Tag Archives: animal testing

Pregnancy Kits to Ebola Treatment: Medical Tests & Disease Treatments Depend on Animal Products

Antibodies Part 1

There has been considerable discussion on this website about the use of animal studies to develop new medical treatments. But some animal-derived products such as antibodies also play a crucial role in diagnostic tests for some diseases and targeted treatments for others. In the last week, antibodies hit the front pages of newspapers and websites with the news that the ZMapp serum given to 2 Americans aid workers stricken with the deadly Ebola virus was a cocktail of antibodies. Developed through research in mice, the two components of this experimental serum – ZMab and  MB-003 – had only previously been tried in monkeys, but the results were very promising. As of this writing, both aid workers’ conditions had improved.

Mice played a critical role in developing the antibodies used to treat aid workers with Ebola. Tweet this!

Antibodies are proteins the immune system produces to identify and neutralize foreign objects such as bacteria and viruses. Antibodies “recognize” specific proteins, a property that makes them highly useful for a variety of purposes. For instance, antibodies can be used in diagnostic tests to determine whether a protein associated with a particular disease or medical condition is present in a patient’s blood, urine, saliva, or tissues. The home pregnancy test is an example of a diagnostic test that relies on antibodies. These tests detect the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, a protein that is only present during pregnancy.  Many other medical tests also utilize antibodies; a few examples are:

  1. Tests to look for heart proteins in the blood such as troponin that indicate that a heart attack has occurred.
  2. Tests for the presence of the HIV (AIDS) virus in the blood.
  3. Tests for proteins present in the blood of patients with Lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.

A diagram showing the characteristic Y shape of an antibody molecule. It is able to grab two of its target molecules with the ends of the two arms of the Y.

Antibodies can also be used to treat disease. Certain antibodies can neutralize toxins such as snake venom.  Other antibodies are coupled to a toxin or other chemical, such that it is delivered only to cells carrying the protein that antibody recognizes.  For example, some cancer cells generate unique proteins so antibody-coupled drugs can be used to deliver a toxic agent to the cancer cells without harming other cells in the body. Antibody therapies have been effective in treating a number of types of cancer, including Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, some forms of skin cancer, and some forms of breast cancer. Now we learn that antibodies may also be effective in treating Ebola.

Unique cell surface proteins on a cancer cell, which can be detected using antibodies.

Unique cell surface proteins on a cancer cell, which can be detected using antibodies.

There are two types of antibodies used for medical diagnostics and treatments: polyclonal antibodies and monoclonal antibodies. Both require animals in their production.

Polyclonal antibodies are produced by injecting the protein of interest (or part of it, called an antigen) into an animal.   Since this is a foreign substance, the animal’s immune system reacts to it by generating antibodies to fight off the intruder. Later, samples of the animal’s blood are removed and the antibodies isolated. Larger animals such as sheep, goats, and rabbits are often used for antibody production because they have enough blood in their bodies that large blood samples can be removed without harming them. Antibodies generated using this method are called “polyclonal,” because they came from many different immune cells known as B cells or B-lymphocytes.

Process for producing polyclonal antibodies

Process for producing polyclonal antibodies

To produce monoclonal antibodies, an animal (often a mouse) is injected with the partial protein or antigen of interest. Antibody-producing cells are later isolated from the animal, often from its spleen. Fast-growing but harmless tumor cells are cultivated in the lab and fused with the isolated antibody-producing cells. This produces a new cell type called a hybridoma that can be grown in the lab. Once it is confirmed that the hybridomas are generating antibodies against the right antigen, these hybrid cells can serve as factories to grow large numbers of pure monoclonal antibodies in the lab.

From: FASEB’s Breakthroughs in Bioscience Series.  Used by permission.

Monoclonal antibody production process

Alice Ra’anan and Bill Yates

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

harlow plaque jpeg (2)

The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over 30 years ago. Harlow’s iconic studies of mother and infant monkeys have endured for decades as the centerpiece of philosophical debate and animal rights campaigns.  With news of his death, philosophers worried that they would now need to turn their attention to new questions, learn about current research, and address persistent, urgent needs in public consideration of scientific research and medical progress. Scientists and advocates for a more serious contemporary public dialogue were relieved and immediately offered their assistance to help others get up to speed on current research.

To close the chapter, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin provided the following 40 year retrospective on Harlow’s work and its long-term impact (see below).

Internet reaction to the scientists’ offering was swift, fierce, and predictable.

“We will never allow Harlow to die,” said one leading philosopher, “The fact is that Harlow did studies that are controversial and we intend to continue making that fact known until science grinds to a halt and scientists admit that we should be in charge of all the laboratories and decisions about experiments. It is clear to us that we need far more talk and far less action. Research is complicated and unpredictable–all that messiness just needs to get cleaned up before research should be undertaken.”

Animal rights activists agreed, saying:

“For many decades Harlow and his monkeys have been our go-to graphics for protest signs, internet sites, and articles. It would simply be outrageously expensive and really hard to replace those now. Furthermore, Harlow’s name recognition and iconic monkey pictures are invaluable, irreplaceable, and stand by themselves. It would be a crime to confuse the picture with propaganda and gobbledygook from extremist eggheads who delusionally believe that science and animal research has changed anything.”

Others decried what they viewed as inappropriate humorous responses to the belated shock at Harlow’s passing.

“It is clear to us that scientists are truly diabolical bastards who think torturing animals is funny. Scientists shouldn’t be allowed to joke. What’s next? Telling people who suffer from disease that they should just exercise and quit eating cheeseburgers?” said a representative from a group fighting for legislation to outlaw food choice and ban healthcare for non-vegans and those with genetic predispositions for various diseases.

A journalist reporting on the controversial discovery of Harlow’s death was overheard grumbling, “But what will new generations of reporters write about? Anyway, the new research is pretty much the same as the old research, minus all the complicated biology, chemistry, and genetic stuff, so it may as well be Harlow himself doing it.”

A fringe group of philosophers derisively called the “Ivory Tower Outcasts” for their work aimed at cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues made a terse statement via a pseudonymous social media site.

“We told you so. Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought+action (ps- trolley software needs upgrade, man at switch quit)”

Harlow himself remained silent. For the most part, his papers, groundbreaking discoveries, and long-lasting impact on understanding people and animals remained undisturbed by the new controversy.

Statement from Psychologists:

Harlow’s career spanned 40+ years and produced breakthroughs in understanding learning, memory, cognition and behavior in monkeys1 (see Figure 1). In a time period where other animals were generally thought of as dumb machines, Harlow’s work demonstrated the opposite — that monkeys, like humans, have complex cognitive abilities and emotional attachments. Harlow and his colleagues developed now classic ways to measure cognition2,3. For example, the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA; see Figure 1), in which monkeys uncover food beneath different types of colored toys and objects, allowed scientists to understand how monkeys learn new things, remember, and discriminate between different colors, shapes, quantities, and patterns.

The discoveries of Harlow and his colleagues in the 1930s and forward provided the foundation not only for changes in how people view other animals, but also for understanding how the brain works, how it develops, and –ultimately–how to better care for people and other animals.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In the last decade of his long career, Harlow, his wife Margaret– a developmental psychologist, and their colleagues, again rocked the scientific world with a discovery that fundamentally changed our biological understanding.3 Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.

For a brief time at the very end of his career, Harlow performed a small number of studies that have served as the touchstone for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others interested in whether and how animal research should be done. The most controversial of the studies are known by their colloquial name “pit of despair” and were aimed at creating an animal model of depression. In this work, fewer than 20 monkeys were placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of 6 weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.

At the time, the late 1960s, the presence of brain chemicals had recently been identified as potentially critical players in behavior and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. New understanding and treatment of the diseases was desperately needed to address the suffering of millions of people. Available treatments were crude. They included permanent institutionalization– often in abject conditions, lobotomy (removing part of the brain), malaria, insulin, or electric shock therapies. As some scientists worked to uncover the role of brain chemicals in behavior and mood, others worked to produce drugs that could alter those chemical networks to relieve their negative effects. In both cases, animal models based on similar brain chemistry and biology were needed in order to test whether new treatments were safe and effective. It was within this context that Harlow and his colleagues in psychiatry studied, in small numbers, monkeys who exhibited depressive-like behaviors.

By the 1970s and over the next decades, scientists produced medications that effectively treat diseases like schizophrenia and depression for many people. The therapies are not perfect and do not work for everyone, which is why research continues to identify additional and new treatments. Regardless, there is no question that the suffering of millions of people has been reduced, and continues to be alleviated, as a result of new medications and new understanding of the biological basis of disease.

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

Looking back while moving forward

Nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to imagine the time before MRI and neuroimaging and before the many effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other diseases. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine a time in which people believed that genes and biology were destiny, that other animals were automatons, or that mothers were only important because they provided food to their children. Casting an eye back to the treatment of monkeys, children, and vulnerable human populations in medical and scientific research 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, is difficult as well. Standards for ethical consideration, protections for human and animal participants in research, and the perspectives of scientists, philosophers, and the public have all continued to change as knowledge grows. Yet, what has not changed is an enduring tension between the public’s desire for progress in understanding the world and in reducing disease and the very fact that the science required to make that progress involves difficult choices.

There are no guarantees that a specific scientific research project will succeed in producing the discoveries it seeks. Nor is there a way to know in advance how far-ranging the effect of those discoveries may be, or how they may serve as the necessary foundation for work far distant. In the case of Harlow’s work, the discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding of how the brain, genes, and experiences affect people’s health and well-being.

Mother and infant swing final

Mother and juvenile rhesus macaque at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents








In the 30 years since Harlow’s death, new technologies and new discoveries—including brain imaging (MRI, PET), knowledge about epigenetics (how genes are turned on and off), and pharmacotherapies—have been made, refined, and put into use in contemporary science. As a result, scientists today can answer questions that Harlow could not. They continue to do so not because the world has remained unchanged, or because they lack ethics and compassion, but because they see the urgent need posed by suffering and the possibility of addressing global health problems via scientific research.

Harlow’s legacy is a complicated one, but one worth considering beyond a simple single image because it is a legacy of knowledge that illustrates exactly how science continues to move forward from understanding built in the past. An accurate view of how science works, what it has achieved, what can and cannot be done, are all at the heart of a serious consideration of the consequences of choices about what scientific research should be done and how. Harlow and his studies may well be a touchstone to start and continue that dialogue. But it should then be one that also includes the full range of the work, its context and complexity, rather than just the easy cartoon evoked to draw the crowd and then loom with no new words.

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

The author is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The views and ideas expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

Suomi SJ & Leroy, HA (1982) In Memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905-1982). American Journal of Primatology 2:319-342. (Note: contains a complete bibliography of Harlow’s published work.)

2Harlow HF & Bromer J (1938). A test-apparatus for monkeys. Psychological Record 2:434-436.

3Harlow HF (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review 56:51-65

4Harlow HF (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.

Tweet for Science!

We have written thousands of tweets about animal research since we opened our accounts a little over five years ago. Now we want you to help us spread our Twitter messages.

We have created a list of short, tweet-able, facts on our new “Arguments For Animal Research” page. Each fact is followed by a “Tweet This” button which will automatically open your Twitter status page, with the tweet ready to go – all you have to do is press Tweet.

Clicking the Tweet this button will bring in up page like this

Clicking the Tweet this button will bring in up page like this

These short facts were inspired by Understanding Animal Research’s successful page entitled “40 reasons why we need animals for research”. While our list is currently limited to 29 facts, we hope to continue to add to our list until we surpass even UAR’s impressive list.

Have you got ideas for some more tweetable facts? Tell us in the comments below. They need to be 102 characters (including spaces) so that we can fit a link back to the page and our Twitter after it.

Remember to shout "For Science!" when clicking the Tweet this button. Cartoon by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Remember to shout “For Science!” when clicking the Tweet this button. Cartoon by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal


So, for science, it is time to get tweeting and make sure those around you know the important role that animals play in medical research. Perhaps try to post a pro-research message each week on Twitter.

Speaking of Research

Top marks for Speaking of Research website

The industry magazine Lab Animal occasionally reviews websites applicable to it’s readers. Earlier this year, they reviewed the Speaking of Research website. The article does a good job of relaying the history behind how Speaking of Research began and some background on the people involved. They also note that SR does a lot of reporting on situations with animal extremists in Europe and North America.

The reviewer goes through each section of the website giving their readership the basic idea behind each of the sections and points out a few of the more interesting items beyond just news items, including games, quizzes and an article on Gorgon aliens.

In reviewing our “AR Undone” section (now called “Animal Rights Pseudoscience”), which responds to 19 common myths used by animal rights groups, the reviewer described SR’s responses as “authoritative, heavily references and, in some cases, linked to other websites and documents.”

“This is an excellent, informative site … It’s a must read for any animal researcher.”

The Speaking of Research website is then graded on content, appearance and usability, receiving the maximum of five out of five paws in each category.

Speaking of Research website rating

Read the full article

We are very pleased to have received such high marks from Lab Animal and truly appreciate the review.


Kicking off a new era for neuroprosthetics, or just the warm-up?

Tonight, if everything goes according to plan, a young person will stand up in front of a global audience numbering in the hundreds of millions, walk a few paces, and kick a football.  This by itself may not seem remarkable, after all this is the opening ceremony of the World Cup, but for the Miguel Nicolelis and the more than 100 scientists on the Walk Again project – and the millions watching from around the world – this will mark the triumph of hope and dedication against adversity, for the young person in question is paraplegic.

Image: Miguel Nicolelis

Image: Miguel Nicolelis

The exoskeleton that is being used in this demonstration is a formidable technological achievement, collecting nerve signals from non-invasive EEG electrodes placed on the scalp of the operator, and converts these into commands for the exoskeleton, while sensors on the operators feet detect when they make contact with the ground and send a signal to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt. This feedback, which has never been incorporated into an exoskeleton before, allows the operator to control the motion of the exoskeleton more precisely. While this is not the first EEG controlled exoskeleton to be tested by paraplegic individuals, videos released by the Walk Again suggest that it has allows for far quicker and more fluent movement than existing models.


A late substitution

What many viewers may not know is that the use of EEG (Electroencephalography) was not part of Miguel Nicolelis’ original plan, as late as spring 2013 he was planning to use an alternative technology, implanted microelectrode grids within the cerebral cortex of the operator. Unfortunately about a year ago it became clear that the implant technology he was developing would not be ready for use in humans in time to meet the deadline of the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so the team had to fall back on the more established technique of EEG.

Is this an issue? Well, to understand this you first have to know a little about the two approaches.

EEG is a very mature technology. Its development dates back to 1875 when Richard Caton observed electrical impulses on the surface of the brains of rabbits and monkeys. In 1912 Vladimir Pravdich-Neminsky published the first EEG in dogs, and in 1924 the first EEG in human subjects was recorded by Hans Berger. It has the advantage that it doesn’t require surgery, but also serious disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that it records the combined signals from millions of neurons across wide areas of the cortex simultaneously, and this makes it difficult to separate out the signal from the noise. By contrast microclectrode implants record the individual signals from just a few neurons.

A common analogy is that EEG records the sound made by the whole orchestra, whereas microelectrode implants record individual instruments.  The result is that EEG can only be used to give relatively simple commands “move leg forward” “back” “stop” “kick” and requires a great deal of concentration by the operator. It is unlikely that the performance cam be improved upon very much. By contrast the microelectrode implants, while requiring invasive surgery, have the potential to enable much finer control over movement.

A pioneer of brain implant technology

There is no doubt that for over a decade Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering have been among a very select group of scientists at the forefront of brain implant research, demonstrating that implanted electrodes could be used to control a simple robotic arm in rats in 1999 and in monkeys in 2000 (1). In 2012 Nicolelis highlighted the importance of animal studies to progress in the field in an article for Scientific American:

The project builds on nearly two decades of pioneering work on brain-machine interfaces at Duke—research that itself grew out of studies dating back to the 1960s, when scientists first attempted to tap into animal brains to see if a neural signal could be fed into a computer and thereby prompt a command to initiate motion in a mechanical device. Back in 1990 and throughout the first decade of this century, my Duke colleagues and I pioneered a method through which the brains of both rats and monkeys could be implanted with hundreds of hair-thin and flexible sensors, known as microwires. Over the past two decades we have shown that, once implanted, the flexible electrical prongs can detect minute electrical signals, or action potentials, generated by hundreds of individual neurons distributed throughout the animals’ frontal and parietal cortices—the regions that define a vast brain circuit responsible for the generation of voluntary movements.”

In 2008 the Duke University team showed that microelectrode arrays implanted in the cortex could be used record the neuron activity that controls the actions of leg muscles (2), and that this could be used to control the movements of robotic legs.

It was this that spurred Nicolelis to try to develop a mind-controlled exoskeleton that would be demonstrated at the World Cup opening ceremony.

Brain Machine Interfaces – from monkeys to humans.

So, if brain implant technology to control an exoskeleton wasn’t ready for 2014, when will it be ready?

The answer is probably very soon, as this approach has already been demonstrated successfully in humans.

In 2008 we discussed how Andy Schwartz and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh had succeeded in developing a brain-machine interface system where microelectrode arrays implanted in the motor cortex of macaque monkeys allowed them to control the movement of a robotic arm with a degree of dexterity that surprised even the scientists conducting the study.

Then in 2012 we reported that Jan Scheuermann, quadraplegic for over a decade due to a spinal  degenerative disease, was able to feed herself with the help of two intracortical microelectrode arrays developed by the University of Pittsburgh team.


What happens now?

Tonight’s demonstration will mark the culmination of an extraordinary year-long effort by scientists and patients, but it also marks the public debut of a revolution in brain machine interface technology that has been gathering pace over the past decade, largely unnoticed by the mass media.

Miguel Nicolelis has come in for some heavy criticism for the cost of the Walk Again project, and for raising hopes too high, but the criticism is largely unfair. His team set themselves an extraordinarily ambitions target, and that they have fallen a little short is understandable. Once they have recovered from their exertions they will no doubt set to integrating the exoskeleton technology that they have developed with the implant technology that they are developing back in the lab at Duke University.

And that technology is increasingly impressive, more advanced implant systems that allow monkeys to simultaneously control two virtual arms, microelectrode arrays that allow signals from almost 2,000 individual neurons to be recorded simultaneously (3) (in contrast the already very capable BrainGate implant system used by the University of Pittsburgh team records from less than 100 individual neurons) potentially allowing for much more subtle and delicate control, and interfaces that will allow sensory information from prosthetics to be transmitted directly into the brain. We will certainly be hearing from Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues at Duke – and their colleagues and competitors around the world – again very soon.

So tonight, as you watch the opening ceremony, remember this; for Brain Machine Interface technology as much as for the World Cup itself, this is just the warm up!

Paul Browne

p.s. And of course BMI controlled robotic exoskeletons are just one promising technology under development to help paralysed people, stem cell therapy, epidural stimulation and intraspinal microstimulation have all delivered impressive results in recent studies.

1) Wessberg J, Stambaugh CR, Kralik JD, Beck PD, Laubach M, Chapin JK, Kim J, Biggs SJ, Srinivasan MA, Nicolelis MA. “Real-time prediction of hand trajectory by ensembles of cortical neurons in primates.” Nature. 2000 Nov 16;408(6810):361-5.

2) Fitzsimmons NA, Lebedev MA, Peikon ID, Nicolelis MA. “Extracting kinematic parameters for monkey bipedal walking from cortical neuronal ensemble activity.” Front Integr Neurosci. 2009 Mar 9;3:3. doi: 10.3389/neuro.07.003.2009. eCollection 2009.

3) Schwarz DA, Lebedev MA, Hanson TL, Dimitrov DF, Lehew G, Meloy J, Rajangam S, Subramanian V, Ifft PJ, Li Z, Ramakrishnan A, Tate A, Zhuang KZ, Nicolelis MA.”Chronic, wireless recordings of large-scale brain activity in freely moving rhesus monkeys.” Nat Methods. 2014 Jun;11(6):670-6. doi: 10.1038/nmeth.2936.

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Speaking of Research Leaflet

When Speaking of Research first started we had a wonderful leaflet which was produced for us by Americans for Medical Progress. In the following six years, Speaking of Research has changed and evolved and as such we have been long overdue for a new leaflet, which we can now unveil.

Download PDF here, or click pictures below.

Speaking of Research is a voluntary organization which relies on your support. We are always looking for new people to get involved in explaining the role of animals in research, and it’s up to you to help us find those people.

Speaking of Research Leaflet Page 1

Speaking of Research Leaflet Page 2

Speaking of Research continues to grow, with website traffic likely to double this year, and the information on the website continually updated.

Check out our Speaking of Your Research campaign to get more people discussing their own research.

Speaking of Research

Lies, misrepresentation, cherry picking quotes: PeTA’s tactics to garner support against animal research

This post by Dr. Kausik Datta, a biomedical researcher in immunology, was originally posted on his SciLogs blog, In Scientio Veritas. In it he looks at some of the scientific quotes used by PETA to defend their position, and finds that all of them have been taken out of context to misrepresent the position of the original researcher.

I work with immunology of infectious disease and study host-pathogen response. My work has naturally involved a good amount of animal experimentation, especially mouse models of various infections. These mouse models are incredibly useful, because they offer a valuable window into the process of infection, pathogenesis (‘disease production’), and the kind of immune response a vertebrate mammal generates to the infection. The same broad reasoning applies to rodent models of various metabolic and endocrine diseases, as well as cancer. These models are attractive because most often these research animals are genetically homogenous, and therefore, provide a less complex (and more manageable) environment to study the genesis, as well as treatments, of a disease – while mimicking much of the same physiological responses seen in larger and more complex animals.

Ironically, the lower complexity has also been the main argument against over-reliance on animal research. Not all the results seen in the animal models directly translate to human beings, who are physiologically and genetically more diverse and complex. But regardless of immediate translatability of observations, these results always offer crucial and pertinent clues about the disease process, and therefore, are seen as valuable stepping-stones for the journey towards bringing cures to both humans and animals alike. (Yes, an oft-forgotten aspect of animal research is that the results benefit animals, too.)

For example, studies in the lowly fruit-fly (Drosophila) revealed a protein called Toll which is essential for the fly’s immunity to fungal infections. And lo and behold! Various vertebrates (humans and other animals) as well as invertebrates were found to have a collection of very similar proteins, called Toll-like receptors, which are engaged in protecting the body against various infections. Another example is that of the Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), a close cousin of HIV; SIV does not affect humans, but depending upon the species, it does cause a disease (simian AIDS, or SAIDS) that is very similar to AIDS in the humans, and chimpanzees in the wild have died from SAIDS. Not only has SIV provided important indications as to how HIV may work, vaccine research against SIV has been able to generate a successful treatment for infected Rhesus monkeys. At the same time, studies in Bonobos are on to find out how they seem to be impervious to SIV’s effects.

These advances would not have come without animal experimentation. This is important to understand. Yes, we don’t yet have a successful vaccine against HIV, but then, HIV has unique characteristics which allow it to evade immunity, hide and survive in the body. The clues obtained from animal as well as human research will continue to provide directions for humankind’s fight to eradicate this dreaded scourge.

The mindlessly agenda-driven organizations like PeTA know this. That’s why, in order to peddle their anti-science, anti-research agenda, they take recourse to outright lies, misrepresentations of the research and people who are engaged therein, as well as using quotes from well-known people in a way that appears to suggest their consonance with the PeTA agenda. However, there is an important aspect to it; credit where due, PeTA has long understood, and successfully exploited, the power of visual imagery. As with their celebrity endorsements across many countries, not to mention their objectification of women, PeTA continues to create visual campaigns – ‘memes’ – for television, internet, as well as billboards, projecting the same lies and misrepresentations, and playing fast-and-loose with the truth, in order to propagate their agenda.

And they have been immensely successful, because these memes, regardless of their lack of veracity, don’t die. PeTA takes care to put images – as gruesome as they can find, and those which would seem horrifying when seen in absence of any context – with their anti-science, anti-research memes, and those images stick with people. As a result, well-intentioned but gullible folks keep foolishly spreading those memes, and now with the power of social media, they reach far and wide, wreaking immeasurable havoc with the public understanding of science and the need for animal experimentation, and making the researchers the villains of these pieces.

One appeared on my Facebook feed this morning. This one is from a 2013 PeTA blog post, purportedly providing “8 reasons why animal testing doesn’t help humans”. In line with PeTA’s usual memes, it has distress-inducing images of cute animals being experimented upon. The images are accompanied by a slew of quotes from “esteemed scientists, government officials, and doctors” (a veritable paean to the Argument from Authority fallacy), which appear to bolster PeTA’s position on animal experimentation; however, as you will see, not all are what they seem at the first glance.

animal testing vivisection PETA

I shall spare you the gruesome images, dear reader; if you must look at them, you can click on the above-mentioned link to the PeTA blog post and see for yourself. I have, instead, chosen to use the text of the specific quotes that PeTA presented on those images, and made the effort to hunt down the sources (because, of course, PeTA doesn’t provide references) of those quotes. What I discovered was most revealing, and I present them below.

“Traditional animal testing is expensive, time-consuming, uses a lot of animals and from a scientific perspective the results do not necessarily translate to humans.” — Dr. Christopher P. Austin, director of NIH Chemical Genomics Center.

EXCEPT that this quote – found in a 2008 report in The Telegraph UK – was intended EXCLUSIVELY for the context of toxicological testing. Austin also said, “It’s a bold, ambitious thing to try to do but our goal is to eliminate animal use in toxicology in ten years” — a laudable goal in itself. He was speaking in terms of a high-throughput screening system involving various animal cell-types, in which the toxicity studies could be done for thousands of chemical substances at one go. The availability of this technology is a great achievement, but it is important to remember that this can be done because the measurable outcomes of toxicity studies, especially toxic effects on a given cell, are reasonably straightforward, as well as local, and don’t require the use of a whole animal, unless the effects of the toxicity are more global and complicated in nature. These animal-free screens can be employed gainfully to test toxicities of environmental toxins, as well as personal care products.

You can read and hear Dr. Austin’s own words in this description of a collaborative governmental effort to move toxicity studies to an animal-free system, while recognizing the tremendously valuable contribution that animal testing has made towards identifying many toxins dangerous to human and animal health.

It is also important to understand that this particular technology is a result of the constant effort by scientists under the guiding principles of 3Rs – reduction, refinement, replacement – for animal-based research. In situations such as ordinary toxicity studies, where the technology allows us not use animals but get meaningful results, we should absolutely, wholeheartedly adopt them. This has long been the stance of animal-researchers, which is something PeTA deliberately chooses to ignore and obfuscate.

“The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades and it simply didn’t work in humans.” — Dr. Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 1998 Los Angeles Times feature – was meant as a comment on the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, whenever researchers published (and the media jumped upon) some study looking at the potential for some chemical substances, including those isolated from natural substances (such as garlic), to modulate the changes in cells that lead to cancer. PeTA’s use of this quote deliberately obscures the fact that many such substances are primarily tried upon static cells in cultures (something that PeTA favors as an ‘animal alternative’ method), where either they don’t show adequate effects, or their effects cannot be translated to complex organisms because of many different factors.

Tumorigenesis is complex process involving many cells in a given environment, and it is often not possible to mimic that environment appropriately in an ex vivo, animal-free, cell-based system. Positive results found in animal experiments in cancer are not the be all, end all in themselves. But they provide the scientific basis based on which human experiments and trials for new therapeutic modalities can be conceived; they engender hope. It is downright cruel of organizations like PeTA to attempt to take that important aspect from cancer patients.

“Prevention [of polio] was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.” — Dr. Albert Sabin, developer of the oral polio vaccine.

EXCEPT that this single phrase by Dr. Sabin – said in 1984 during a Congressional testimony and used by organizations like PeTA to signify his opposition to the use of animals in research – did not at all represent his complete position in this regard. In a letter written in 1992, Dr. Sabin stated unequivocally:

“… 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.”

Do read more about Dr. Sabin’s and others’ lifelong association with animal research for finding cures for dreaded diseases that afflict both humans and animals in this 2011 post in the Speaking of Research blog.

“Mice are mice, and people are people. If we look to the mouse to model every aspect of the disease for man, and to model cures, we are just wasting our time.” — Dr. Clif Barry, chief Tuberculosis Research section, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 2011 Slate feature – has been modified by PeTA to omit the first part. The COMPLETE quote said, “The truth is that for some questions, mice give you a very nice and easy model system for understanding what’s happening in humans, but mice are mice, and people are people. If we look to the mouse to model every aspect of the disease for man, and to model cures, we’re just wasting our time.“.

The duplicity of PeTA in cherry-picking quotes apparent to you, yet?

The feature article does mention the background for this comment by Dr. Clifton Barry: the form of tuberculosis that mice get is different from the form humans get, and that is because of differences inherent in their respective immune systems. While this has restricted the efficacy of some tuberculosis studies in a rodent model, there is no doubt that this knowledge of differences in immune system was important to have, because it provided valuable clues to the differences in the disease process between mice and humans. The same article provides an instance where the indications from the mouse studies were crucial in figuring out why a specific immune-treatment failed spectacularly in human beings.

Most scientists who work with animal models are not blind to their shortcomings, which is a reason why tuberculosis research, for example, has progressed from rodents to primates to zebra-fish. Animal models can help answer specific questions, and each such answer contributes to the overall understanding of a disease, its progression, as well as its treatment. Research in nine-banded armadillos showed that aside from humans, these animals are the only natural hosts of the leprosy bacteria, which are difficult to grow in in vitro culture; the knowledge gained during his work with isolating leprosy bacteria DNA from armadillos allowed the legendary tuberculosis researcher Bill Jacobs to transport the same techniques to the study of the tuberculosis bacteria, and make a fluorescent TB bug which glows under the microscope, allowing researchers to immediately see if a drug is effective on the bug or not.

“Currently, nine out of ten experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies.” — Michael O. Leavitt, former secretary for the US department of Health and Human Services.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 2006 FDA Press Announcement – pertained to a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CONTEXT; the second part of the quote, which PeTA obscured, said, “The recommendations announced today will help more researchers conduct earlier, more-informed studies of promising treatments so patients have more rapid access to safer and more effective drugs.

In this announcement, FDA was offering specific approaches for performing appropriate safety-testing with small amounts of investigational new drugs in people, which would improve and hasten the process of getting safe and effective drugs to people. This was not a commentary on the pre-clinical testing – both in vitro and animal studies – that must be done in order to show efficacy before taking the drug to the next higher level, for testing in human subjects. This announcement also pertained particularly to serious and life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders, for which there was (and still is) an extreme demand with non-commensurate supply, and the traditional timeline from drug-design to marketing, along with the existing regulatory requirements, was considered too long and burdensome to provide benefit to the patients.

I hope you can understand, dear reader, how knowing the context changes the import of these quotes, cherry-picked by PeTA with deliberate dishonesty. Why they do this? I have no clue. For a better understanding how the presentation of facts outside of their contexts can skew the readers’ perception of the idea surrounding those facts, do read this 2013 post in the Speaking of Research blog.

“[Researchers] are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget that we’re trying to cure humans.” — Dr. Ronald W. Davis, Stanford University.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a New York Times highlight of a study published in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA – doesn’t provide the context, which pertained exclusively to the study of sepsis. It also doesn’t indicate that this crucial study comparing human and animal models, of which Dr. Davis was a lead author, was the first to figure out that mice used different groups of genes to deal with acute conditions such as burns, trauma and sepsis, whereas humans use a similar genes for all three. While this work highlighted the need to use human cells in order to study human sepsis, the condition and its treatment, in no way does it diminish the importance of the discovery that mice use different genes for these conditions, and that there is a difference between mice and human subjects in this regard.

“Patients have been too patient with basic research. Most of our best people work in lab animals. Not people. But this has not resulted in cures or even significantly helped most patients.” — Dr. Ralph Steinman, Immunologist at Rockefeller University.

EXCEPT that Dr. Steinman made this comment in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CONTEXT. In 2002, Steinman wrote in the journal Cerebrum about the crucial need for training more physician-scientists, scientists who are trained as physicians, and are able to bring that perspective to scientific and clinical research; the lack of such physician-scientists, he considered, was the reason why there was a failure to “maintain a crucial transmission belt between basic research and clinical applications” and why “potential benefits [of basic research] for treating serious illnesses [were] taking too long to reach patients”, even if the basic research, with animal experimentation, has been immensely productive. In absence of properly-trained physician-scientists, he wrote, “We risk being able to treat models of diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer, and depression in rats and mice, but not having enough scientists, expertise, or funding to test much of this critical work on humans in a timely fashion”.

Giving examples of his own research from more than two decades ago, Steinman described how animal experiments helped him identify an important component of cellular immunity in the body. He lamented that this knowledge needed to be applied appropriately in human populations, in order to further our understanding of the immune process and diseases, in order to accomplish which more physician-scientists were needed.

Puts quite a different perspective, doesn’t it, on that Steinman quote, cherry-picked by PeTA and placed out of context to further their own anti-science agenda?

“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. We all drank the kool-aid on that one, me included. The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem… We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” — Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health.

EXCEPT that this quote – gleaned from Dr. Zerhouni’s 2013 lecture at the NIH – is, again, NOT the complete quote, which is (from the link):

We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse — which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped — researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem… We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” — Note how the complete quote mentions the specific context of the ability of performing genetic manipulation relatively easily in mice, which in his opinion has led the researchers to rely over-much on animal model data?

Without a doubt, there is an important lesson to learn and remember. The relative ease of working with animal models and the ability to answer specific, directed questions with these models have sometimes swayed some researchers away from the bigger picture, the ultimate goal of delivering a cure to the patients who need them. However, it is basic science research, utilizing the animal models precisely for those reasons, which makes the seminal contributions to the understanding of disease mechanisms; animal models are necessary, and they complement well the knowledge gained from other, equally necessary, non-animal based models as appropriate, such as cell-culture, computer simulations, and the ultimate test, human trials. When asked to clarify his remarks, Dr. Zerhouni said as much; he wrote:

“I understand that some have interpreted these comments to mean that I think that animals are no longer necessary in medical research. This is certainly not what I meant. In fact, animal models and other surrogates of human disease are necessary — but not sufficient — for the successful development of new treatments. In short, animal models remain essential to the basic research that seeks to understand the complexities of disease mechanism.”

Do read the whole response from Dr. Zerhouni and the relevant discussion regarding animal experimentation in this 2014 post in the Speaking of Research blog. Not the kind of nuance you’d find in a PeTA screed, is it?

I have earlier written about this opposition of animal research from PeTA, and how such mindless opposition actively harms the cause of biomedical research that benefits both people and animals. If PeTA and their ilk did indeed have solid arguments to present in support of their position, why all these lies, misrepresentations, subterfuge, cloak-and-dagger stage-show? In view of this, I must again ask, who really benefits from this stance of PeTA, if not PeTA’s coffers?

Dr. Kausik Datta

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.