Monthly Archives: August 2012

How to Build an Action Network for Science

Across the world individuals and organisations misrepresent science for their own end. Such misinformation has been seen in the MMR vaccine-autism debate, the questions over the GM foods, and the causes and effects of climate change. More recently, a confused Republican Senate Nominee, Todd Akin, claimed that “the female body has ways to try and shut down” pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”. This misinformation is as rampant in the debate over animal research as it is over many other scientific areas already mentioned. Speaking of Research, as well as a host of others scientific organisations, have worked hard to debunk the huge amount of disinformation that is spread by animal rights groups.

There are broadly three ways in which disinformation propagates through the media – authorities, celebrities and public weight.

Authority involves bringing a respected authority to bear on the issue. Unfortunately for the animal rights lobby, their figures of authority – the few doctors who are against animal research – have been roundly discredited. The views of figures such as Dr. Menache, Dr. Greek and Dr. Vlasak have been overwhelmed by the medical community – In 2006 a survey of General Practitioners in Britain found that 93% agreed that “animal experiments have made an important contribution to the many advances in medicine”. Similarly high support can be found around the world by the medical and scientific community.

Nonetheless, it is important that those in a position to speak with authority on animal research do so. There are many stories in the newspapers which lack the voice of a scientist directly involved in such research. Universities and other research institutions must know that

Prof. David Jentsch is one those scientists who is unafraid to speak out about his work and the work of researchers like him

Celebrities often jump on what they see as a popular bandwagon in their support for the animal rights movement. What is more concerning is that many media outlets give more time to the views of these celebrities than to the scientists who would correct them. When the British media caught onto a story about child-blindness research on kittens at Cardiff University, it was the comedian Ricky Gervais who led the voices of unreason. Now I’m more than willing to listen to Gervais tell me about the current state of British stand up, or how to write a sitcom, but I am not interested in his views on which scientific methods for carrying out biomedical research are or are not a thing of the past. PeTA have been effective at bringing celebrities on board to their campaign against animal research and it is about high time that the public starts giving those celebrities some flak for it.

Next time you see Ricky Gervais, or any other celebrity, tweet something which condemns lifesaving biomedical research, tweet back a correction. Better still, get friends to tweet back. Declare a call to arms to correct the misinformation about science wherever it is. If done effectively, with numbers, we will hopefully see less celebrities keen to mouth off about something they know little about.

Public Weight is the mass of people who can be mobilised quickly to back a campaign or story. When groups like PeTA target an airline or ferry company that transports animals to research facilities, they can galvanise their followers to send thousands of emails and phone calls to these companies – many of whom have bowed under pressure. Animal rights groups can quickly fill up petitions, send thousands of emails to research institutions, weigh in on polls and fill up the comment sections of news articles with their misinformation.

The pro-research organisations need to be able to act similarly fast. By communicating stories, and alerting people to animal rights misinformation it is important that we bring the weight of scientists into discussions on the radio, in the newspapers and across the internet. Similarly, we need to get this same body of people to support the good work done by researchers – from sharing and “liking” pro-research stories, to adding your voice to discussions in the news and pointing out the role of animals, often missing from the headlines.


Tom Holder

Consciousness and Moral Status

A group of scientists recently gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and issued the following declaration which as been widely covered in the media:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Their good intentions duly noted, this is not a declaration of a scientific fact.

The truth is that we have no idea what a “conscious state” is.  We do not know what neural substrates “generate consciousness”.  We do not know how to recognize what is “intentional behavior” and what is not.  We do not know if consciousness if a property that arises only in biological systems. Nor do we know if consciousness is a binary or graded property. These are all open questions. Any assertion that non-human animals are capable of exhibiting “conscious states” as those experienced by humans is at best a working hypothesis based on vague concepts that need to be clarified.

Note that if we truly had the scientific knowledge and understanding to back up the declaration we should be able to answer the following simple questions.  Is a fly’s escape behavior to a swat intentional or a mere reflex?  What about single-cell organisms that follow up gradients of nutrients?  Are they conscious?  Is their movement towards the food intentional?  The authors must surely have a way to answer these questions to have decided to include the octopus in their list of conscious animals, while leaving the salmon out.  But they do not really have an answer.  If we had one we could also offer a resolution to one of the biggest problems in philosophy — the problem of other minds.  PZ Myers already offered a similar criticism of the declaration and I hope other scientists will jump into this debate as well.

Of course, there are animal activists that had already reached the conclusion that animals are conscious simply by staring into their eyes, they mockingly applaud the new recognition by this group of scientists, and move on to suggest the following:

Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals [...] Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.

Is this so?  Can the declaration, assuming it is scientifically valid, be used to argue in such a way?  This may be possible if and only if one accepts the following assumptions.  First, that the declaration means that consciousness is a binary property — either you have it or not.  Thus if animals are conscious they are conscious to the same degree as a normal human (thereby denying the possibility graded levels of consciousness). Second, that consciousness is the only morally relevant property that determines the moral status of a living being.  If one accepts these two assumptions the moral status of human and non-human animals ought to be the same. But both assumptions are wrong.  Not even the scientists involved in the declaration would agree with the first assumption.  People do not think we owe the same moral consideration to the serial killer and to the Dalai Lama, although both are equally conscious. Similarly, we reject the notion that the moral status of a patient in a minimally conscious state is the same as that of a worm. Thus, consciousness alone is insufficient to establish the moral status of living beings.

Opponents of animal research continue to insinuate that the only reason for scientists to experiment on animals is because it supports our livelihood.  No, this is not the real reason. The reason for this work is that humans have ability to reduce and eliminate suffering from the world by means of their scientific work.  Due to current limitations in technology, in some cases, medical research cannot move forward without access to living organisms at the level of single cells and even molecules. Scientists acknowledge that we owe moral consideration to other living beings, but not to the same degree as human life.  We do confront this moral dilemma by carrying out the work while minimizing the number, pain and suffering of animals subjects.  Opponents of animal research, on the other hand, readily ask us to stop the work, but fail to provide a moral justification.

Public Outreach – A Toolkit for Investigators

That public outreach is an increasingly important part of the scientific life in the 21st century should be news to no-one, and this is as true of biomedical research as of any other field of scientific endeavor. Allyson Bennett has written extensively for us on this subject, highlighting both the benefits of public outreach, and the perils of not engaging in it.

Of course getting involved in public outreach and education can be a daunting prospect if you have no previous experience of it, which is why we support initiatives such as the Michael D. Hayre Fellowship in Public Outreach, and recently launched our “Many Voices Speaking of Animal Research” series that highlights different approaches to public outreach, the most recent of which focused on community engagement at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

This week we are pleased to welcome a new initiative to the growing list of resources available to support public outreach.

The American Physiological Society has launched the online resource “Public Outreach – A Toolkit for Investigators” which offers scientists and scientific institutions advice on engaging with the public on animal research issues. The toolkit includes presentations delivered by Speaking of Research committee members Bill Yates, Dario Ringach and Jim Newman at a symposium earlier this year, which examined the topic from a range of perspectives.

We thank the American Physiological Society for making this valuable new resource available to the scientific community.

Speaking of Research

Safeguarding medical progress means supporting animal transport

The following guest post is from Eric Raemdonck, who has a background in the aviation transport industry. Eric recently launched the Advancing Animal Research blog, whose purpose is to ” establish bridges between the aviation world, the life sciences, health care, pharmaceutical, animal research industries,  educational institutions and their  affiliate or representative associations as well as Governmental organisations”.

Facing a virulent campaign by animal rights activists, a growing number of airlines around the world now refuse to transport certain species of research animals, chiefly non-human primates (NHPs).  This worrisome development not only threatens medical progress, but also puts the health and welfare of those animals at risk.

Animal rights extremists are trying to put a chokehold on the airline industry’s service to biomedical research via social media write-in campaigns, demonstrations at airline offices around the world, and even protests at the homes of airline executives.

Everyone concerned with the future of biomedical research must actively reject these tactics of intimidation and harassment, and stand in support of those airlines that continue to transport animals safely, comfortably and quickly to where they are needed to advance the quest for treatments and cures.

As a former secretary of the International Air Transportation Association’s Live Animals and Perishables Board, I can attest that airlines that transport animals employ highly skilled specialists and focus on finding the quickest routes possible to ensure the health of the animals en route to research institutions.

Animal research remains a small but vital component of the research and development process for new medicines.  Without the ability to move research models from one country to another, or from breeder to research institution, crucial scientific research seeking new treatments for heart disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries, epilepsy and numerous other ills could come to a halt.

As things stand, almost every commercial airline in the world, save but a handful, now refuses to transport non-human primates for research, even though many have policies in place allowing for the transport of NHPs for other purposes.

The United Kingdom has perhaps the most stringent laws and oversight on the use of animals in research, yet no U.K.-based air carrier is willing to transport NHPs destined for research into the country.  In the United States,  very few commercial carriers remain to do the job.  Airlines of other nations, upon which research institutions are increasingly relying for their animal transportation needs, are also feeling the pressure from activists and some have already given way to demands that they no longer carry laboratory animals.

Why is this happening?  Why are airlines targets?

As research institutions themselves become increasingly adept at blunting the impact of activists’ campaigns, leaders in the animal rights movement are now looking toward those companies with whom the research community works or relies upon for services.  ‘Stop research animal transportation and you stop animal research’ is the thinking behind the actions of animal rights extremists in targeting airlines.

Animal extremist campaigns against the airlines, such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection’s Primate Cargo Cruelty and various Internet petitions attract thousands of signatures.   PETA also has an action alert on its web site, calling on readers to “Ask Airlines to Stop Shipping Monkeys to Be Tortured.”

Social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are used extensively in these campaigns to solicit support, donations, and calls for immediate action to change airline policy to include a ‘no-fly’ regulation for research animals.

The message to their followers is clear: only a few airlines remain, and by working together activists can put a stop to this practice.  The message to the airlines is equally clear: change your transportation policy or we will tell the public to no longer fly with you.  Through email campaigns alone,  some lasting only a few hours, several airlines have made the decision to stop transporting research animals.  This was done without any consultation with the companies involved and without  any notice.  This has occurred while airlines continue to transport animals for other industries and passengers.

Straightforward security steps taken by airlines and research institutions alike can blunt the impact of many of the activists’ campaign tactics, and protect the airlines and others involved in the global supply chain. Additionally, there are steps that concerned individuals may take to help ensure that safe and humane transport of laboratory animals will continue.

1/Stand by the airline industry and voice your support through associations such as AALAS – American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (,   CALAS—Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science ( ICLAS – International Council for Laboratory Animal Science ( and other scientific and professional organizations that advocate for both biomedical research and laboratory animal welfare.  Ensure that the issue of protecting humane research animal transportation is on their agendas.

2/Ensure that your elected officials appreciate the importance of animal research, and ask them to look into the problem of the declining pool of available airlines for the continued transport of research animals.

3/Inform others as to the humane and judicious nature of animal research, and why it is still needed.  Underscore its achievements and the medical progress to which it has contributed.  Information and links to resources to get you started are here on the Speaking of Research site, and on my Advancing Animal Research blog at

Eric Raemdonck

Interfacing with the nervous system: Studies in mice and rats show the way.

As fundamental scientific knowledge about how the nervous system works has increased over the past few decades, the possibility has emerged that we may one day be able to use electrical stimulation (or inhibition) to treat – even to functionally cure – conditions where it has been damaged by disease or injury.  Scientists are now working hard to make this dream a reality, indeed we have recently discussed the role of animal research in developing deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease, and in the work being done to enable quadriplegic patients to operate robotic limbs, and even to restore voluntary control of their own limbs.

But these are not the only examples of how animal research is advancing the use of neural interfaces in medicine, today Nature News carries two articles on how groundbreaking research is paving the way for advances in optical prosthesis and the treatment of epilepsy.

Recent years have seen a number of innovative treatments for different types of blindness move from the lab to the clinic, including monoclonal antibodies, gene therapy and embryonic stem cells, Another approach that has been studied in patients for some time, and which may be useful in patients whose retina is too badly damaged to benefit from the techniques mentioned above,  is the use of neural prosthesis which replace damaged photoreceptor cells in the retina and directly stimulate the optic nerve, an approach discussed by Speaking of Research committee member Dario Ringach on his blog in 2010.

A prosthetic retina that can translate an image into neural signals was tested using a picture of a baby’s face. A is the original image. B is the image after it passes through the coding software. C is after it has been processed by the mouse retinal ganglion cells. D is the processed image without coding. Credit: Sheila Nirenberg, Nirenberg, S. & Pandarinath, C. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2012).

Nature news reports that scientists at Cornell University have solved one of the greatest challenges facing this technology, how to encode the electrical signal so that the light hitting the prosthesis is turned into a signal that the brain can understand. This problem has meant that current retinal prosthesis only allow patients to discern edges or lines, but not to be able to see movement or recognize faces. Now Sheila Nirenberg and her colleagues report the development of a code that enables mice that are blind due to severe retinal degeneration to see with far greater acuity than was possible with earlier prosthesis, the Nature News article noting that:

After receiving the encoded input, the mice were able to track moving stripes, something that they hadn’t been able to do before. The pair then looked at the neural signals that the mice were producing and used a different, ‘untranslate’, code to figure out what the brain would have been seeing. The encoded image was clearer and more recognizable than the non-encoded one”

It’s an exciting discovery that combines advanced visual prosthetic technology – which converted the light into a pattern that the brain can understand –  and genetic modification to introduce the Channelrhodopsin-2 gene into the retinal ganglion cells of the optic nerve, thus enabling them to respond to the light pattern emitted by the prosthetic and pass it to the brain. They hope to take into clinical trials in the near future, and may well do so as variations on the techniques required for this approach – including gene therapy of the eye – are already well developed, and several have already proven successful when evaluated in human patients.

The second item in Nature news is a very interesting discussion of the potential to use of a different technology – transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) – to stimulate neurons using electrodes implanted in the skull of epilepsy patients. Deep Brain Stimulation has been used to treat patients with epilepsy who don’t respond to anti-epileptic drugs, but while it has proven to be effective in many cases its use has been limited by the risks inherent in the surgery required to implant the electrodes, and the side effects due to the electrodes being continually on.

In an article published this week in the journal Science, György Buzsáki and colleagues at the New York University School of Medicine reported the development of a TES implant that was able to detect epileptic seizures in rats and then turn on to limit the reduce the duration of the seizure. Dr. Buzsáki and his colleagues have so far only studies this technique in “petit mal” or absence seizures, and are now planning to study its effectiveness for other types of epileptic seizures, but the potential of an electrostimulation technique that can control epileptic seizures but requires less invasive surgery than DBS and turns on only when requires is great.

All in all, they are two articles that highlight both the advances being made in this field, and how those advances depend on animal research.

Paul Browne

Animal rights activists protest Curiosity driven research

The last couple of days was nothing but jubilation at NASA/JPL after the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars.  President Obama congratulated scientists on the occasion by stating:

The successful landing of Curiosity — the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet — marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”

However, the atmosphere changed dramatically this morning. As JPL scientists came to work, they were perplexed to be greeted by a group of noisy animal rights protestors at the entrance to the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California.

Michael Bunkie, from Stop Alien Exploitation Now, told a group of reporters gathered at the scene that:

 These experiments have been done before and nothing came out of them. How many times do we have to land on Mars to just look at rocks?  I mean, all of them look the same! We already have space junk on Mars.  Why do we need more? This is clearly duplicative research done at the taxpayer expense and it must stop.”

Mr. Bunkie said he will FOIA every employee at NASA to obtain more information on what he called “an outrageous waste of resources.”

Dr. Maximus Ego, a retired physician and long-time scientific advisor to Bunkie, added:

“There is really nothing we can learn on Mars that will help humans.  Chaos theory and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle guarantee that even if life originated first on Mars, nothing we learn about its evolutionary history will be applicable to us.  I have published a 300-page long proof of this obvious statement (available from Amazon for $12).  After all, they are Martians and we are humans. Isn’t this obvious to NASA and its so-called scientists?”

When asked about the potential benefits of the research claimed by the space agency Dr. Ego added:

Gimme a break! This is clearly curiosity-driven research.  Nothing else, nothing more. They even named the rover ‘Curiosity’!  It is unacceptable for them to keep misleading the public by saying the questions at hand have any significance for advancing well-being on Earth. This type of research is worse than the discovery of the Higgs Boson!”

As JPL scientists quickly walked past, Dr. Ego ran after them screaming “I challenge you to a debate! Come on, I challenge you to a debate!  Do you know what a hypothesis is? Do you?!” 

Meanwhile, Rick Bungled, of the Alliance for Microbial Ethics, stood by silently holding a sign that read “How like us are they?”  When asked about its meaning Mr. Bungled explained:

How can we be invading Mars when we know there is a chance there might be life there? We must give these hypothetical organisms the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are sentient and conscious life forms just like us. For humans to gratuitously invade other planets is nothing more than a sign of our decadence. We have already destroyed Earth and now we are going to destroy the rest of the Universe. Humans are nothing but evil monsters (except me, of course). The Universe would be a better place if we all killed ourselves (I mean, if you killed yourselves).”

Nearby, Dr. Andrew Smoothtalk, from the Humane Planetary Society, said his organization held a much more moderate position.

“Of course we support science.  But we are now in the 21st century and have developed advanced computers, such as IBM’s Watson which can defeat you at Jeopardy. Clearly, we have the technology to simulate the origin of the solar system. We could send a virtual rover to a simulated Mars and explore simulated life in this simulated planet. We could even give scientists 100 bonus points for a good landing!  Given these new methods, which these NASA scientists are completely unaware of, we think time has come for NASA to switch these type of space exploration with more cost-effective methods than studying the real thing”  Waving out a piece of paper he pulled form his pocket he exclaimed “Here, I have with me a pledge that NASA can sign which already counts with the support of about 800 Raelians.”

NASA/JPL reacted to the criticism by circulating an email to the press this morning stating that they have serious and important work to do and are not planning on wasting precious time in responding to the activist’s allegations.

A masked activist, after being told of the NASA statement, said the activist will continue their relentless work to make space exploration stop “by all means necessary” — and walked away with a Molotov cocktail under his arm.  “To educate the neighbors” — he clarified.  Mr. Bungled, standing next to him, sighed deeply and explained that “the continued refusal by scientists to engage with activists can only lead to violent actions by the underground. Don’t tell us we didn’t warn you.”

Disclaimer: Although this may look like a real story you might have read over the past year or two,  it is in fact satire. Any resemblance to actual living persons is…err…purely coincidental and not to be taken (too) seriously.

Speaking of Research

Understanding Cyborg Jellyfish

While I was on vacation I missed a fascinating story about how scientists at Harvard University and Caltech have created an artificial jellyfish – termed a medusoid - using rat heart cells on a silicone matrix in order to demonstrate that it is possible to reverse-engineer a muscular pump, as described in this informative report on CBC News.

This isn’t the first time scientists have created artificial tissue that can mimic the rythmic pumping of the heart, we noted in 2011 that Professor Harald Ott and Dr. Doris Taylor at the University of Minnesota engineered a a rat heart that was able to sustain its own contractions and respond to physiological stimuli, but the strategy used to develop the synthetic jellyfish may help to accelerate the development of the artificial heart to the point where it can  be evaluated by transplantation into live animals. The synthetic jellyfish may also prove very useful in screening for the effects of drugs or other chemicals on the heart prior to live animal studies, as it can more accurately reflect heart physiology than current in vitro models, while at the same time being a lot simpler (and hence easier and cheaper to produce and maintain) than a complete artificial heart.

In an article entitles “March of the cyborgs” on the Understanding Animal Research News blog, Martin Turner puts this latest development into the context of other recent advances in regenerative medicine, such as bioengineered trachea transplantation, and notes that:

Whole organs pose greater challenges, but by combining living matter with other materials using techniques gained from projects such as the cyborg jellyfish, scientists might be able to bypass many of the obstacles posed by a purely biological system.

The cyborg jellyfish might seem fanciful and frivolous, but it’s small, incremental advances that lead to great innovations. With that in mind, the jellyfish’s creators are attempting their next, more complex creature. But we might have to wait another four years to find out what it will be.

It’s an excellent point, while the field of regenerative medicine is progressing very rapidly – progress which is needless to say dependent to a large extent on animal research – there is a danger that expectations may run too far ahead of what is technically possible.  We are beginning to see tissue engineering enter the clinic, but it will be years, if not decades, before it becomes a standard part of medicine. Investing in science is all about the long haul; if we wish to reap the rewards 10 or 20 years from now, we must be willing to support the basic and applied research that is being done in labs today.

Paul Browne