Tag Archives: animal research

Thank You Doctor Salk! (and Drs Enders, Bodian, Landsteiner, Sabin…)

Today’s Google Doodle honours Dr Jonas Salk, who in 1954 created the world’s first effective polio vaccine, which was responsible for launching a campaign that has seen this terrible disease become an increasingly distant memory in most  – though sadly not all – parts of the world.


It’s an opportunity to reflect on the pioneering work of Dr Salk, who was born 100 years today, but we should also remember all the other great scientists whose work made crucial contributions to the development of the inactivated and live polio vaccines.

Salk’s 100yr anniversary: say thank you to those who helped develop the Salk vaccine against polio Tweet this!

Today, in honor of Jonas Salk and all the other polio vaccine pioneers, we are reposting this article, which we first published in 2011.

Albert Sabin and the monkeys who gave summer back to the children.

Albert Sabin has been called “the doctor who gave summer back to the children.”*

Because of his decades of research to develop the oral polio vaccine, children today know nothing of the fear that polio brought to the United States every summer well into the 20th century.  Swimming pools and movie theaters were closed and children were kept inside their homes by frightened parents.  Worldwide, the disease killed millions of people and left legions of others permanently disabled.

Albert Sabin administering the vaccine that saved millions from polio.

Albert Sabin administering the vaccine that saved millions from polio.

We’ve just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Dr. Sabin’s vaccine. Estimates suggest that in just its first two years of worldwide use, the vaccine prevented nearly 500,000 deaths and five million cases of polio.  Today, the world is on the brink of realizing Dr. Sabin’s lifetime dream: the eradication of polio from the planet.

The development of the oral polio vaccine required years of extensive research with rabbits, monkeys and rodents.

Animal rights activists long ago seized on a single phrase by Dr. Albert Sabin, and have been using it ever since to try to support their outrageous claim that the developer of the oral polio vaccine(OPV) opposed the use of animals in research.

That phrase, “The work on prevention (of polio) was long delayed by an erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of disease in monkeys” spoken by Dr. Sabin during a congressional hearing in 1984, has been used in animal rights publications and comments for over two decades.

Dr. Sabin, a member of the Board of Directors of the pro-research Americans for Medical Progress until his death in 1993, spent years working to correct the record.  Here is a letter he wrote to the editor of the Winston Salem Journal, published in 1992.

Winston-Salem Journal

March 20, 1992

The Correct Conclusion

In a recent letter to the Journal (“Misrepresenting Research,” Feb. 20), Dr. Stephen R. Kaufman, the chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, correctly quoted my 1984 testimony before Congress but he drew wrong conclusions from it.  Dr. Kaufman was also wrong when the said “the polio vaccine was based on a tissue culture preparation … not animal experimentation.”

On the contrary, my own experience of more than 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated 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.

In my 1956 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 162, p. 1589), I stated that during the preceding four years “approximately 9,000 monkeys, 150 chimpanzees and 133 human volunteers were used thus far in studies of various characteristics of different poliovirus strains.”  These studies were necessary to solve many problems before an oral polio-virus vaccine could become a reality.

Albert B. Sabin, M.D.


It is true that in the early years of polio research some lines of inquiry eventually proved unsuccessful. An overreliance on a strain of the virus known as the MV strain that had become adapted to survive only in nervous tissue, and the fact that the Rhesus macaque, while a good model for many aspects of polio, cannot be infected through ingestion via the mouth, led to the incorrect assumption that polio could only infect nerve cells (despite evidence to the contrary from both clinical studies and laboratory studies with other polio strains and monkey species).   These mistakes were unfortunate, though understandable given the fact that virology as a science was in its infancy.

However, these failed attempts do not cancel out the fact that animal research, and research using monkeys in particular, was absolutely crucial to the development of vaccines for polio.  Without it the polio vaccine would certainly not have been developed by the end of the 1950’s, and we might even still be waiting for it.

These vital contributions made by animal research to the development of polio vaccines were not limited to the work of Albert Sabin, and include:

  • The discovery by Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper in 1908 that polio was caused by a virus, a discovery made by inoculating macaque monkeys with an extract of nervous tissue from polio victims that was shown to be free of other infectious agents.
  • The subsequent discovery by Simon Flexner  that blood serum from infected macaque monkeys could protect against polio infection.
  • The discovery by Carl Kling and colleagues in 1911, following an earlier discovery that polio virus could be isolated from the lymph nodes of the small intestine of monkeys, that polio virus was present in the throat and intestinal tissues of people who dies from polio. Soon afterwards they isolated virus from the intestines of patients suffering from acute polio, and importantly from family members who did not display the symptoms of polio, establishing that healthy carriers played an important role in spreading the disease. In these studies the presence of polio was demonstrated by injecting filtered fluid from the patients into monkeys, the only method then available to confirm the presence of polio (Introduction to Epidemiology, fifth edition, by Ray M, Merill, Jones and Bartlett Learning).
  • The discovery in the early 1930’s by the Australian scientists Macfarlane Burnet and Jean Macnamara that antibodies against one strain of polio did not always protect macaque monkeys against infection with another strain.
  • The discovery by John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins that the polio virus could be grown in a number of tissue types, not just nerve tissue as previously assumed, a discovery that required the use of mice and monkeys to prove that the cultured virus was indeed polio and still capable of causing paralysis.
  • The determination in 1949 by David Bodian and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University that there were three major families of polio virus, referred to as types 1, 2, and 3, and that a separate vaccine would be necessary for each to give broad protection against polio.
  • The discovery by David Bodian and colleagues in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that the polio virus entered the body through the mouth, and then needed to pass into the blood stream before it could infect nervous tissue, and that if you could block the infection in the blood you could prevent the virus from entering nerve tissue and causing paralysis. The work of Enders and Bodian paved the way for the development of vaccines by Salk and Sabin.
  • The evaluation by Jonas Salk and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh  of vaccine candidates produced by inactivating the virus with formalin under a range of conditions, until a vaccine was identified that was effective and safe enough for human trials.
  • The evaluation by Albert Sabin of hundreds of polio virus strains in hundreds of monkeys and scores of chimps before identifying attenuated strains that were capable of efficiently entering the body through the digestive system and provoking an adequate immune response to protect against the different pathogenic strains of polio while not causing the disease themselves.

It is hardly surprising that those close to Albert Sabin are disgusted with the way in which his views are misrepresented by animal rights activists. Writing for the Wall Street Journal two years after his death Albert Sabin’s widow, Heloisa Sabin, discussed the value of animals to his research.


The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 1995

by Heloisa Sabin

Mrs. Sabin is honorary director of Americans for Medical Progress.

That scene in “Forrest Gump,” in which young Forrest runs from his schoolmate tormentors so fast that his leg braces fly apart and his strong legs carry him to safety may be the only image of the polio epidemic of the 1950s etched in the minds of those too young to remember the actual devastation the disease caused. Hollywood created a scene of triumph far removed from the reality of the disease.

Some who have benefited directly from polio research, including the work of my late husband, Albert Sabin, think winning the real war against polio was just as simple. They have embraced a movement that denounces the very process that enables them to look forward to continued good health and promising futures. This “animal rights” ideology — espoused by groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Fund for Animals — rejects the use of laboratory animals in medical research and denies the role such research played in the victory over polio.

The leaders of this movement seem to have forgotten that year after year in the early ’50s, the very words “infantile paralysis” and “poliomyelitis” struck great fear among young parents that the disease would snatch their children as they slept. Each summer public beaches, playgrounds and movie theaters were places to be avoided. Polio epidemics condemned millions of children and young adults to lives in which debilitated lungs could no longer breathe on their own and young limbs were left forever wilted and frail. The disease drafted tiny armies of children on crutches and in wheelchairs who were unable to walk, run or jump. In the U.S., polio struck down nearly 58,000 children in 1952 alone.

Unlike the braces on Forrest Gump’s legs, real ones would be replaced only as the children’s misshapened legs grew. Other children and young adults were entombed in iron lungs. The only view of the world these patients had was through mirrors over their heads. These, however, are no longer part of our collective cultural memory.

Albert was on the front line of polio research. In 1961, thirty years after he began studying polio, his oral vaccine was introduced in the U.S. and distributed widely. In the nearly 40 years since, polio has been eradicated in the Western hemisphere, the World Health Organization reports, adding that with a full-scale effort, polio could be eliminated from the rest of the world by the year 2000.

Without animal research, polio would still be claiming thousands of lives each year. “There could have been no oral polio vaccine without the use of innumerable animals, a very large number of animals,” Albert told a reporter shortly before his death in 1993. Animals are still needed to test every new batch of vaccine that is produced for today’s children.

Animal activists claim that vaccines really didn’t end the epidemics — that, with improvements in social hygiene, polio was dying out anyway, before the vaccines were developed. This is untrue. In fact, advanced sanitation was responsible in part for the dramatic rise in the number of paralytic polio cases in the ’50s. Improvements in sanitation practices reduced the rate of infection, so that the average age of those infected by the polio virus went up. Older children and young adults were more likely than infants to develop paralysis from their exposure to the polio virus.

Every child who has tasted the sweet sugar cube or received the drops containing the Sabin Vaccine over the past four decades knows polio only as a word, or an obscure reference in a popular film. Thank heavens it’s not part of their reality.

These polio-free generations have grown up to be doctors, teachers, business leaders, government officials, and parents. They have their own concerns and struggles. Cancer, heart disease, strokes and AIDS are far more lethal realities to them now than polio. Yet, those who support an “animal rights” agenda that would cripple research and halt medical science in its tracks are slamming the door on the possibilities of new treatments and cures.

My husband was a kind man, but he was impatient with those who refused to acknowledge reality or to seek reasoned answers to the questions of life.

The pioneers of polio research included not only the scientists but also the laboratory animals that played a critical role in bringing about the end of polio and a host of other diseases for which we now have vaccines and cures. Animals will continue to be as vital as the scientists who study them in the battle to eliminate pain, suffering and disease from our lives.

That is the reality of medical progress.


Animal rights activists are free to express their opposition to the use of animals in research, but they cannot do so by blatantly robbing society of scientific achievements.  This one fact is clear — if our critics had their way, today millions of children would be dead or disabled from polio and other infectious diseases.

* Of course Jonas Salk is equally, if not more, deserving of this accolade.

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.


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

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.



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.

Child health benefits from studies of infant monkeys – Part 1

Health research with nonhuman primates takes place at many universities and research institutions in the US, among them centers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  A broad range of research aimed at better understanding maternal and child health takes place at these centers and depends, in part, upon humane, ethical scientific studies of infant monkeys.

A sample of the research areas and findings are highlighted below and provide a view of the value of developmental research. What even a short list shows is that the scope of scientific and medical research that informs pediatric health issues is large. It ranges from autism to childhood diabetes to leukemia to mental health to stem cell therapies.

Together, the findings from studies of infant monkeys have resulted in a better understanding of prenatal, infant, child, and maternal health. The scientific research has resulted in basic discoveries that are the foundation for a wide range of clinical applications and have also improved outcomes for premature and critically ill human infants.

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

Studies of monkeys are a tiny fraction of all animal studies and are only conducted when studies of fish, mice, rats, or other animals are not sufficient to address the scientific question. Like all nonhuman animal studies, those of young monkeys are subject to rigorous ethical evaluation by scientists, by federal review panels, and institutional review boards that include veterinarians and members of the public.

The decision to conduct a study in nonhuman animals is one that rests on weighing both the potential benefit the work may provide and any potential for harm. The research below provides many specific examples of how and why the studies are conducted and their benefit. For each and every study, scientists, review panels, and ethics boards also consider the potential for harm that may result to the nonhuman animals that are involved. Whether there are any alternatives to the animal study is a requirement of the US system for ethical review and oversight. If there is no alternative, reduction in potential for harm is explicitly addressed not only by a set of standards for animal care, housing, handling, environmental enrichment, and medical care, but also by including only the number of animals needed to answer the scientific question. (You can read more about the review process, regulation, and care standards here and here).

Like other studies of nonhuman animals, those in young animals require serious and fact-informed ethical consideration. At the most fundamental level they challenge us to evaluate how we should balance work that ultimately can help children, the harm that may result from a failure to act, potential harm to animals in research. Consideration of how to balance the interests of children, society, and other animals is not an easy task. Nor is it one that is well-served by simple formulations.

Primate studies of early development have, and continue, to contribute valuable new insights and discoveries that improve the health and lives of many.  The examples below, from NIH-funded research programs across the US, demonstrate how the work contributes to public health.

Sources:  National Primate Research Centers Outreach Consortium. For more information about the NPRCs, see:  http://dpcpsi.nih.gov/orip/cm/primate_resources_researchers#centers



Cerebral Palsy

  • One outcome of premature birth and accompanying brain injury can be Cerebral Palsy (CP). To date, studies at the Washington National Primate Research Center’s (WaNPRC) Infant Primate Research Laboratory (IPRL) have described the metabolome of normal birth and discovered new acute biomarkers of acute hypoxia‐ This multi‐modal approach will increase the likelihood of identifying reliable biomarkers to diagnose the degree of injury and improve prognosis by tracking the response to treatment after neonatal brain injury. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22391633, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21353677)

Childhood Leukemia

  • Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) scientists James Thomson and Igor Slukvin turned diseased cells from a leukemia patient into pluripotent stem cells, providing a way to study the genetic origins of blood cancers as well as the ability to grow unlimited cells for testing new drugs for chronic myeloid leukemia, childhood leukemia and other blood cancers. (http://www.news.wisc.edu/18933 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296996)

Diabetes and Childhood Obesity

  • Normal and obese marmosets were followed by Suzette Tardif at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) from birth to 1 year. At 6 months, obese marmosets already had significantly lower insulin sensitivity and by 12 months, they also had higher fasting glucose, demonstrating that early-onset obesity in marmosets resulted in impaired glucose function, increasing diabetes risk. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23512966)
  • Infant marmosets were followed by Suzette Tardif at the SNPRC from birth to 1 year. Feeding phenotypes were determined through the use of behavioral observation, solid food intake trials, and liquid feeding trials. Marmosets found to be obese at 12 months of age started consuming solid food sooner and drank more grams of diet thus indicating that the weaning process is crucial in the development of juvenile obesity in both NHPs and human. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23512878)


Environmental threats


  • Scientists at the CNPRC developed the SIV/rhesus macaque pediatric model of disease, to better understand the pathogenesis of SIV/HIV in neonates and test strategies for immunoprophylaxis and antiviral therapy to prevent infection or slow disease progression. Drug therapies used to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to infant were developed in nonhuman primate models at the CNPRC, and are now being successfully used in many human populations to protect millions of infants from contracting HIV. (http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/koen-van-rompay/)
  • Development of topical vaginal microbicides to prevent babies from contracting HIV from their mothers during delivery was advanced by Eva Rakasz at the WNPRC and her collaborators. Dr. Rakasz was also a member of the National Institutes of Health study section, Sexually Transmitted Infections and Topical Microbicides Clinical Research Centers. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3032991/, http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/microbicides/microbicides/en/)
  • In a model of mother to child transmission, research at the WaNPRC and the ONPRC has shown that neutralizing antibodies can block infection at high doses and prevent disease and death at lower doses in one-month old monkeys exposed to a chimeric SIV that bears the HIV Envelope protein. Human monoclonal antibodies currently in clinical trials are in testing alone and in combination with drug therapy in this primate model as a less toxic alternative to supplement or supplant drugs in newborns. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952052/, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807376/)
  • In women who are HIV positive, prenatal consumption of AZT is useful for reducing the risk that the unborn fetus will contract HIV. Research done at the WaNPRC IPRL demonstrated that the effects of AZT on maternal reproduction and infant development were minimal and at the doses studied, no significant adverse health effects from prenatal exposure to AZT were predicted for pregnant women. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23873400, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8301525)
  • A goal of Yerkes National Primate Research Center (YNPRC) infectious disease researchers is to identify the sources of the latent HIV reservoir so targeted cure strategies can be developed. A first step is to develop a novel model of SIV infection and cART treatment of nonhuman primate (NHP) infants to interrogate the SIV reservoir. The development of such a model will greatly facilitate future studies of SIV reservoirs and the design and testing of novel reservoir-directed therapeutic strategies before scaling to clinical trials in HIV-infected patients.
  • YNPRC infectious disease researchers found the percentage of CD4+CCR5+ T cells was significantly lower in all tissues in infant sooty mangabeys (SMs) as compared to infant rhesus macaques (RMs) despite robust levels of CD4+ T cell proliferation in both species. The researchers propose that limited availability of SIV target cells in infant SMs represents a key evolutionary adaptation to reduce the risk of mother-to-infant transmission (MTIT) in SIV-infected SMs. The researchers are applying their findings toward reducing the more than 300,000 cases diagnosed in children each year. (http://www.plospathogens.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.ppat.1003958)

Huntington’s Disease

  • YNPRC researchers have successfully created a transgenic, preclinical animal model of Huntington’s disease (HD). These animals, when followed from infancy to adulthood, show progressive motor and cognitive associated with neural changes similar with the disease patterns seen in humans. Not having such a model has been a major roadblock to developing effective therapies for the disease.
    (http//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18488016; http//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24581271)

Lung Development and Function

  • CNPRC research discovered a link between an infant’s temperament and asthma– research is leading towards the screening, prediction and prevention of lung disease in children. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21536834)
  • Research at the CNPRC has shown that exposure to high levels of fine particle pollution (e.g. wildfire smoke) adversely affects both development of the immune system and lung function(http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/long-term-impact-of-air-pollutants/)
  • Childhood asthma research by the CNPRC focuses on understanding why children are highly susceptible to asthma, with the goal of identifying predictive biomarkers and discovering preventive treatments. These studies use a novel rhesus monkey model of house dust mite sensitization to investigate the pathogenesis of allergic asthma in pediatric and adult asthma. The goal is to define the relationship between pediatric asthma, development of mucosal immunity in the respiratory system, and exposure to the house dust mite allergen. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21819959)
  • Eliot Spindel at the ONPRC has shown that large doses of Vitamin C can protect developing lungs from the damage caused when mothers smoke. This work has been duplicated in clinical trials. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15709053)

Kidney Disease, Organ Transplants, Lupus

  • WNPRC scientists and surgeons at UW Hospital successfully tested a new compound, mycophenolate mofetil, in combination with other drugs in monkeys and other animals, and then in human patients in the 1990s. Their work has saved the lives of patients needing kidney or other organ transplants. These new therapies have also kept patients with chronic kidney diseases, including lupus nephritis, which strikes many children and teens, from needing transplants. (Hans Sollinger, Folkert Belzer, Stuart Knechtle, others.) (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8680054, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9706169, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8821838

Memory Impairment

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Puberty Disorders

Prenatal and Mental health

  • Studies at the WaNPRC IPRL have provided important and therapeutically relevant information on the fetal risk associated with maternal exposure to antiseizure medication in infants born to women who have epilepsy (Phillips & Lockard, 1985, 1993). (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23873400)
  • Human and animal studies at the SNPRC revealed that the intrauterine environment can predispose offspring to disease in later life. Mark Nijland showed that maternal obesity can program offspring for cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and obesity. This study revealed significant changes in cardiac miRNA expression (known to be affected in human cardiovascular disease) and developmental disorders in the fetuses of obese baboons. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23922128)
  • Studies in the WaNPRC IPRL have demonstrated that prenatal exposure to relatively high levels of ethanol (alcohol) was associated with significant changes in the structure of the fetal brain. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23873400)
  • Recent findings from nonhuman primates studied by Ned Kalin at the WNPRC suggest that an overactive core circuit in the brain, and its interaction with other specialized circuits, accounts for the variability in symptoms shown by patients with severe anxiety. The ability to identify brain mechanisms underlying the risk during childhood for developing anxiety and depression is critical for establishing novel early-life interventions aimed at preventing the chronic and debilitating outcomes associated with these common illnesses. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23538303, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23071305)
  • Developmental studies with nonhuman primates at the YNPRC have revealed that neonatal dysfunction of the amygdala, a key brain structure, has long-lasting effects on the typical development of brain circuits that regulate behavioral and neuroendocrine stress, resulting in long-term hyperactivity.  These findings may provide clues on the neural source of HPA axis dysregulation found in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and affective disorders.  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23159012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24986273, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25143624)

Preterm Birth and Neonatal Outcomes

  • Current research at the ONPRC incorporates studies directed at understanding the mechanisms of parturition, with emphasis on therapeutic interventions for preterm labor associated with reproductive tract infections and the prevention of subsequent adverse neonatal outcomes. Intra-amniotic infection by genital Ureaplasma species is a predominant cause of early preterm birth. Preterm infants often have life-long health complications including chronic lung injury, often leading to asthma and neurodevelopmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Research by ONPRC’s Dr. Grigsby has shown that administration of a specific macrolide antibiotic delays preterm birth and reduces the severity of fetal lung injury and most importantly central nervous system injury. Recently Dr. Grigsby has expanded the infant care facilities at the ONPRC with the addition of a specialized intensive care nursery (SCN); this has enabled new research initiatives to expand beyond the maternal-fetal environment to a critical translation point between prenatal and postnatal life. This one-of-a-kind nursery has the look and feel of a human neonatal intensive care unit and supports the cardiopulmonary, (including mechanical ventilation), thermoregulatory, and nutritional needs of prematurely born infants. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23111115, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179112)

Regenerative Medicine

  • Studies at the CNPRC have advanced the understanding of developmental timelines in the kidney, and applied these findings to new protocols and tissue engineering approaches to someday regenerate kidneys damaged by obstructive disease. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23997038)

Stem Cells and Gene Therapy:

  • The first pluripotent stem cell derived clinical trials to treat childhood blindness are now underway, using stem cell technologies discovered using monkeys first, then humans, by WNPRC scientist James Thomson in the 1990s-2000s. (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=juvenile+macular+degeneration+stem+cell&Search=Search, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18029452, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9804556, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7544005
  • To successfully treat human disease with stem cells, physicians will require safe, reliable, and reproducible measures of engraftment and function of the donor cells. Innovative studies at the CNPRC have revolutionized the ability to monitor stem/progenitor cell transplant efficiency in fetal and infant monkeys, and have used new noninvasive imaging techniques that demonstrated long-term engraftment and safety. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24098579)
  • Studies at the CNPRC have proven critical in gaining approval for investigational new drug (IND) applications to the FDA and conducting first-in-human trials of (1) an expressed siRNA in a lentiviral vector for AIDS/lymphoma patients,, and (2) achieving the overall goal of utilizing adeno-associated virus (AAV) expression of human acid alpha-glucosidase in 3 to 14-year-old Pompe patients who have developed ventilator dependence.

Tuberculosis and HIV

  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the causative agent of human tuberculosis (TB) with an estimated 8.8 million new TB cases and 1.4 million deaths annually. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in AIDS patients worldwide but very little is known about early TB infection or TB/HIV co-infection in infants. SNPRC scientist Marie-Claire Gauduin and colleagues have successfully established an aerosol newborn/infant model in nonhuman primates (NHPs) that mimics clinical and bacteriological characteristics of Mtb infection as seen in human newborns/infants. Aerosol versus intra broncho-alveolar Mtb infection was studied. After infection, specific lesions and cellular responses correlated with early Mtb lesions seen on thoracic radiographs were observed. This model will also allow the establishment of a TB coinfection model of pediatric AIDS. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388650)


Nobel Prizewinner John O’Keefe warns of threat to science from overly restrictive animal research and immigration rules

In an interview with the BBC yesterday 2014 Nobel laureate  John O Keefe has warned of the dangers posed by regulations that restrict animal research and the free movement of scientists across borders.

“It is an incontrovertible fact that if we want to make progress in basic areas of medicine and biology we are going to have to use animals.

“There is a worry that the whole regulatory system might begin to be too difficult, it might be constrictive.”

Professof John O'Keefe, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology. Image: David Bishop, UCL.

Professof John O’Keefe, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology. Image: David Bishop, UCL.

His concerns are well founded. Our post yesterday discussed the key role of recordings of single neuron activity in rats to the discoveries made by John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. The post also discusses two other advances made through basic research in animals whose impact in medicine has been recognized by awards, deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease, and infant massage in preterm babies. Nevertheless in many countries around the world there is increasing pressure from animal rights groups on politicians to restrict, and even ban, animal research. Scientists have a key role to play in ensuring that important basic and translational research, and we welcome John O’Keefe’s statement,  it’s an example that scientists around the world should follow.

The issue of immigration is another important one for science, and John O’Keefe knows this better than most. Born in New York, he completed his PhD at the University on Montreal under the supervision of renowned Psychologist Ronald Melzack, before moving to the UK to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship, and credits the research environment in the UK and at UCL for giving him the opportunity to make his discoveries, and later May-Britt and Edvard Moser spent time as postdoctoral researchers at his laboratory.  For science to flourish scientists must be free to travel to centres of excellence in other countries, to learn skills and establish collaborations that are key to success in many fields of research in the 21st century. This freedom is under threat from narrow-minded isolationism in many countries, for example earlier this year Switzerland found its position as a leading scientific nation undermined by a new immigration law that threatens its ability to recruit talented scientists from abroad, and has disrupted its participation in a key EU research programmes.

John O’Keefe’s warning is a reminder that the threats to scientific research can come from many directions, and of the need for supporters of science to be ready to take action to defend the freedoms on which science is built.

Speaking of Research