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Truvada prevents HIV infection in high-risk individuals! A clinical success built on animal research

In the past two weeks we’ve learned of a major advance in ongoing efforts to halt the spread of  HIV, two separate clinical studies have reported that a daily regimen of a pill called Truvada as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is highly effective in preventing infection in high risk groups. This success is a result not just of the dedication of the clinicians who conducted these trials, but also of a series of pivotal studies conducted in non-human primates more than a decade ago that laid the scientific foundations for them.

In the first study of more than 600 high-risk individuals conducted at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, which was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, researchers found that Truvada – a combination of the anti-viral drugs tenofovir and emtricitabine – was 100% effective in preventing infection.  In the 2nd  study, called the PROUD study and published online this week in the Lancet, of more than 500 high-risk men undertaken in 13 sexual health clinics in England Truvada reduced infections by 86%.

Truvada prevents HIV transmission in high-risk individuals. Image: AFP / Kerry Sheridan

Truvada prevents HIV transmission in high-risk individuals. Image: AFP / Kerry Sheridan

These results have been greeted with enthusiasm in media reports, with headlines such as “Aids vanquished: A costly new pill promises to prevent HIV infection” , “A pill designed to prevent HIV is working even better than people thought” and  “Truvada Protected 100 Percent Of Study Participants From HIV: This is exciting!”. It’s worth noting that these are not the only trials to show the potential for Truvada to block HIV infection, earlier trials in Kenya, Uganda and Botswana also showed that it could substantially reduce infection rates, including in heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV positive and the other was not. There has been some concern that those taking Truvada would be less likely to take other safe sex measures – such as using condoms – but the results of the PROUD study showed no difference in acquisition of other sexually transmitted infections between those who started Truvada treatment immediately and those who delayed for 1 year, suggesting that they did not engage in riskier behavior as a consequence of taking Truvada.

Thanks to a multi-pronged approach to preventing HIV infection, combining barrier methods such as condoms,  Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) to lower viral load in infected individuals, and the use of antiviral medications to prevent mother-to-child transmission, the spread of HIV infection has slowed dramatically in many regions of the world, and pre-exposure prophylaxis with Truvada certainly has the potential to help reduce it further.

As we applaud the researchers who conducted these first real-world evaluations of Tenofovir in high-risk populations, it is also a good opportunity to remember the researchers whose work led us to this point. One of those pioneers is Dr. Koen Van Rompay, a virologist at the University of California at Davis who played a key role in the early development of Tenofovir and  its evaluation in pre- and post- exposure phophylaxis in macaque models of HIV infection. In 2009 Dr Van Rompay wrote an article for Speaking of Research explaining how important animal research was to the early development of such HIV prophylaxis regimes, and how important it continues to be as scientists develop ever better treatments, which we share again today:

Contributions of nonhuman primate studies to the use of HIV drugs to prevent infection – Koen van Rompay

Since the early days of the HIV pandemic, as soon as it was clear that an effective HIV vaccine would still be years away, there has been considerable interest in using anti-HIV drugs to reduce the risk of infection following exposure to HIV (so-called prophylaxis). Animal models of HIV infection, especially the rhesus macaque, have played a major role in developing and testing these treatments.

The development of HIV drugs to treat HIV-infected persons has shown that many compounds that are effective in vitro (i.e., in tissue culture assays) fail to hold their promise when tested in humans, because of unfavorable pharmacokinetics, toxicity or insufficient antiviral efficacy. The same principles apply to the development of drugs to prevent HIV infection. The outcome of drug administration is determined by many complex interactions in vivo between the virus, the antiviral drug(s) and the host; with current knowledge, these interactions cannot be mimicked and predicted sufficiently by in vitro studies or computer models.

Testing different compounds in human clinical trials is logistically difficult, time-consuming and expensive, so only a very limited number of candidates can be explored in a given time. Fortunately, the development of antiviral strategies can be accelerated by efficient and predictive animal models capable of screening and selecting the most promising compounds. No animal model is perfect and each model has its limitations, but the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) of macaques is currently considered the best animal model for HIV infection because of the many similarities of the host, the virus and the disease. Non-human primates are phylogenetically the closest to humans, and have similar immunology and physiology (including drug metabolism, placenta formation, fetal and infant development). In addition, SIV, a virus closely related to HIV-1, can infect macaques and causes a disease that resembles HIV infection and AIDS in humans, and the same markers are used to monitor the disease course. For these reasons, SIV infection of macaques has become an important animal model to test antiviral drugs to prevent or treat infection.

Studies in rhesus macaques first indicated that Tenofovir could block HIV infection. Photo: Understanding Animal Research

Studies in rhesus macaques first indicated that Tenofovir could block HIV infection. Photo: Understanding Animal Research

Different nonhuman primate models have been developed based on the selection of the macaque species, the particular SIV strain and the inoculation route (e.g. IV injection, vaginal exposure) used (reviewed in (33)). These models have been improved and refined during the past two decades. For example, SIV-HIV chimeric viruses have been engineered to contain portions of HIV-1, such as the enzyme reverse transcriptase (“RT-SHIV”) that the virus requires in order to multiply or the envelope protein (“env-SHIV”) that the virus needs if it is to escape from a cell and infect other cells, to allow these models to also test drugs that are specific for HIV-1 reverse transcriptase or envelope (28, 35).

Many studies in non-human primates have investigated whether the administration of anti-HIV drugs prior to or just after exposure to virus can prevent infection. The earliest studies indicated that drugs such as the reverse transcriptase inhibitor zidovudine (AZT), the first approved drug treatment for HIV, were not very effective in preventing infection, but a likely reason for this was the combination of a high-dose viral inoculums used, the direct intravenous route of virus inoculation, and the relative weak potency of drugs at that time (2, 4, 13, 19, 20, 36). The proof-of-concept that HIV drugs can prevent infection was demonstrated in 1992 when a 6-weeks zidovudine regimen, started 2 hours before an intravenous low-dose virus inoculation that more accurately represented HIV infection in humans, protected infant macaques against infection (29). These results were predictive of a subsequent clinical trial (Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Group Protocol 076), which demonstrated that zidovudine administration to HIV-infected pregnant women beginning at 14 to 34 weeks of gestation, and continuing to their newborns during the first 6 weeks of life reduced the rate of viral transmission by two-thirds (10).

Since then, a growing number of studies have been performed in macaques to identify more effective and simpler prophylactic drug regimens. These studies generally used lower virus doses, sometimes combined with a mucosal route of virus inoculation that mimics vaginal or anal exposure responsible for the majority of human HIV infections. These studies demonstrated that administration of some newer anti-HIV drugs, including the reverse transcriptase inhibitors adefovir (PMEA), tenofovir (PMPA), and emtricitabine (FTC) that prevent the virus from multiplying in the infected cell, and the CCR5 inhibitor CMPD167 that stops the virus from binding the CCR5 receptor on the cell surface and entering a cell in the first place, starting prior to, or at the time of virus inoculation, was able to prevent infection, though with varying success rates (3, 4, 16, 24, 25, 31, 34, 35). Only very few compounds such as the reverse transcriptase inhibitors tenofovir, BEA-005 and GW420867, and the CCR5 inhibitor CMPD167, were able to reduce infection rates when treatment was started after virus inoculation. For those drugs that were successful in post-exposure prophylaxis studies, a combination of the timing and duration of drug administration was found to determine the success rate, because a delay in the start, a shorter duration, or interruption of the treatment regimen all reduced the prophylactic efficacy (5, 11, 21, 22, 26, 27, 31) , information that has guided the design of subsequent clinical trials.

While some of the compounds such as GW420867 that showed prophylactic efficacy in the macaque model are no longer in clinical development (e.g., due to toxicity or pharmacokinetic problems discovered later in pre-clinical testing), the very promising results achieved with tenofovir have sparked further studies aimed at simplifying the prophylactic regimen. Several studies in infant and adult macaques have demonstrated that short or intermittent regimens of tenofovir (with or without coadministration of emtricitabine) consisting of one dose before and one dose after each virus inoculation were highly effective in reducing SIV infection rates (15, 30, 32).

The demonstration at the beginning of the 1990’s that anti-HIV drugs can prevent infection in macaques has provided the rationale to administer these compounds to humans to reduce the likelihood of infection in several clinical settings. Antiviral drugs are now recommended, usually as a combination of several drugs, to reduce the risk of HIV infection after occupational exposure (e.g., needle-stick accidents of health care workers) and non-occupational exposure (e.g. sex or injection-drug use) (6, 7). As mentioned previously, drug regimens containing zidovudine and more recently also more potent drugs such as nevirapine have proven to be highly effective in reducing the rate of mother-to-infant transmission of HIV, including in developing countries (10, 14, 17), and save many thousands of lives every year . Because the short nevirapine regimen that is given to pregnant HIV-infected women at the onset of labor frequently induces drug resistance mutations in the mother that may compromise future treatment (12), tenofovir’s high prophylactic success in the infant macaque model has sparked clinical trials in which a short tenofovir-containing regimen was added to existing perinatal drug regimens to reduce the occurrence of resistance mutations and/or further lower the transmission rate (8, 9, 18, 30, 32).

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1, colored green, budding from a cultured lymphocyte. Photo: C. Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1, colored green, budding from a cultured lymphocyte. Photo: C. Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus

Because an efficacious HIV vaccine has so far not been identified, the concept of using pre-exposure prophylaxis also as a possible HIV prevention strategy in adults has gained rapid momentum in recent years. The promising prophylactic data of tenofovir (with or without emtricitabine) in the macaque model (23, 32, 35, 37) combined with the favorable pharmacokinetics, safety profile, drug resistance pattern and therapeutic efficacy of these drugs in HIV-infected people, have pushed these compounds into front-runner position in ongoing clinical trials that investigate whether uninfected adults who engage in high-risk behavior will have a lower infection rate by taking a once daily tablet of tenofovir or tenofovir plus emtricitabine. The results of these ongoing trials are highly anticipated. An overview of the design, status and challenges of these trials which are currently underway at several international sites and target different high-risk populations can be found on the website of the AIDS Vaccine Advicacy Coalition (1, 23).

In conclusion, nonhuman primate models of HIV infection have played an important role in guiding the development of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis strategies. Ongoing comparison of results obtained in these models with those observed in human studies will allow further validation and refinement of these animal models so they can continue to provide a solid foundation to advance our scientific knowledge and to guide clinical trials.

Koen van Rompay DVM Ph.D. is a research virologist at the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis.

Cited literature
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16. Grob, P. M., Y. Cao, E. Muchmore, D. D. Ho, S. Norris, J. W. Pav, C.-K. Shih, and J. Adams. 1997. Prophylaxis against HIV-1 infection in chimpanzees by nevirapine, a nonnucleoside inhibitor of reverse transcriptase. Nature Med. 3:665-670.
17. Guay, L. A., P. Musoke, T. Fleming, D. Bagenda, M. Allen, C. Nakabiito, J. Sherman, P. Bakaki, C. Ducar, M. Deseyve, L. Emel, M. Mirochnick, M. G. Fowler, L. Mofenson, P. Miotti, K. Dransfield, D. Bray, F. Mmiro, and J. B. Jackson. 1999. Intrapartum and neonatal single-dose nevirapine compared with zidovudine for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1 in Kampala, Uganda: HIVNET 012 randomized trial. Lancet 354:795-802.
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28. Uberla, K., C. Stahl-Hennig, D. Böttiger, K. Mätz-Rensing, F. J. Kaup, J. Li, W. A. Haseltine, B. Fleckenstein, G. Hunsmann, B. Öberg, and J. Sodroski. 1995. Animal model for the therapy of acquired immunodefiency syndrome with reverse transcriptase inhibitors. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 92:8210-8214.
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30. Van Rompay, K. K. A., C. J. Berardi, N. L. Aguirre, N. Bischofberger, P. S. Lietman, N. C. Pedersen, and M. L. Marthas. 1998. Two doses of PMPA protect newborn macaques against oral simian immunodeficiency virus infection. AIDS 12:F79-F83.
31. Van Rompay, K. K. A., M. L. Marthas, J. D. Lifson, C. J. Berardi, G. M. Vasquez, E. Agatep, Z. A. Dehqanzada, K. C. Cundy, N. Bischofberger, and N. C. Pedersen. 1998. Administration of 9-[2-(phosphonomethoxy)propyl]adenine (PMPA) for prevention of perinatal simian immunodeficiency virus infection in rhesus macaques. AIDS Res. Hum. Retroviruses 14:761-773.
32. Van Rompay, K. K. A., M. B. McChesney, N. L. Aguirre, K. A. Schmidt, N. Bischofberger, and M. L. Marthas. 2001. Two low doses of tenofovir protect newborn macaques against oral simian immunodeficiency virus infection. J. Infect. Dis. 184:429-438.
33. Van Rompay, K. K. A. 2005. Antiretroviral drug studies in non-human primates: a valid animal model for innovative drug efficacy and pathogenesis studies. AIDS Reviews 7:67-83.
34. Van Rompay, K. K. A., B. P. Kearney, J. J. Sexton, R. Colón, J. R. Lawson, E. J. Blackwood, W. A. Lee, N. Bischofberger, and M. L. Marthas. 2006. Evaluation of oral tenofovir disoproxyl fumarate and topical tenofovir GS-7340 to protect infant macaques against repeated oral challenges with virulent simian immunodeficiency virus. J. Acquir. Immune Defic. Syndr. 43:6-14.
35. Veazey, R. S., M. S. Springer, P. A. Marx, J. Dufour, P. J. Klasse, and J. P. Moore. 2005. Protection of macaques from vaginal SHIV challenge by an orally delivered CCR5 inhibitor. Nat Med.
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Animal research openness in action – from Cambridge to Florida

Last week we published an article calling on all involved in animal research to speak up for science as animal rights activists held their annual World Week for Animals in Laboratories (WWAIL), writing:

This year, if your university or facility is among those that attract attention during WWAIL, we ask that you join in the conversation by providing protestors, public, and media your own voice.  Whether it is via banners, websites, or talking with reporters– speak up for science and for public interests in advancing scientific understanding and medical progress. Although it may not matter to those committed to an absolutist agenda, it can matter to those who are interested in building a dialogue based in fact and serious consideration of the complex issues that surround public interests in the future of science, health, and medicine.”

The past few days have seen several great examples of just the sort of engagement with the public that we had in mind, including videos form two top universities in the UK that take viewers inside their animal research facilities.

The first comes from the University of Cambridge, who have published a video entitled “Fighting cancer: Animal research at Cambridge”, which focuses on how animals used in research are cared for and how the University implements the principles of the 3Rs. It includes interviews with Professor Gerard Evans of the Department of Biochemistry, who uses mice in studies of lung and pancreatic cancers, and Dr Meritxell Hutch of the Gurdon Institute, who has developed 3D liver cell culture models that she uses to reduce the number of mice required for her studies of tissue repair and regeneration, as well as with members of staff as they care for the animals.

The second example is another video, this time from Imperial College London, which also show how research staff care for the animals used in research, and features an interview with Professor of Rheumatology Matthew Pickering, who studies the role of complement proteins in liver damage in mice.

For the third example we cross the Atlantic to South Florida, where animal rights activists are trying to close down several facilities in Hendry County  that are breeding monkeys for medical research, a service that is hugely important to biomedical research. One of the companies being targeted by the animal rights campaigns is Primate Products, so we were delighted to see Dr. Jeff Rowell, a veterinarian and President of Primate Products, speak up about the vital work they do in an interview with journalist Amy Williams of local news outlet News-Press.com.

Primate products

During the interview Dr. Rowell discusses how the work of Primate Products is misrepresented by dishonest animal rights campaigns, including the inaccurate and malicious allegations made by the group Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) in 2010. As we discussed in a post at the time, these allegations were based on the deliberate misrepresentation of photos taken during veterinary care of injuries several macaques received in fighting with other macaques when housed in social groups (a normal though infrequent behaviour in the species in the wild and in captivity).

The News-Press.com article also shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve openness in animal research, as the three other companies that are breeding monkeys for research in Hendry County refused to speak with the Amy Williams, a shame considering that it was their decision to base themselves in the county that triggered the current animal rights campaign. While they are justifiably nervous of speaking with the press (some journalists and publications are arguably beyond redemption) the truth is that the “No comment” approach works for no-one apart from those who oppose animal research. In speaking at length with Amy Williams, Jeff Rowell has provided an excellent example that his colleagues in Hendry County would do well to follow.

The initiatives we have seen from the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and Primate Products over the past few days are extremely welcome, and we applaud them for their efforts. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that the future of medical science will never really be secure until they are the norm rather than the exception.

Before we conclude, it’s worth noting that it’s not just in the US and UK that researchers are beginning to realise the importance of openness in animal research to counter misleading antivivisectionist propaganda. In Italy Prof. Roberto Caminiti, a leading neurophysiologist at the University La Sapienza in Rome whose work is currently being targeted by animal rights activists, was interviewed recently for an excellent video produced by Pro-Test Italia, in which he discusses his primate research and how it is regulated.

Speaking of Research

American Society of Primatologists’ statement of support for NIH primate research

The nation’s largest primatological scientific society, the American Society of Primalogists (ASP), has posted a strong statement sent January 21 in support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.  The statement can be found on ASP’s website: https://www.asp.org/index.cfm

ASP home page Jan 2015

In its entirety, the letter reads:

“Members of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Primatologists would like to add our comments to the discussion of the validity and effectiveness of non-human primate research as it pertains to human behavior and medicine. Non-human primate research (on monkeys and apes) has had widespread effect on improving the diagnosis and treatment of many adult and childhood diseases. Studies that have employed the judicious use of non-human primates as models for human illness have improved our understanding of such disorders as autism, childhood leukemia, cerebral palsy, and mental health.1 The long-term research of one scientist, Dr. Stephen Suomi, has been called into question as a result of inaccurate, misguided and inflammatory media accounts. Our comments will address Dr. Suomi’s work and the value of non-human primates in understanding human biology, illness and behavior.

Dr. Suomi’s research has focused on the influence of variable environments and genetics on infant development, and by extension variation in adult behavior2. He and his colleagues found that early changes in the degree of attachment between mother and infant have real biological, not only behavioral influences on adult social behavior3. If this finding seems intuitive, it is evidence that the benefits of research have permeated not only the scientific, but also mainstream media4 and literature. Infant subjects are either mother-reared or reared in same-aged groups of monkeys. Infants may undergo temporary isolation during the study5 to facilitate comparison among groups that are reared differently. The goal of much of this research is to mimic separation that every social animal, including humans, undergo during their lifetimes and to understand why individuals respond differently to separation. One such research focus is the development of risk factors leading to mental illness in humans.

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

Before research can begin, proposals are thoroughly vetted by both their institutional ethical oversight board (in the United States these are called Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees or IACUCs) and by the review boards of granting agencies (e.g., NIH, NIMH, NSF). This very extensive process requires prospective researchers to respond to questions such as those raised in your letter, e.g., your concern about redundant research. Per both the Animal Welfare Act and Regulations (AWARs) and the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy), research funded by federal and state governments, as well as private foundations, must demonstrate that the project they propose will advance knowledge in the field, be relevant to human biology or behavior, and will not duplicate the efforts of previous research. The number of animals used in experiments must also be justified as well as the conditions in which the animals are housed, the duration of the project, and the protocols implemented during experiments. The scientists employed by the NIH have been leaders in the development of safe, effective, and reliable research protocols whether the research is done on mice or monkeys.

Because of the close genetic relationship between humans and non-human primates, monkeys are important models for studying particular biological phenomena, including the research conduct by Dr. Suomi. Nevertheless, non-human primates are rare in laboratory populations making up < 1% of the laboratory animals used in research (Government statistics from 2010, cited in Phillips et al., 20146). Furthermore, species are carefully matched to proposed studies.

We appreciate your attention to this matter, and ask that you please send us a response letting us know the charge to the NIH Bioethics Review Board.

Respectfully submitted,
Marilyn A. Norconk, President; Justin A. McNulty, Executive Secretary; Kimberley A. Phillips,  President-Elect; Corinna N. Ross, Treasurer; Karen L. Bales, Past-President


Supporting science: NIH answers PETA

The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:

“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:

  “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2For more about the research, the laboratory, and the animals, see:

NIH’s Response to PETA

NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.

The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).

Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914

nih statement 01.28.15

Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.

As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.

PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)

As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.

By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and  in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’  own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.

In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving  animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institutions under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, absence of non-animal alternatives, and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.

The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.

From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.

As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question:  How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?

Speaking of Research

American Psychological Association supports NIH primate researcher Stephen J. Suomi

Research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural program has been the focus of a PETA campaign over the past several months. Elements of the campaign mirror tactics PETA has used elsewhere to generate media coverage, fundraising, and emails or phone calls to the NIH. The campaign recently reached beyond newspaper, bus, and metro advertisements to include a congressional request to NIH to provide a review of the research.

The American Psychological Association (APA) responded on January 22 with strong statement of support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.

APA 01.22.15

APA’s letter to the congress members, in its entirety, reads:

“In December 2014 you were one of four members of Congress who sent a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requesting that his office commission a bioethics review of a research program directed by the world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi. On behalf of the American Psychological Association and its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, I am writing to provide a broader scientific perspective on this research. As you are likely aware, the request you received was a part of a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr. Suomi’s laboratory by the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in support of its mission to put an end to research with nonhuman animals.

Your letter stated that prominent experts have raised concerns about the scientific and ethical justification for these experiments. We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

Dr. Suomi and colleagues found that like humans, monkeys share similar variants of genes that make an individual more vulnerable to mood and personality disorders; however, genetics interact with experience in determining such disorders, and mother-infant dynamics in particular have a large influence on later development. Dr. Suomi has successfully produced monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption and his studies provide insight into modes of treatment. Through his work on neonatal imitation, Dr. Suomi discovered potential early signs of atypical social development in monkeys, which has informed the search for screening methods and treatments for autism in human children. Further, through his work on the development of attachment behavior to a caregiver, which is crucial for infant survival in both humans and other animals, Dr. Suomi’s research has had a tremendous impact on the standards for the welfare of nonhuman animals in captivity.

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2

The specific study targeted by PETA was designed to investigate the long-term effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) in children. Given that drugs are typically tested only on adults, the effects of this commonly prescribed anti-depressant on children were unknown. Thus, in response to overwhelming concern raised by parents, physicians, and others involved in child and adolescent health about the safety of this medication for children, Dr. Suomi and his colleagues began a study with baby monkeys to elucidate the effects of fluoxetine in children. Contrary to PETA’s repeated claims that animal research has not improved human health and that modern non-animal research methods are more effective, there are, in fact, no viable non-animal alternatives for identifying the causes of and treatments for disorders that affect the brain and behavior. Studies with a wide variety of nonhuman animal species have been and continue to be integral to basic and applied research on health.

Laboratory animal models generally provide the most scientifically rigorous means of studying normal and abnormal behaviors in order to better understand their underlying mechanisms and to remedy disorders. Monkeys are the ideal model for the work that Dr. Suomi does, because they share approximately 93% of human DNA, they live in social groups with similar mother-infant dynamics as humans, and they develop more quickly than humans. Moreover, the monkeys in Dr. Suomi’s studies are treated humanely, following strict guidelines set forth by the Animal Welfare Act and overseen by numerous entities including the NIH Office for Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC), and institutional animal care and use committees. And given that Dr. Suomi is an intramural researcher at NIH, you can be certain that his research animals receive premier quality of care.

I understand that it may sometimes be difficult to weigh the qualifications and varying conclusions of “dueling experts,” but let me assure you that Dr. Suomi is a highly regarded member of the APA and the psychological science community at large, as well as a highly sought-after expert in the field of pediatric medicine. In addition to providing information to the U.S. Congress, Dr. Suomi has testified at the World Health Organization and addressed the British House of Commons about the implications of his scientific findings.

Based on the conviction that research with nonhuman animals is a necessary component of basic and applied research on health, APA strongly supports humanely conducted, ethically sound, and scientifically valid research with nonhuman animals. For nearly 100 years, through its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, APA has promoted informed, serious, and civil dialogue about the role of nonhuman animal research in science. If you should be asked to take further action against Dr. Suomi, I hope you will make it a point to seek out additional information before making a decision. My staff stand ready to provide you with additional information, including assembling experts for a staff briefing or assisting you in any other way on this issue.”


The complete statement can be found here:  APA Suomi-letter 01.22.15


Primate research and twenty years of stem cell firsts

This guest post is by Jordana Lenon, B.S., B.A., Senior Editor, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and University of Wisconsin-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. The research will also be featured this evening in a public talk at UW-Madison’s Wednesday Nite at the Lab. WN@tL: “Twenty Years of Stem Cell Milestones at the UW.”  Details and link are below. Update 1/8/15:  Dr. William Murphy’s talk  can now be viewed at:  http://www.biotech.wisc.edu/webcams?lecture=20150107_1900

As we enter 2015, the 20th anniversary of the first successful isolation and culture of primate pluripotent stem cells in the world, it’s time to look back and see how far we’ve come. Thanks to a young reproductive biologist who came from the University of Pennsylvania’s VMD/PhD program to the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991, and to those whose research his groundbreaking discoveries informed, the fields of cell biology and regenerative medicine will never be the same.

stem cell colonies

Pluripotent stem cells are right now being used around the world to grow different types of cells—heart muscle cells, brain cells, pancreatic cells, liver cells, retinal cells, blood cells, bone cells, immune cells and much more.

Cultures of these cells are right now being used to test new drugs for toxicity and effectiveness.

More and more of these powerful cells are right now moving out of the lab and into preclinical (animal) trials and early human clinical trials to treat disease. The results are being published in peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on stem cell transplant, injection and infusion, reprogramming, immunology, virology and tissue engineering.

Pluripotent stem cells and their derivatives are right now being studied to learn more about reproduction and development, birth defects, and the genetic origins of disease.

Embryonic, induced pluripotent, tissue specific (adult), and other types of stem cells and genetically reprogrammed cells are all being used by researchers due to the open and collaborative environment of scientific and medical enterprises in the U.S. and around the world.

All of this is happening right now because of discoveries made 20 years ago by researchers at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

Here is a brief timeline of stem cell breakthroughs by WNPRC scientists:

  • 1995-James Thomson becomes the first to successfully isolate and culture rhesus monkey embyronic stem cells (ES cells) at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center (PNAS)
  • 1996-Thomson repeats this feat with common marmoset ES cells (Biol Reprod).
  • 1998-Thomson publishes the neural differentiation of rhesus ES cells (APMIS).
  • 1998-Thomson’s famous breakthrough growing human ES (hES) cells is published in Science. (This research occurred off campus, with private funding.)

Many subsequent stem cell “firsts” were accomplished by scientists who conducted lengthy training with James Thomson or Ted Golos, reproduction and development scientists at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. These highlights include the following accomplishments by Primate Center researchers:

  • 2003-WNPRC Post-doctoral trainee Thomas Zwaka achieves homologous recombination with hES cells. A method for recombining segments of DNA within stem cells, the technique makes it possible to manipulate any part of the human genome to study gene function and mimic human disease in the laboratory dish (Nature Biotechnology).
  • 2004-WNPRC Post-doctoral trainee Behzad Gerami-Naini develops an hES model that mimics the formation of the placenta, giving researchers a new window on early development (Endocrinology).
  • 2005- WNPRC scientist Igor Slukvin and post-doc Maxim Vodyanik become the first to culture lymphocytes and dendritic cells from human ES cells (Blood, J Immunol).
  • 2005-WiCell’s Ren-He Xu, who completed his post-doctoral research at the WNPRC, grows hES cells in the absence of mouse-derived feeder cells (Nature Methods).
  • 2006-WiCell’s Tenneille Ludwig, a graduate student/post-doc/assistant scientist through the Primate Center with Barry Bavister, then James Thomson, formulates a media that supports hES cells without the need for contaminating animal products (Nature Biotechnology). Co-authoring the work is another former Primate Center post-doc, Mark Levenstein.
  • 2007-Junying Yu, WNPRC and Genome Center, in Jamie Thomson’s lab, grows induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. (Science). These are genetically reprogrammed mature cells that act like embryonic stem cells, but without the need to destroy the embryo.

Researchers at all of the National Primate Research Centers continue to make advances in this remarkable field of research and medicine. A few more milestones include the following:

  • 2007- Shoukhrat Mitalipov at the Oregon National Primate Research Center successfully converted adult rhesus monkey skin cells to embryonic stem cells using somatic cell nuclear transfer (Nature)
  • 2012- Shoukhrat Mitalipov at the Oregon National Primate Research Center generation chimeric rhesus monkeys using embryonic cells (Cell)
  • 2012-Alice Tarantal at the California NPRC successfully transplants human embryonic stem cells differentiated toward kidney lineages into fetal rhesus macaques.
  • 2013-Qiang Shi at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Gerald Shatten at the University of Pittsburgh – and previously with the Oregon National Primate Research Center and Wisconsin National Primate Research Center – genetically programs baboon embryonic stem cells to restore a severely damaged artery.
  • 2013-Shoukhrat Mitalipov at the Oregon National Primate Research Center produces human embryonic stem cells through therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (Cell)

NPRC Stem Cell Timeline 01.06.15

Before all of this happened, we must note that non-primate mammalian embryonic stem cells were first successfully isolated and cultured in 1981, by Martin Evans and Matthew Kaufman at the University of Cambridge, England. That breakthrough occurred almost 35 years ago. Jamie Thomson studied mouse embryonic stem cells in Pennsylvania before working on primate cells.

Even before that, in 1961, Ernest McCulloch and James Till at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Canada discovered the first adult stem cells, also called somatic stem cells or tissue-specific stem cells, in human bone marrow. That was 55 years ago.

So first it was human stem cells, then mouse, then monkey, then back to humans again. Science speaks back and forth. It reaches into the past, makes promises in the present, and comes to fruition in the future.

In every early talk I saw Jamie Thomson give about his seminal stem cell discoveries in the late 1990s and early 2000s – to staff, scientists, to the public, to Congress, to the news media – he would explain why he came to UW-Madison in the early 1990s to try to advance embryonic stem cell research. In large part, he said, it was because we had a National Primate Research Center here at UW-Madison, and also that we had leading experts in transplant and surgery at our medical school. After he joined the WNPRC as a staff pathologist and set up his lab, first he used rhesus and then marmoset embryos before expanding to cultures using human IVF patient-donated embryos off campus with private funding from Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, California.

Human And Mouse EmbryoIn these early talks, Jamie included images (see above) showing how very differently the mouse blastocyst (a days-old embryo, before implantation stage) is structured from the nonhuman primate and human primate blastocysts concerning germ layer organization and early development (ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm). He also was able to show for the first time how differently stem cells derived from these early embryos grow in culture. In contrast to the mouse ES cells, the monkey cells, especially those of the rhesus monkey, grow in culture almost identically to human cells.

At the time, Thomson predicted that more scientists would study human ES cells in their labs over monkey ES cells, if human ES cells could become more standardized and available. Yet he emphasized that the NPRCs and nonhuman primate models would continue to play a critical role in this research, especially when it would advance to the point when animal models would be needed for preclinical research before attempting to transplant cells and tissues grown from ES cells. Both predictions have come true.

Jamie closed his talks, and still does, with this quotation:

“In the long run, the greatest legacy for human ES cells may be not as a source of tissue for transplantation medicine, but as a basic research tool to understand the human body.”

This simply and elegantly reminds us how basic research works: Many medical advances another 20 years from now will have an important link to the discoveries of today, which have their underpinnings in that early research in Jamie Thomson’s lab 20 years ago. It will become easy to forget where it all started, when many diseases of today, if not completely cured, will become so preventable, treatable and manageable that those diagnosed with them will spend more time living their lives than thinking about how to survive another day.

Just as I did not have to worry about polio, and my children did not have to worry about chicken pox, my grandchildren will hopefully see a world where leukemia, blindness, diabetes and mental illness do not have the disabling effects or claim as many young lives as they do today.



WN@tL “Twenty Years of Stem Cell Milestones at the UW”


January 7 – 7:00PM – 8:15PM CT
Location: UW Biotechnology Center 425 Henry Mall, Room 1111, Madison, WI 53706
Cost: Free

Speaker: William L. Murphy, Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Centerwnatl_williammurphy

Don’t miss this fascinating talk covering stem cell milestones at the UW. Professor Murphy will talk about the work of his team at the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, where they are creating biological materials that could radically change how doctors treat a wide range of diseases.

Bio: Murphy is the Harvey D. Spangler Professor of Engineering and a co-director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. His work includes developing biomaterials for stem cell research. Specifically, Murphy uses biomaterials to define stem cell microenvironments and develop new approaches for drug delivery and gene therapy. His lab also uses bio-inspired approaches to address a variety of regenerative medicine challenges, including stem-cell differentiation, tissue regeneration and controlled drug delivery. Murphy has published more than 100 scientific manuscripts and filed more than 20 patent applications.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Sabin administering the vaccine that saved millions from polio.

Albert Sabin administering the vaccine that saved millions from polio.

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

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

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

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

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

Winston-Salem Journal

March 20, 1992

The Correct Conclusion

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

On the contrary, my own experience of more than 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated that without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.

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

Albert B. Sabin, M.D.


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

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

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

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

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


The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 1995

by Heloisa Sabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the reality of medical progress.


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

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