follow adverse experiences. One example of this can be found in our rapidly advancing knowledge of how brain neurochemistry, which plays a major role in mental health disorders, is affected both by genetic differences between individuals and also by early life experiences. This knowledge provides not only the basis for developing treatments that target the specific neurochemicals involved in a disorder, but also provides important clues for early identification and intervention for those at risk. At the same time, understanding that experiences have long-lasting consequences on biological pathways involved in lifetime health underscores the importance of public policies that work to promote better early environments.

I am one of the many scientists who are devoted to work aimed at better understanding how many different kinds of early experiences can influence a wide range of health outcomes during an individual’s lifespan. My own part of this work primarily includes non-invasive studies with monkeys and focuses on developmental questions about behavior, aspects of brain chemistry and development, and genetics. For example, I use neuroimaging (MRI) to look at how brain development can be affected by early life experiences and we have monkeys play videogames, solve puzzles, and respond to mild challenges so that we can better understand their learning, memory, cognition, and temperament.

Part of my work involves studying how middle-aged monkeys (15+ years old) who were raised in infancy with their mothers differ from monkeys nursery-reared in infancy with their peers. The two groups have the same experiences following the early life period, and during infancy and throughout their lives, both groups are housed in enriched environments with excellent diets, toys, and medical care. Although my current work is focused on a small number of nursery-reared animals, it does not involve creating new animals or a nursery. It depends on healthy animals who have been part of our work for many years and, as with all of our studies, we treat these animals humanely, with careful attention to providing them with healthy diets, environmental enrichment (e.g., a variety of toys, puzzles, fresh fruit and vegetables, and foraging opportunities), and excellent clinical care by veterinarians.  We do this because we care about the animals’ well-being and also because our studies depend upon healthy animals.

Adult rhesus macaque

There are less than a handful of studies concerned with how monkeys’ early rearing influences their behavior and other aspects of health in middle- and older-age. As a result, although we have a strong platform of knowledge about the effects of early life experience in younger animals, we know very little about whether these effects persist into older age, about what systems are affected, and the degree to which individuals vary.

This study, like those of others who study the effect of different early life experiences on a range of health outcomes, is aimed at uncovering the biological basis of a key finding relevant to human health. We know from human studies that a wide range of early experiences, including not only childhood neglect and abuse, but also poverty and other types of adversity, are associated with negative health outcomes later in life. In humans, however, it is impossible to truly disentangle the effects of early adverse life experiences from differences in diet, environment, access to medical care, and other factors that vary across the lifespan. Animal studies allow us to control many of the factors that vary widely in humans and have consequences on health. For example, animals with different early experiences have the same environment and experiences afterwards, including healthy diets and excellent medical care. As a result, when we find significant differences in behavior, brain chemistry, brain structure, and immunology between animals with different early experiences we know that these differences are not due to disparity later in life.

Early experiences do not tell the whole story, however, as we know from the common observation that two individuals who experience the same early environment or challenging experiences, may wind up with very different health pathways.  Part of the obvious reason for this is genetic variation. Understanding how differences in genes contribute, however, and which biological pathways are affected or how permanent those effects may be, are now the real questions that remain to be fully answered. Animal studies provide one of the critical ways to view the interplay and roles of genes, environments, and experiences. This is because, unlike in human studies, animal studies can make use of strong experimental control and mechanistic approaches in order to compare the biological and behavioral responses of individuals who have similar genes and different environments, or individuals with different genes in the same environment.

Another part of my research involves studying how genes affect an individual’s response to the environment and how that occurs at a biological level.  The kinds of questions that we address include:  When two individuals experience the same stress, or the same environment, why are some relatively unaffected (resilient) and others more vulnerable?  What genes play a role in this difference?  What biological systems?  My work, along with that of my colleagues, has demonstrated that genetic factors play a crucial role in how individuals differ in terms of their resilience or vulnerability to early adversity. It is through studies with monkeys that my colleagues and I were able to first identify how interplay between specific genetic variation and early experiences together influence brain chemistry that influences a wide range of behaviors and aspects of health.  This finding in monkeys preceded and spurred subsequent similar studies in humans that continue to show that for most complex traits, genes do not always predict an individual’s destiny; environments have tremendous influence; and understanding individual differences requires consideration of both nature and nurture. As a result, we not only now know more about the genetic and biological underpinnings of individual differences in vulnerability to early life stress, but we also can move forward in identifying the specific ways that this occurs.

In all of these studies, our goal is to produce new understanding about how early experiences affect individuals throughout their lives.  Furthermore, like other biomedical animal research, our goal is to produce information that is relevant to human health and to address questions that are raised by challenges to human health but that cannot be addressed in studies of humans. In other words, aspects of similarity between human and nonhuman primate genetics and biological response to experiences are central to the rationale and success of the research. Studies with monkeys are a small, but important, part of the research aimed at uncovering how early experiences affect health.  As with most areas of research, new understanding and progress depend upon bridges between studies that use different populations (both human and other animal) and that draw from many different areas of expertise. Work in this area has progressed through the efforts of psychologists, neuroscientists, behaviorists, geneticists, molecular biologists, immunologists, physicians, population epidemiologists, sociologists, and others. In other words, the question is of interest from many perspectives and is addressed with interdisciplinary approaches that make it possible to build connections between findings so that the results of basic research can provide useful evidence to inform better health practices, clinical care, and public policy.

Why are these studies and findings important?  In short, because they provide us with a way to better understand the specific biological mechanisms by which early life events affect health.  As a result of decades of research in both humans and other animals, we know some of the specific biological, neural, immunological, and genetic pathways that are affected. These studies have informed progress in our understanding of the importance of early childhood experiences for lifelong health, the biological basis of mental health disorders, and the potential to change health trajectories through early identification of risk and appreciation of individual differences. Through the combined force of basic and clinical studies, we will continue to progress in understanding how genes, experiences, and biology interact. In turn, this understanding will continue to help in pinpointing mechanistic targets and shedding new light on those avenues for prevention, intervention, and treatment that improve human and animal health.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.