Tag Archives: animal testing

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.

Background Briefing on Animal Research in Canada

In February we announced the publication of our US Background Briefing on animal research. Today we are publishing our Canadian counterpart briefing. We hope this will offer journalists, editors and broadcasters who may need to discuss this issue, a handy overview of the facts. Our two-page summary provides key information including the number of animals used for research purposes, the laws and regulations surrounding animal research, and some key questions people have.

Download the Background Briefing on Animal Research in Canada

As with our previous briefing, we encourage those working in universities, pharmaceuticals, and other research institutions, to help share this document when contacting or responding to journalists about research stories relating to their institution. By attaching this background briefing to proactive stories, or reactive statements, it can help ensure that your research is understood within the context of the wider research environment.

Animal Research Canada

We permit anyone to redistribute this briefing providing it remain unchanged, and in whole, with credit to Speaking of Research.

We would like to produce more of these for different countries in the future, to add to our American and Canadian briefings. Those wishing to see a similar briefing for the UK should consult the Science Media Centre’s “Briefing Notes on the Use of Animals in Research”. We thank the Science Media Centre for offering their support in producing our briefings.

Speaking of Research

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.

Pictures in need of accurate words: University of Florida animal photos

Pictures of a cat spay clinic misrepresented as a laboratory horror shop circulated the internet recently to support appeals to “end animal testing.” Speaking of Research wrote about it here “Fact into fiction: Why context matters with animal images,” noting the importance of understanding the facts and context for photographs.

This picture was used to misrepresent animal research

This picture was used to misrepresent animal research

In the cat spay clinic case, the photos were from a newspaper article. We have written previously about images of laboratory animals that have made their way to the internet via leaks, undercover operations, and open records release. In all cases, several points remain true. Images are powerful. Providing accurate information about the images is important. It is also true that there are important differences between the sources and ways that images are obtained. Those obtained via infiltrations and undercover operations may be from manipulated situations, or  small fractions of hours of recording, in both cases providing a deliberately misrepresentative view. Photos obtained from institutions via open records release can also be used to misrepresent laboratory animals’ care and treatment and can be the centerpiece in “shock” campaigns. Their value is obvious from even a quick survey of high profile attacks on research, as we’ve written about previously (here, here, here). As in the case of the spay clinic images, conflating veterinary and clinical care with scientific research is also common and further serves to confuse the issues.

Can the laboratory animal research community do a better job of providing context for images of animals?  Yes.

Knowing what the images show and why matters, particularly to people who would like to engage in serious and thoughtful consideration to inform their point of view and judgments. In absence of context and facts, the audience is left without key knowledge and an opportunity to educate is missed. Yet all too often the opportunity is missed and the images remain in public view without comment or context from those who could provide a better understanding of what the photographs show.

In reviewing laboratory animal photographs that appear on animal rights sites, it is obvious that there are generally two types: those from activities directly related to the scientific project and those related to veterinary care or housing and husbandry. In terms of providing context and information, the two differ with respect to their source and which personnel may best explain the content of the photographs.

What does the image depictSome images may be of actual scientific research activities. These may be of animals engaging in an activity directly related to the science question under study. For example, the images may illustrate how animals perform a cognitive or memory task, how they navigate a maze, or how a particular measurement is obtained. The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics website provides an example of this, with description and photographs of rhesus monkeys and cognitive neuroscience research. Another type of image directly related to the scientific project may be of a surgery or procedure. An example of this is found in pictures of a surgery involved in cat sound localization research (photos here, video here). In each case, it is not particularly challenging to provide additional information and context because the activities are typically also explained in the protocols, grants, and scientific papers about the study.

Images of clinical veterinary care, husbandry, and housing appear frequently in activist campaigns and public view. For example, pictures of routine physical examinations, health tests, unexpected injuries unrelated to scientific procedures, or photos of animals in their normal housing, have all appeared via various sources. Many times– perhaps more often than not– the activity depicted in the images would not be obvious to a lay audience because it remains unexplained.

A common image – tuberculosis skin test

One of the best examples of misunderstood images is found in pictures of an anesthetized macaque monkey with a needle injecting something in its eyelid. The picture circulates the internet with various captions opposing “animal testing.”   What does this picture show?

tb imageIt is a skin test, commonly used in human and nonhuman primates, for early detection of tuberculosis. A small amount of tuberculin (non-harmful) is injected just under the skin. In almost all cases, the primate does not have tuberculosis and the skin remains normal. If the primate—human or not—does have a reaction to the test, indicated by redness and some swelling, it provides evidence of possible tuberculosis infection. That person, or monkey, then receives additional testing and preventive measures for treatment and to avoid infecting and harming others.

Tuberculosis testing is routinely performed as a health procedure in humans who work in hospitals, schools, with children and with others who may be vulnerable. In settings where nonhuman primates are housed, tuberculosis testing is often routinely performed with all human personnel and with the other animals. Why? Because tuberculosis is a rare disease, but one that can be a threat to the animals’ health and thus, precautions are necessary to ensure their health. The difference between human and monkey tb testing is that for humans, the injection is given without pain relief or anesthesia, via a needle inserted into the forearm.

Aside from the momentary discomfort of the injection, the test is painless and without irritating after-effects. In monkeys, the injection is typically given while the animal is anesthetized and is placed just under the skin of the upper eyelid. Why the difference? It is a simple reason—the key to the test is looking for redness or slight swelling. In monkeys, the forearm is fur-covered and it would be very difficult to detect a reaction in an unobtrusive way.

University of Florida monkey pictures

Not surprisingly, the monkey tb test photo is one that seems to appear in an ongoing campaign against the University of Florida. In response to several years of attacks on their animal research programs, public universities in Florida are pursuing new action to shield personal information about their personnel from public disclosure.   We’ve written previously about an ongoing campaign of violent threats, harassment, and protest by local activists (here, here, here).

In parallel to other campaigns, photographs are a centerpiece of the current attacks on animal research. As reported by Beatrice Dupuy in the Independent Alligator:

“Disturbing pictures of primates being examined by researchers are featured on the organization’s website along with posters with quotes like “stop the holocaust inside UF, free the monkeys.” After a three year lawsuit, the organization, formerly named Negotiation is Over, obtained UF’s public veterinary records last April. The researchers named in public records were the first ones to be targeted by animal rights activists, said Janine Sikes, a UF spokeswoman.”

What are these “disturbing pictures of primates being examined by researchers”?

The photographs <warning: link to AR site> are of macaque monkeys that appear to be receiving routine veterinary care or are simply in fairly standard housing. While the activists claim these photos are evidence of maltreatment at the hands of researchers, they likely are mostly of routine veterinary procedures. For example, two appear to be of an anesthetized macaque monkey receiving a tattoo, another two of an anesthetized monkey receiving a tuberculosis test, while others show the reddened skin that rhesus macaques exhibit normally in the wild and captivity. One photo depicts what looks like a stillborn infant macaque. Without context or confirmation, it isn’t surprising that the photographs can be interpreted in many ways.

UF’s spokesperson says: “The university wants to be very open and honest about its research,” … “It wants to stop these personal attacks against our researchers.”

One place to begin is to provide straightforward and accurate context for the images of laboratory animals that have been released. While those with experience in laboratory care of nonhuman primates can view the images and be reasonably certain that they are mostly of clinical veterinary care, it is only the UF veterinary, animal care program, and scientific personnel that can provide accurate information. Other universities have done exactly that when faced with the same situation. In “An Open Letter to the Laboratory Animal Veterinary Community and Research Institution Administration”   we wrote:

“While scientists can address questions about the scientific side of animal research, we need the laboratory animal care and veterinary staff to provide their expertise in service of addressing public questions about clinical care and husbandry.  If they do not, it will be no surprise if the public view of animal research is disproportionately colored by the relatively rare adverse events and the misrepresentations of animal rights activists. Many believe that it is possible—and perhaps acceptable—to ignore this part of reality in order to focus on more immediate demands for time, energy, and resources. Consider, however, that a fundamental part of the AWA, accreditation, regulation, and professional obligation is actually to ensure communication with the public that supports animal research.  Thus, it is our entire community who share a primary obligation to engage in the dialogue that surrounds us.”

We have consistently condemned the extremists who have targeted UF scientists and others with outrageous harassment. Tactics designed to elicit fear and terror do not have a place in democratic society and do nothing to promote fair and civil dialogue about complex issues.

At the same time, we believe and have written often, that the scientific and laboratory animal community, including scientists, veterinarians, and institutional officials should consider that better education and explanation are key to building public dialogue and understanding of research. Furthermore, as highlighted in this case and others, releasing photographs, records, and other materials without providing context serves no one well. Providing straightforward explanation of the veterinary practices, housing, husbandry, and care of laboratory animals not only gives context to photographs, but also should not be that hard to do.

Allyson J. Bennett

More information and resources:

Raising the bar: What makes an effective public response in the face of animal rights campaigns:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2013/02/20/raising-the-bar-what-makes-an-effective-public-response-in-the-face-of-animal-rights-campaigns/

Time for a change in strategies? http://speakingofresearch.com/2013/06/24/time-for-a-change/

A detailed response to a PETA video accusing a primate lab of mistreatment:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2008/07/04/peta-out-with-the-new-in-with-the-old/

Speaking of Research media briefing (pdf):  Background Briefing on Animal Research in the US

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.

Background Briefing on Animal Research

Having a full understanding of all the issues surrounding animal research can be a challenge for even science-specialist journalists, let alone general journalists, editors and broadcasters who have to handle many unrelated issues each and every day. Speaking of Research have produced a two-page summary of the key information which general news producers, journalists, presenters and editors, can use to quickly inform themselves about this issue.

Download the Background Briefing on Animal Research in the US

We encourage those working in universities, pharmaceuticals, and other research institutions, to help share this document when contacting or responding to journalists about research stories relating to their institution. By attaching this background briefing to proactive stories, or reactive statements, it can help ensure that your research is understood within the context of the wider research environment.

Media briefing on animal testing

We permit anyone to redistribute this briefing unchanged, and in whole, with credit to Speaking of Research.

We would like to produce more of these for different countries in the future. However, those wishing to see a similar briefing for the UK should consult the Science Media Centre’s “Briefing Notes on the Use of Animals in Research”. We thank the Science Media Centre for offering their support in producing this briefing.

Speaking of Research

Conversation Starter? PETA’s Bus Ads on University of Wisconsin Hearing Research

As predicted, PETA’s ongoing campaign against scientific research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continues, escalating this week with a striking advertisement on 100 Metro buses. The ad calls for an end to UW research aimed at better understanding how the brain processes sound. A central question is how sound arriving at both ears is combined to allow us to determine the direction of its source with respect to our body. Sound localization ability allows us, for example, to quickly react to an approaching car that we might not have seen. In turn, this kind of basic understanding has provided the knowledge necessary to help people with hearing disorders and to guide the way for cochlear implants. It is the work of a highly respected scientist, Professor Tom Yin, whose discoveries and research have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for decades. His research is publicly funded because the scientific leadership of our country determined that the work is important to serve the public’s interest in advancing scientific understanding and public health. Furthermore, and contrary to PETA’s claims, the  cats are healthy and treated humanely, in accord with federal regulation, as demonstrated by the public reporting of thorough oversight by multiple federal agencies.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The ads that PETA is running on the buses don’t mention that.  What they do instead is show a picture of a cat, a participant in the research and the phrase “I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments.”

The picture is one PETA obtained from an open records request. Video of the research, many pictures, and interviews of the scientists whose research is targeted can be found here. The PeTA ads also don’t mention that both the US Department of Agriculture and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare investigated PeTA’s complaints and cleared Prof. Yin and UW of any wrongdoing.

We have written previously (here, here, here) in detail about PETA’s sustained efforts to use the federal regulatory system to end the UW’s sound localization research. We’ve also written about their other approaches to generate public and media attention – ranging from celebrity protests at the UW Board of Regents meeting to Bill Maher robocalls to an MMA fighting game where players are encouraged in violence (and sending emails to NIH opposing UW’s research).

Through all of this, PETA has made their position quite clear. Their goal is to end animal research regardless of the consequences for human and animal health, regardless of public interests.

While PETA’s campaigns are marketed as concern about animal welfare, even a superficial analysis quickly shows that it is not their central mission. After all, this is the same group with an abysmal record of killing the cats and dogs in their care.  Furthermore, it seems unlikely that PETA’s investment in various campaigns is proportional to the number of animals involved in different uses. Only a tiny fraction of animals are used in research, in contrast to the vast majority in food, clothing, entertainment, service, and companionship. Yet animal research remains a major investment for PETA campaigns.

What PETA is aiming for when it targets animal research, particularly when it invests so much effort and so many resources to shut down a program involving only a dozen animals is political and obvious. They have selected a target that they believe will capture public emotion and sentiment in a way that serves a broader political goal that otherwise would be difficult to raise public attention and support.

In all of these campaigns, PETA is banking on a couple of expectations. First, that the public will not take the time to learn more about the research. Second, that the scientific, medical, advocacy, and patient groups will decline to engage or counter PETA’s outrageous claims. If, and when, those expectations are no longer met, PETA will lose its power to detract from a serious, civil and public consideration of science, medicine, and animal research.

For that reason, we believe that it is a critical responsibility of our community to continue to provide clear, factual, and responsive engagement to the public—regardless of how silly or wrong PETA’s tactics appear.

In the case of the Madison Metro bus ad campaign, we encourage the public and journalists who are interested in learning about the science– why it is conducted, the discoveries of the scientific team, the clinical applications, and the treatment of the animals—to take the time to learn more. The scientist and the University of Wisconsin have written extensively about the work. They have placed videos, photographs, interviews, papers, and point-by-point responses to PETA’s allegations in public view (more here). In fact, the scientist targeted by PETA for several years has provided a lab tour and interview to a local journalist.

Representatives of the university administration and animal research program have also consistently engaged with the media in a way that goes far beyond boilerplate responses and the university has hosted public discussions that have included contributions from both scientists and animal rights activists. At the time when PETA first made their allegations 65 of Prof. Yin’s colleagues even backed an Op-Ed piece written for the local newspaper. In other words – and no surprise –there is more to the story than a bus shrink-wrapped with a PETA billboard.  UW-Madison has made that clear time and again, with consistent and sustained effort to provide the public with clear, factual information and to engage when questions are asked.  More than that though, they also have a strong track record and commitment to science education and outreach in a great many venues.

While it is tempting to dismiss PETA’s tactics, it is worth public consideration that there is a sure long-term harm of acting on PETA’s commands without understanding the consequences to public interests, public health and the science that serves all of us. The scientific, academic, advocacy, patient, and other communities, on the other hand, know the value of the work that Prof. Yin and his colleagues are doing and can view this latest campaign as yet another time to speak up for the research.

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.