Category Archives: News

A Philosopher’s Dream

A moral philosopher had the following dream:

First Darwin appeared, and the philosopher said to him, “Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch for your support of medical research using animals?”

To the philosopher’s surprise, Darwin gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes,  ending with a warning to the philosopher that “I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind. “ But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Darwin couldn’t answer. Confused, Darwin scratched his head and disappeared.

Then Albert Sabin appeared.  He gave another detailed account of the importance of the work to the development of the Polio vaccine and concluded that “without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”  The same thing happened again, and the philosophers’ objection to Sabin was the same as his objection to Darwin. Sabin also couldn’t answer it at all, scratched his head and disappeared.

head-scratching

Then all the famous medical heroes of the past century paraded one-by-one to defend the work, and our philosopher refuted every single one with the same, singular objection.

After the last scientist vanished, our philosopher said to himself, “I know I’m asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I’ve found a universal refutation for all justifications of animal  research! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!”

With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written.

It was,

“That’s what you say, but I am deeply skeptical.”

 

Jeffrey Kahn’s Odd Views on Animal Research

Professor Jeffrey Kahn visited UW Madison to discuss the use of monkeys in medical research.

He is the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy and the Deputy Director for Policy and Administration at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Professor Kahn has participated in numerous federal panels and chaired the influential Institute of Medicine (IoM) committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which recommended that the NIH phase out most biomedical research on chimpanzees.

Because he is respected and listened to by those in charge of making policy decisions on matters of important medical research and public health issues, his talk at UW Madison drew much attention.

During his comments Prof. Kahn raised several objections about how animal research is regulated in the United States that deserve closer scrutiny.

Unfair application of the principles of utilitarian philosophy

Professor Kahn objected to justifying research based on utilitarianism on the grounds that it is unfair to consistently harm one group (non-human animals) for the benefit of another (humans).

However, the notion that pure utilitarianism forms the basis for an ethical defense of biomedical research is incorrect.

For example, a pure utilitarian view would also call for doing invasive experiments in mentally disabled human beings whose cognitive capabilities are comparable to those of animals used in research, or demand we forcefully harvest the organs of a potential human donor to save the lives of several others.

Of course, we don’t do any of these things. So it was perplexing to hear him state that utilitarianism is “how the system is set up.” 

No, it is definitely not.

Medical research with human and non-human animals is not based on a pure, utilitarian view.  Instead, it is partly based on a graded moral status perspective that posits we owe moral consideration to all living beings, but not to the same degree that we owe consideration to the lives of fellow humans. It is also partly based in our mutual recognition of equal, basic rights for all members of the human family.

These ethical considerations are embedded in federal regulations and NIH guidelines that call for minimizing the number of animal subjects used in any one study, the amount of suffering involved, and require the use the “lowest” species that can be expected to yield meaningful scientific answers.  It is also reflected in specific federal programs aimed at developing alternatives to animal use and, of course, in protections for human subjects.

It is true that NIH has never made explicit the ethical and philosophical principles underlying its research.  Nevertheless, the ethical principles etched in these regulations should be clear to anyone who spend the time to become familiar with them.

A misguided notion of scientific necessity

Professor Kahn views the “scientific necessity” of the work as inextricably linked to the ethics. His views are aligned with the conclusions of the panel that he chaired on chimpanzee research.  Within this framework a project would be morally justified only if all the following three conditions were met:

  1. No suitable alternative is available
  2. The work cannot be performed ethically on human subjects
  3. The work is required in order to accelerate the prevention, control and treatment of life-threatening or debilitating diseases

A large class of studies readily meet the first two requirements. When we seek information about the cellular and molecular mechanisms in a living organism, the technologies available to us at the present are invasive, and the work cannot be performed ethically in human subjects. If we could observe and manipulate molecular pathways and cells in living humans without jeopardizing their well being, then the work would be done in humans. But we don’t yet have such tools. No computer simulation, no in-vitro system, no MRI, no organs-on-a-chip currently available, provide an adequate alternative to animal studies.

The crux of the matter then boils down to the third condition, and therein lies the rub. When you are talking about the process of scientific discovery, this third condition is meaningless when applied to individual scientific projects. Science, as Professor Kahn himself points out, is not necessarily a predictable linear path from point A to point B, because it involves the exploration of the unknown. Science cannot promise that any one experiment can lead to a cure, nor can researchers know ahead of time which specific experiment or line of research will lead to a breakthrough. In Professor Kahn’s own words, “we call it research because we don’t know what the answer is.”  Why does he not realize that demanding a specific outcome in advance is out of the question?  One can only evaluate outcomes in retrospect, as Peter Singer has done offering in his approval for monkey studies in Parkinson’s research. Unfortunately, scientists on NIH study sections do not have the luxury of an oracle that can guide their decisions.

Instead, researchers understand that without animal studies we will not be able to develop new therapies and cures. Our expert scientific opinion is that were we to suspend animal research, most fields of biomedical research would come to a full stop. Meanwhile, patients and their families would pay the price of more human suffering.

Thus, the ethical question should be reframed as not whether one individual study is required but, in the case at the heart of this debate, whether the use of animal models is required to understand the molecular pathways underlying mental disorders so that we can  develop new treatments and cures for them.  Or more generally, if animals are required at all to advance medical knowledge and human health.  The scientific consensus in this matter, as indicated by a recent Nature magazine poll,  is overwhelming:

 

Bonus points should go to UW Professor Eric Sandgren who was nevertheless able to use Professor Kahn’s framework to explain, point by point, why he feels the studies under discussion can be justified. You may agree or disagree with his justification, but you cannot say he did not offer one. In contrast, Professor Kahn simply stated that he was “deeply skeptical” of the necessity of the work, despite acknowledging a lack of familiarity with the details of the study, nor bothering to explain the rationale for this view.

Given that the research at the center of this debate is aimed directly at anxiety disorders, a specific neurological condition that affects millions of humans, one might safely assume that Professor Kahn would express even graver doubts about basic research in animal subjects. He would have likely have rejected outright the research on olfactory cells that eventually allowed paralyzed people (and dogs) to walk again, among numerous advances in knowledge that have led to medical breakthroughs.

Professor Kahn ought to be reminded that the mission of the NIH is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” and try to understand better the inherent uncertainty and necessity of scientific research.

Do IACUCs and NIH study sections fail to evaluate scientific necessity?

Given his misguided view of necessity, it should not be surprising Professor Kahn believes that neither IACUCs nor NIH study sections are able to assess the scientific need for specific studies. He harshly criticized such committees for taking the claims of any one proposal at “face value.

That is a very strong statement… and a decidedly incorrect one, too.

First, the overall scientific direction of medical research in the country is established by our medical and scientific leadership. In the neurosciences, scientists are guided in their research by NIH’s Neuroscience Blueprint. Among the important scientific directions relevant to this particular discussion—ones that Professor Kahn should have known about—were the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network (to advance the development of new drugs for nervous system disorders) and the Blueprint Non-Human Primate Brain Atlas (to provide comprehensive data on gene expression in the rhesus macaque brain , from birth to four years old). Such work is expected to aid research on human brain development and its disorders.

Second, NIH study sections diligently assess proposals with an eye to which studies stand a better chance of advancing our knowledge of function and disease and therefore may have the greatest potential to lead to new cures or fundamentally advancing a field of study. In making their assessments, scientists who participate in study sections use their expertise to assess which research directions and pilot data look most promising. There is never a guarantee that any one study will produce a breakthrough. If there is any one premise it is that animal research has led to numerous advancements in knowledge and medicine that has benefited human and non-human animals alike. This is not taken at face value, rather, it is an indisputable fact of medical history.

Third, once the scientific merit of a proposal has been established, IACUCs provide an additional layer of local scrutiny and compliance oversight. It is perfectly reasonable for IACUCs to ensure the work at the institution maximizes the welfare of the animal subjects in each study, and NIH requires such an assurance for institutions that receive federal funding. (For the small minority of projects that have not yet received NIH review, the IACUCs seek local expertise to evaluate the scientific merit of the study.)

Is funding “unnecessary” research a waste of resources?

Another miscalculation derived from Professor Kahn’s flawed view of “necessity” is the claim that if research is “unnecessary” according to his definition, then it is also unethical, especially considering the limited funding resources we have available at the moment.

It is perfectly legitimate for a society to assess how it distributes its resources, but in doing so the entire budget ought to be considered.

One may ask, for example, how Professor Kahn feels about resources spent on drones for the military, the Hubble telescope, unmanned trips to Mars, funding for theoretical physics, game theory, or the Arts.

Or, more to the point, one could ask for a more detailed justification of why society should spend its resources on philosophers and bioethicists?

Should society prioritize the support of bioethics over the development of a vaccine for Ebola or a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

Which is one more crucial to our social welfare and which is more “unnecessary”?

Who will direct medical research?

Scientists must participate more in public life because social policies need to be decided on the basis of rational grounds and facts. These include important issues ranging from climate change, to the goals of the space program, to the protection of endangered species, to the use of embryonic stem cells or animals in biomedical research.

When scientifically inaccurate statements emanate from someone who has demonstrable influence on public policy decisions, scientists have a duty to speak up and correct the mistakes.

Animal research poses a legitimate moral dilemma. Decisions to pursue different lines of research that are perceived as controversial — be it research involving animals subjects or embryonic stem cells — cannot be assessed fairly without the active participation of scientists, physicians, patients and their families, because all are stakeholders in the work.

Unless these stakeholders get involved in such debates, we may find that their interests are not taken into account when the future direction of medical research is determined.

Dario Ringach

 

Paralyzed man walks again after olfactory cell transplant, thanks to animal research

Today, almost 30 years after Prof. Geoffrey Raisman first identified their potential to repair nerve damage in mice, the BBC reports that olfactory ensheathing cell transplantation has been successfully used to enable Darek Fidyka, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a knife attack in 2010, to walk again.

The paper reporting the transplant, which was carried out by surgeons in Poland and  led by Geoffrey Raisman of the UCL Institute of Neurology, is published today in the journal Cell Transplantation (5). The technique involves taking specialized cells known as olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) from the patient’s own patient’s olfactory bulbs, and then grafting these cells at the site of injury, where they promote nerve cell growth to bridge the gap and restore function. An added advantage in using the patient’s own cells is that it avoids the problem of rejection by their immune system.

Speaking earlier today Geoffrey Raisman described the results as “more impressive than man walking on the moon”. He’s not to far wrong, this achievement shows what is possible for regenerative medicine, and is the result of decades of basic and translational research. Indeed, whereas only 12 people have  walked on the moon, this new technique has the potential to help many thousands of people to walk again here on earth.

2014 has been an extraordinary year of progress restoring function after spinal injury, in May we saw how epidural stimulation allowed 4 paralyzed men in the US to move their legs again, while scientists at Newcastle University in the UK used closed loop electrostimulation to restore voluntary movement in temporarily paralyzed monkey arms. These techniques, and now OEC transplantation, show that many cases of paralysis are potentially reversible. Not every technique will be appropriate for every patient, and it will take much additional research before they are widely available, but together they represent a huge advance.

Darek Fidyka learns to walk again following OEC transplantation. Image BBC News.

Darek Fidyka learns to walk again following OEC transplantation. Image BBC News.

In each case it is an advance that rests on many decades of careful research in both animals and in human subjects, in particular basic research that uncovered the role of specialized cells and provided scientists with the knowledge about organization and function of the brain and spinal cord that enabled these pioneering therapies to be developed.

In a post in 2012 I discussed how Geoffery Raisman’s research led to the successful testing of olfactory ensheathing cells in injured dogs, and I’m reposting that article here:

Paralysed dogs walk again thanks to nasal cell transplants…and Professor Raisman’s rats. (published 19 November 2012)

This morning the BBC News carried a report on a medical breakthrough – and it is not a term I use lightly – that has enormous implications for people who have been paralyzed following spinal cord injuries. A team at the University of Cambridge led by Professor Robin Franklin Department of Veterinary Medicine, along with colleagues at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh succeeded in restoring the ability to walk with their hind legs to dogs which had been paralyzed by spinal injury. To do this they removed a special type of cell called the olfactory ensheathing cell (OEC) from the nasal passageways of the dogs, grown them in culture until a sufficient number had been produced, and then transplanted them at the site of injury. Many of the dogs which received the transplant were subsequently able to walk with their hind legs if supported by a harness, and some even able to walk without being supported by a harness, whereas dogs which received a control injection did not recover the ability to move their hind legs.

This is a major medical advance, and the first time that cell transplantation has been demonstrated to reverse paralysis in a real-life situation where the injury involves a combination of damage to the nerve fibre and to surrounding tissues, and there is a significant delay between injury and treatment, and while the therapy did not completely restore function it marks a very significant step towards a therapy that can be evaluated in a human clinical trial. It also of course is a very promising therapy for dogs that have suffered spinal injuries, for example after being hit by a car, and as such is an excellent example of the One Health concept which seeks a closer integration of human and veterinary medicine.

As with many breakthroughs this one did not happen overnight, indeed it is the result of decades of research. The story really begins in 1985 when Professor Geoffrey Raisman at University College London (for a good overview of his work see the UCL spinal Repair Group homepage) was studying the unique ability of nerve fibres in the olfactory system to grow and make the connections with central nervous system – an ability that other adult nerve cells lack and which is probably retained in the olfactory system due to the importance of preserving the ability to smell despite exposure of nerve cells in the nasal passages to toxins in the environment (a good sense of smell being crucial to survival for many mammalian species). He found that in a part of the brain termed the olfactory bulb of mice and rats a specific type of glial cell, cells that act to support and regulate the activity of the nerve cells along which nerve impulses travel , were responsible for creating the pathway along which the olfactory nerve fibres could regenerate (1).

Studies in rats were key to unlocking the potential of olfactory ensheathing cells in repairing spinal injuries. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

This discovery suggested that if these specialized olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) were transplanted at the site of spinal cord injury they might promote the growth of a bridge of nerve cells that would reconnect the severed pathway and restore function. In a series of experiments in rats Professor Raisman and colleagues demonstrated that OEC transplantation could repair a variety of different types of spinal cord injury, in order to restore function, for example to improve the ability to breath and climb following spinal cord injury (2) and to restore the ability of rat paws to grasp in order to climb following lesion of the spinal nerve that runs from the spinal cord down through the arm (3). Other scientists provided additional key information, for example scientists at the University of New South Wales in Australia demonstrated that OECs could be isolated from the nasal mucosa as well as from the olfactory bulb (4), and that these can also repair spinal cord injuries, an important step since obtaining OECs from the nasal mucosa is far more straightforward and safer than harvesting them from the brain. These discoveries, and the refinement of OEC transplant techniques over the past 2 decades by scientists such as Prof. Raisman, paved the way for the “real life” veterinary study reported today. A human clinical trial of this technique cannot be far off, though it is worth noting Prof. Raisman’s words of caution to the BBC concerning what has been achieved and what is still to be done:

“This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans – that could still be a long way off. But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road towards it…This procedure has enabled an injured dog to step with its hind legs, but the much harder range of higher functions lost in spinal cord injury – hand function, bladder function, temperature regulation, for example – are yet more complicated and still a long way away.”

In this respect it is worth noting the other approaches to repairing spinal cord injury, for example using other glial cell known as astrocytes and the use of electrical stimulation have produced promising outcomes in animal studies and early human clinical trials. Indeed, a clinical study of electrostimulation that we discussed last year reported “improved autonomic function in bladder, sexual and thermoregulatory activity that has been of substantial benefit to the patient”. In the future these different approaches may be combined to maximize the benefit to the patient, but it is still far too early to say which techniques will best complement each other. One thing we can be sure of is that turning these very promising technologies into effective treatments – perhaps even cures – for paralysis will require further research, both in the lab and in the clinic.

Paul Browne

1) Raisman G. “Specialized neuroglial arrangement may explain the capacity of vomeronasal axons to reinnervate central neurons.” Neuroscience. 1985 Jan;14(1):237-54. PubMed: 3974880

2) Li Y, Decherchi P, Raisman G. Transplantation of olfactory ensheathing cells into spinal cord lesions restores breathing and climbing.” J Neurosci. 2003 Feb 1;23(3):727-31. 12574399

3) Ibrahim AG, Kirkwood PA, Raisman G, Li Y. “Restoration of hand function in a rat model of repair of brachial plexus injury.” Brain. 2009 May;132(Pt 5):1268-76. Epub 2009 Mar 13. PMID: 19286693

4) Lu J, Féron F, Mackay-Sim A, Waite PM. “Olfactory ensheathing cells promote locomotor recovery after delayed transplantation into transected spinal cord.” Brain. 2002 Jan;125(Pt 1):14-21. PMID: 11834589

5) Tabakow P et al. “Functional regeneration of supraspinal connections in a patient with transected spinal cord following transplantation of bulbar olfactory ensheathing cells with peripheral nerve bridging” Cell Transplantation, published online 20 November 2014 http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/cog/ct/pre-prints/content-CT-1239_Tabakow_et_al

University of Wisconsin responds to dishonest petition attacking psychiatric research

What do you do if your university is the target of an aggressive publicity campaign that distorts and misrepresents the work of one of your most highly respected scientists? What do you do if hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition calling for a research project to be cancelled, even though the petition contains numerous errors of fact? What do you do if a media campaign, backed by several of the world’s largest animal rights groups threatens to undermine academic freedom and the research evaluation process at your University?

Do you ignore it? Do you give in? What do you do?

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

These are questions that the University of Wisconsin -Madison has faced in recent weeks as a change.org petition that seeks to end a research project led by Professor Ned Kalin, chair of the University’s Department of Psychiatry. The petition, backed by many animal rights groups across the world, including PeTA and HSUS, has gathered more than 300,000 signatures

So did UW-Madison give in? Did they simply ignore the petition?

No, they did something much better.

UW-Madison issued the response below rejecting the erroneous claims made by the author of the petition, Dr Ruth Decker, and defending Professor Kalin’s right to undertake important research. Just as importantly they defend the right of the scientific and medical experts at UW-Madison and the NIH – and not the misinformed mob – to decide which projects should be approved and funded.

We commend UW-Madison on taking this strong position in support of science.

Responding to Ruth Decker’s change.org petition

Since September, many people have taken interest in a University of Wisconsin–Madison study on the impact of early life stress on young rhesus monkeys. Thousands have added their names to a petition on the website change.org, calling for an end to the work, and we appreciate and share their concern for animals.

But we don’t appreciate the way petition’s author, Dr. Ruth Decker, misrepresents the research. By piling up mistakes, myths and exaggerations, and omitting important information, she asks well-meaning people to speak out with little understanding of the real science and the long, deliberative process through which it was approved.

This isn’t fair to the people who signed the petition, or to UW–Madison psychiatry professor Ned Kalin and the scientists involved in the work, or to the millions of people who suffer from mental illness for whom available treatment methods offer little relief.

The truth is of little concern to activists who wish to end animal research, no matter the benefit to humans and animals. We don’t share that sentiment. We prefer people make their judgments on animal research with a fuller understanding of the research — of both its costs and potential benefits.

So, if you have read the change.org petition, please also consider these corrections and additional information:

  • This is not a repeat of experiments UW–Madison psychology professor Harry Harlow conducted as many as five decades ago, some of which subjected animals to extreme stress and isolation. The methods for the modern work were selected specifically because they can reliably create mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety in the monkeys. They were chosen to minimize discomfort for the animals, and to minimize the number of animals required to provide researchers with answers to their questions.
  • There is no “solitary confinement.” The animals live in cages with other monkeys of their own age, a method of care called peer rearing. This method is often used when mothers reject their infant monkeys, which happens regularly in situations from nature to zoos to clinical nurseries with first-time mothers or following caesarean-section births. In a group setting, even veterinarians would have difficulty distinguishing the peer-reared animals from those that that were maternally reared.

The purpose of peer rearing is not to demonstrate that removing a monkey from its mother causes anxiety, a common misconception we have heard from people who have signed the petition.

Again: peer rearing was chosen because it is known to produce mild to moderate anxiety symptoms. With a group of animals predisposed to anxiety raised in a controlled setting, researchers can use state-of-the-art techniques to observe and measure even very subtle differences in brain chemistry and structure. Those chemical and anatomical differences may suggest new treatments — via nutrition, exercise, meditation, drugs or another approach — for people suffering from mental illness.

  • The animals in the study are not “terrorized,” and do not experience “relentless torture.” Most of their time is spent as a house pet would spend its days — grooming, sleeping, eating and playing with toys, puzzles and other animals.

On occasion, to assess the monkeys’ level of anxious temperament, they are observed under two anxiety-provoking conditions. The first involves the presence of an unknown person who briefly enters the room, but does not make eye contact with the monkey. The second involves the monkey being able to see a snake, which is enclosed in a covered Plexiglas container in the same room, but outside the monkey’s cage.

After each event, the animal’s brain activity is monitored by a non-invasive functional magnetic resonance scan, and blood samples are taken. The stress the monkeys experience is comparable to what an anxious human might feel when encountering a stranger or a snake or a nurse with a needle.

  • No one was “left out” of the review by UW–Madison oversight committees. Several university committees spent a great deal of time assessing Dr. Kalin’s anxiety research, and each committee found it to be acceptable and ethical. These were groups of researchers, veterinarians and public representatives tasked with considering animal research on ethical grounds, and with ensuring potentially beneficial research will subject the fewest animals to the least invasive measures.

As the petition notes, an animal rights group took allegations about the committee process to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What the petition does not mention is that USDA conducted an investigation in August in response to that complaint. Inspectors found the complaint lacking merit, and the process to be entirely within compliance with federal regulations.

And, as with all animal research on campus, specially trained veterinarians will care for the monkeys involved and ensure that all the work is done in accordance with federal regulations enforced by the National Institutes of Health and the USDA.

The decision to study animal models to understand human psychiatric disorders is not made lightly. Roughly a quarter of the people in the United States, including children, suffer from mental illness. Their conditions subject them to immeasurable disability and dysfunction. And the worst outcome, suicide, is increasing and already among the leading causes of death in adolescents. To develop effective treatments that may alleviate the suffering of millions, it is necessary to understand the root cause of psychiatric illnesses.

In this case, the human suffering is so great that Kalin, the National Institutes of Health and UW–Madison’s review committees believe the potential benefit of the knowledge gained from this research justifies the use of an animal model.

More information on the anxiety and depression research is available at animalresearch.wisc.edu.

Related posts:

Child health benefits from studies of infant monkeys – Part 1

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

Speaking of Research

Five Star review for Speaking of Research website

A few months after the Speaking of Research website got full marks in a recent review we’ve done it again. In Lab Animal Europe‘s Website of the Month, Speaking of Research got an overall score of five out of five and was considered ‘Excellent’ for Ease of Use, Content and Visual Impact.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

It concludes:

All, in all, this is an excellent and informative website. [...] We highly recommend it.

A big thanks to Lab Animal Europe for the review and we’ll keep trying to add “more information, more updated news, and, actually, more of everything we loved about this website“.

Speaking of Research

Stem cell therapy allows blind to see again, thanks to animal research

A team of scientists led by stem cell pioneer Professor Robert Lanza has reported today in the Lancet (1) the first evidence for the long-term safety of  retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in patients who took part in a trial undertaken in four centres in the US. substantial improvements in vision were also recorded in almost half the treated patients, compared to no improvement in untreated patients.

This is the first time that clinical benefits have been demonstrated in the medium to long term in patients with any disese treated with hESC-derived cells, and is a major milestone in the development of the field of regenerative medicine. It’s an achievement that is due to many years of animal research.

Image:UCL/PA

Image:UCL/PA

The trial focused on 18 patients with two different types of macular degeneration,  Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and nine with dry atrophic age-related macular degeneration, that are common causes of blindness in adults and children and for which no effective treatments are currently available.

Nine patients with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and nine with dry atrophic age-related macular degeneration received injections of 50,000 to 150,000 RPE cells behind the retina of their worst-affected eye. Robert Lanza, adjunct Professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology who funded the trial, describes the results:

The vision of most patients improved after transplantation of the cells. Overall, the vision of the patients improved by about three lines on the standard visual acuity chart, whereas the untreated fellow eyes did not show similar improvements in visual acuity. The patients also reported notable improvements in their general and peripheral vision, as well as in near and distance activities”

Professor Steven Shwartz, who led the team at the Jules Stein Eye Institute that took part in this trial, noted how important this result is to both the patients in this trial and the field of hESC-derived stem cell medicine.

Our results suggest the safety and promise of hESCs to alter progressive vision loss in people with degenerative diseases and mark an exciting step towards using hESC-derived stem cells as a safe source of cells for the treatment of various medical disorders requiring tissue repair or replacement,

You can listen to interviews with Steven Schwartz and several of the participants in this clinical trial in an NPR broadcast here.

In 2011 we discussed the launch of trials of these hESC-derived RPE cells, including some of those whose results are reported today,  at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. A paper published in the Journal Stem Cells in 2009 showed how studies in rodent models retinal degerneration paved the way for these trials by demonstrating that RPE cells derived from hESCs were safe and could restore vision:

Assessments of safety and efficacy are crucial before human ESC (hESC) therapies can move into the clinic. Two important early potential hESC applications are the use of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt disease, an untreatable form of macular dystrophy that leads to early-onset blindness. Here we show long-term functional rescue using hESC-derived RPE in both the RCS rat and Elov14 mouse, which are animal models of retinal degeneration and Stargardt, respectively. Good Manufacturing Practice-compliant hESC-RPE survived subretinal transplantation in RCS rats for prolonged periods (>220 days). The cells sustained visual function and photoreceptor integrity in a dose-dependent fashion without teratoma formation or untoward pathological reactions. Near-normal functional measurements were recorded at >60 days survival in RCS rats. To further address safety concerns, a Good Laboratory Practice-compliant study was carried out in the NIH III immune-deficient mouse model. Long-term data (spanning the life of the animals) showed no gross or microscopic evidence of teratoma/tumor formation after subretinal hESC-RPE transplantation. These results suggest that hESCs could serve as a potentially safe and inexhaustible source of RPE for the efficacious treatment of a range of retinal degenerative diseases.”

This work – and earlier studies of RPE cells derived from ESCs – built on decades of basic stem cell research, starting with the pioneering work of Gail Martin, Matthew Kaufman and Martin Evans in mice, and the subsequent derivation of ESCs in macaques and then humans by James Thompson and colleagues at the university of Wisconsin- Madison.

Laboratory Mice are the most common species used in research

The humble mouse has played a key role in the development of stem cell medicine.

Today’s announcement is a major milestone in regenerative medicine, and one that id justifiably being celebrated, but we should also remember the many years of careful research that has led up to this moment. As with many medical advances much of the early research on embryonic stem cells was undertaken without any immediate clinical application in mind, but it nevertheless created the knowledge that is now driving an important emerging field of medicine. This is a lesson we need to remember when we donate to charities, when we discuss the importance of research with others, and most of all when we go to the ballot box!

Paul Browne

1) Schwartz SD et al. “Human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium in patients with age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy: follow-up of two open-label phase 1/2 studies” Lancet published onlin3 15 October 2014. Link.

2) Lu B et al. “Long-term safety and function of RPE from human embryonic stem cells in preclinical models of macular degeneration.”
Stem Cells. 2009 Sep;27(9):2126-35. doi: 10.1002/stem.149.

Sometimes My Job Seems Like a Secret

Today’s guest post is by Amy Davidson, BSc(Hons), MBA, RQAP-GLP. Amy is Vice President, Operations at Kingfisher International Inc. She has worked as an animal care attendant, technician, quality assurance auditor and now manages a team of dedicated animal research professionals. Amy explains how talking about her profession has changed and the benefit of sharing accurate information about animal research all that will listen. Reprinted with permission from Kingfisher International.

“You are going to hell.” “You are a horrible person.” “We cannot be friends anymore.”

I have had all of these statements declared to me from strangers and former-friends. I have chosen a career that some people consider inhumane or amoral; my job is controversial and I have lost friends and alienated people based solely on my career choice.

What do I do? I work in an animal research laboratory. Am I ashamed of my job?  No! In fact, heck no!!   All of the individuals I work with are kind, caring people who place animal welfare above all else. I am proud of the scientific work we perform and the care and attention placed on those animals that work with us to attain our goals.

I have been an animal researcher for almost 10 years, and in the beginning I gave families, friends and strangers some vague line using words like ‘laboratory’, ‘science’, and ‘pharmaceuticals’ so that I would not have to explain that I work with animals to further scientific endeavors.  This was a mistake which I have now rectified in the past few years.

Amy Davidson with Cat

I am willing to answer any and all questions about my career to anyone willing to ask, maintaining confidentiality of our Sponsors of course.  Once I started my honesty policy, I actually found most people didn’t have a strong opinion either way.  Trust me, trying to be in the dating pool and tell a guy on the first date what I do for a living was really fun!  I did have one date walk out on me, I had several that asked follow up questions but most just said “Wow you must be smart” and moved on with the conversation.

I will not attempt to change someone’s mind if they are against animal research, but I will correct any misconceptions people may have regarding animal research in the 21st century. I have a responsibility to the animal health community to be an advocate, to tell the truth and represent the innumerable people and animals that comprise the industry.

I am a good person, I care about animals, I care about animal welfare and safety, and I care about products going onto the market that are safe for both animals and humans to use.  I have owned animals all my life (dogs, cats, and fish) and I am against all malicious acts of cruelty to any creature.   I harass my own family about not leaving their dog in the car on a hot day; my cat goes to the veterinarian once a year and I have cried when we have had to euthanize animals at work.  My dad is alive with diabetes today, my mom controls her arthritis and my best friend had a child using fertility aids all because animal researchers like me are continuing to perform quality science.

All I ask is that if you have an opinion about me or my career choice; please make it an informed opinion. I am not out to hurt animals or hurt you, I am trying to ensure the safety and efficacy of products that will make you and your pet feel better. I am not ashamed, I am not hiding, I am going to speak up and be honest, there is nothing to hide, no secret to keep.  I am an animal researcher.

Amy Davidson

Do you have a story to tell? Are you a researcher, technician or veterinarian who wishes to explain how and why you work with animals? Please get in touch.