Tag Archives: NIH

Chimpanzee Retirement: Facts, Myths, and Motivation

How often have you heard the claim that chimpanzees who have moved to a sanctuary have felt “dirt and grass under their feet, sunshine on their faces” for the first time in their entire lives because they have come from laboratories where they have only known barren, concrete environments?

Yerkes chimpanzees

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

You may hear it pretty often if you follow the fundraising and publicity campaigns that are aimed at raising money to support facilities that care for animals retired from research.  Among many examples, are recent comments by Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the US chimpanzee sanctuary supported and administered primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through public, federal funds that assure lifetime retirement care of research chimpanzees. Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 by behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent and a group of primatologists and business professionals.

In a recent presentation, Chimp Haven’s current CEO Spraetz said:

“Many of these chimpanzees have spent literally decades in laboratories. And so their experience has been concrete and mesh, not grass, not dirt. And so after decades of being there, coming to Chimp Haven is a novel experience and a very scary one. Many of them do not want to put their feet down on grass or dirt. …  We try to accommodate the chimpanzees and meet them where they are. The good news is that many of them, after a couple of years, actually can transition. But in the meantime, we give them a lot of different spaces so they can feel comfortable where they are.” [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in a CNN story this weekend“Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it’s important that the chimps come here,” Spraetz said. She noted that some lab chimps have lived in cages for so long, they’re afraid of grass when they arrive at Chimp Haven. Gradually, they become accustomed to living in a more natural setting.”

The image and language resonate. They evoke emotional responses in compassionate people who care about animal welfare. But are they claims that are representative of the actual situation?

In many cases, they are not at all. For example, the picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. In each, it is easy to see that the chimpanzees have dirt under their feet and sunshine on their faces.  Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo.

chimp housing [Autosaved]

Clockwise: Top – Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA (Note: Yerkes’ chimpanzees are not NIH-owned or supported); Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL;  MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX; Chimp Haven, Keithsville, LA.

In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that provide outdoor housing, including dirt and sunlight. They also provide extensive and complex climbing structures, opportunities for foraging and tool-use, toys, fresh produce and treats, bedding, interaction with expert and compassionate caregivers, and state-of-the-art medical care and facilities.

Are all the facilities equal in all aspects? No. But neither are the sanctuaries, zoos, and other settings that house chimpanzees in the US– more chimpanzees, in fact, than are housed in research facilities (Chimp Care).*  Furthermore, those research facilities are subject to more extensive standards, greater public oversight, and more public transparency than the zoos, sanctuaries, entertainment, and private homes that house chimpanzees.

Misrepresenting chimpanzees’ current housing and care is a problem.

There are a few explanations for why anyone would make the claim, or use partial truths, to encourage others to believe that most research chimpanzees live in barren concrete environments. One is simple lack of knowledge and experience. Another is a deliberate misrepresentation. Neither serves the animals or partnership with others in order to thoughtfully provide for the chimpanzees’ best long-term care. Nor does it serve the public.

It is likely that many members of the public may not be familiar with accurate representation of the conditions and housing of chimpanzees in NIH-funded primate centers.  That is not the case, however, for many involved in sanctuary efforts and who have first-hand knowledge of the dirt, sunshine, and enriched care that chimpanzees receive in many– if not all– research facilities.

Chimpanzees 2

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The question isn’t whether there is room for continuing improvement in captive chimpanzee care and housing. No one would claim any captive setting is the same as the wild, or that any sanctuary, zoo, or research facility is beyond improvement. (The same is true for the wild, where chimpanzees are subject to many negative outcomes due to human influence and vital conservation efforts require more support.) But in reality, there is often more similarity than difference in chimpanzees’ actual care and housing between many of the best sanctuaries, zoos and research facilities in the US and in other countries. The question is how to identify best practices that balance animal welfare and the facilities’ purposes and then find workable solutions and funds to make them common practices.

Furthermore, a closer comparison of the actual conditions at the federal sanctuary facility and those at the facilities in which the animals currently live is also key to serious, fact-informed evaluation of statements made about the NIH’s progress and eventual decisions about moving chimpanzees from their current homes to Chimp Haven.  In this weekend’s CNN story, the director of Chimp Haven makes a number of arguments in favor of increased funding and speeding the movement of chimpanzees to the Louisiana facility.  Many of those arguments revolve around whether, and how much of a difference there is between the different settings, and whether there is a difference to the animals’ well-being.

The quality of all of those evaluations depends on factual and specific comparison, as well as evidence for meaningful difference in the animals’ well-being.  The balance of benefit and harm includes the known stress to the animals that is caused by moving across country, into new situations, and into new social groups. Although movement to sanctuary may have benefits, it also has costs to the animals. For example, beyond relocation to unfamiliar housing, care practices and caregivers, the animals also face potential disruption of their social groups, introduction to new groups and upheaval in dominance hierarchies. The adverse impact of these stressors is of particular concern for elderly animals and for others who may be especially vulnerable to negative health effects of stress. Thus, consideration of those balances and comparison of different facilities must be taken together to inform decisions about investments that best suit the animals’ needs.

Bastrop chimps tool use

Chimpanzees at MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX.

Federal public funding for retired chimpanzees
Over the past 15 years the US public, through federal legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support, has committed to an estimated $86 million to support the lifetime care, housing, and enrichment of retired research chimpanzees. In 2000, federal legislation (Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection; CHIMP Act) established the first national chimpanzee sanctuary and committed life-time funding for retired NIH chimpanzees. As a result, in 2002, a $30 million public investment was made to build and fund Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the only federally-funded– though not the largest– US chimpanzee sanctuary.  (For more history and information see here: http://dpcpsi.nih.gov/orip/cm/chimpanzee_management_program)

By 2013, following NIH’s decision to retire the majority of its chimpanzees, additional funds were required for Chimp Haven’s ongoing support. Thus, the CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013 were passed by the US House, Senate, and President. Under new legislation, NIH may

“use already-appropriated funds to pay for care of chimpanzees housed in federal sanctuaries if doing so would be more efficient and economical for the NIH.”

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2012 estimated an additional $56M cost to retire and maintain federally funded chimpanzees for a 5 year period (not the animals’ lifespan). The cost to support the entirety of the NIH’s ~500 chimpanzees may be roughly $8M each year; although the cost will likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages. The CBO analysis also determined that there was no cost savings to moving federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary instead of research facilities.

US federal funds provide the majority of revenue for Chimp Haven and support the majority (~75%) of the cost of each NIH chimpanzee retired at Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven was built and funded primarily for retirement of publicly-owned research chimpanzees. However, it is also used for retirement of privately owned animals who are not supported directly via federal funds. In October of 2014, NIH reported an annual expenditure of $4.44M to Chimp Haven for the care of 191 NIH-owned chimpanzees and an average care cost of $63 per day per chimpanzee. The same report includes a range of $32-60 daily care cost for chimpanzees in other NIH facilities that house NIH-owned chimpanzees.

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Federal support for chimpanzees goes beyond direct care of research animals. For example, NIH and NSF supported scientific research has produced new knowledge that continues to benefit chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, federal investment in the nation’s primate research centers from the 1960s on supported continuing advances in chimpanzee housing, care, and enrichment that now drive best practices and chimpanzee health care in zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities.

chimp haven 2

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Is misrepresenting research facilities necessary?

It is unfortunate that some of those leading sanctuary publicity and fundraising efforts continue to base their appeals in claims that generally have little basis in current fact. It is also unfortunate that the many campaigns for fundraising for the federal sanctuary fail to let the public know that the NIH and US have, in fact, pledged lifetime support for federally-owned chimpanzees. This level of public support has not always occurred in those countries that have dismantled their chimpanzee research facilities.

Some of the current campaigns centered on US chimpanzees give the impression that NIH ended research and put the chimpanzees out on the street without a dime, leaving others to provide for their “rescue.” That is far from the truth.

Fundraising is required to meet roughly one-quarter of the cost for NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven and the full cost for chimpanzees at other sanctuaries.  But for those that care about supporting the animals and decisions in the animals’ best interests, that fundraising should not require a storyline based in half-truth or deliberate misrepresentation of the conditions in other facilities or the efforts of others who care for chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett


* An estimated 1,822 chimpanzees live in the US. The care for roughly half of the chimpanzees in the US, including most of the 206 chimpanzees retired to the federal sanctuary (Chimp Haven), is provided in large measure by federal public funds. According to Chimp Care, a census project from Lincoln Park Zoo, US research facilities house 625 chimpanzees, while a research reserve houses 172.  Private sanctuaries house roughly one fifth of US chimpanzees (N=318). Nearly one-quarter of the chimpanzees in the US live in zoos, both those accredited by a non-public agency, the American Zoological Association, (262) and facilities designated as unaccredited in Chimp Care’s data (174). Chimpanzees in the US are also kept in entertainment venues (14) or by private breeders and private owners who regard them as pets (51). Such private ownership of primates is opposed by leading scientific organizations including the American Society of Primatologists.

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

 

University of Wisconsin responds to dishonest petition attacking psychiatric research

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, they did something much better.

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

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

Responding to Ruth Decker’s change.org petition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Child health benefits from studies of infant monkeys – Part 1

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

Speaking of Research

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Child health benefits from studies of infant monkeys – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLES OF PEDIATRIC RESEARCH WITH MONKEYS

Autism

  • In a major advance, California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) research defined a link between maternal auto-antibodies and increased risk of a child having autism (http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/maternal-antibodies-linked-to-autism/)
  • Research at the CNPRC has focused on oxytocin and vasopressin in social bonding and male parental care, as well as on the effects of early experiences on the development of these behaviors. Studies have begun on the long-term effects of oxytocin; a new treatment is already being used in children with autism without an understanding of the long-term effects. (http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/unknown-effects-of-long-term-oxytocin-use-in-children/)
  • Using an innovative approach to imaging the brain, scientists at the CNPRC have significantly enhanced our understanding of the etiology of autism by mapping the location of receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that is linked with social behavior. http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/improving-models-to-understand-the-etiology-of-autism/
  • CNPRC scientists have shown that monkeys exposed to a maternal mock infection in utero exhibit signs of inflammation within the brain four years later, which is a response that is similar to that observed in human patients with schizophrenia and autism.  Nonhuman primate models are essential for understanding the effects of maternal inflammation during pregnancy, as they provide critical information on individual susceptibility and vulnerability of specific gestational time points. http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/mothers-immunity-linked-to-brain-inflammation/

Cerebral Palsy

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

Childhood Leukemia

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

Diabetes and Childhood Obesity

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

Diet

Environmental threats

HIV/AIDS

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

Huntington’s Disease

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

Lung Development and Function

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

Kidney Disease, Organ Transplants, Lupus

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


Memory Impairment

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Puberty Disorders

Prenatal and Mental health

  • Studies at the WaNPRC IPRL have provided important and therapeutically relevant information on the fetal risk associated with maternal exposure to antiseizure medication in infants born to women who have epilepsy (Phillips & Lockard, 1985, 1993). (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23873400)
  • Human and animal studies at the SNPRC revealed that the intrauterine environment can predispose offspring to disease in later life. Mark Nijland showed that maternal obesity can program offspring for cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and obesity. This study revealed significant changes in cardiac miRNA expression (known to be affected in human cardiovascular disease) and developmental disorders in the fetuses of obese baboons. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23922128)
  • At the CNPRC a new vaccine strategy against HCMV, the “birth defect virus”, has been shown to produce a strong immune response with the potential to prevent a viral infection that causes 5,000 babies yearly to be born with congenital neurological deficits. http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/vaccine-against-hcmv-the-birth-defect-virus-produces-a-strong-immune-response/
  • Studies in the WaNPRC IPRL have demonstrated that prenatal exposure to relatively high levels of ethanol (alcohol) was associated with significant changes in the structure of the fetal brain. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23873400)
  • Recent findings from nonhuman primates studied by Ned Kalin at the WNPRC suggest that an overactive core circuit in the brain, and its interaction with other specialized circuits, accounts for the variability in symptoms shown by patients with severe anxiety. The ability to identify brain mechanisms underlying the risk during childhood for developing anxiety and depression is critical for establishing novel early-life interventions aimed at preventing the chronic and debilitating outcomes associated with these common illnesses. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23538303, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23071305)
  • Developmental studies with nonhuman primates at the YNPRC have revealed that neonatal dysfunction of the amygdala, a key brain structure, has long-lasting effects on the typical development of brain circuits that regulate behavioral and neuroendocrine stress, resulting in long-term hyperactivity.  These findings may provide clues on the neural source of HPA axis dysregulation found in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and affective disorders.  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23159012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24986273, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25143624)

Preterm Birth and Neonatal Outcomes

  • Current research at the ONPRC incorporates studies directed at understanding the mechanisms of parturition, with emphasis on therapeutic interventions for preterm labor associated with reproductive tract infections and the prevention of subsequent adverse neonatal outcomes. Intra-amniotic infection by genital Ureaplasma species is a predominant cause of early preterm birth. Preterm infants often have life-long health complications including chronic lung injury, often leading to asthma and neurodevelopmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Research by ONPRC’s Dr. Grigsby has shown that administration of a specific macrolide antibiotic delays preterm birth and reduces the severity of fetal lung injury and most importantly central nervous system injury. Recently Dr. Grigsby has expanded the infant care facilities at the ONPRC with the addition of a specialized intensive care nursery (SCN); this has enabled new research initiatives to expand beyond the maternal-fetal environment to a critical translation point between prenatal and postnatal life. This one-of-a-kind nursery has the look and feel of a human neonatal intensive care unit and supports the cardiopulmonary, (including mechanical ventilation), thermoregulatory, and nutritional needs of prematurely born infants. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23111115, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179112)
  •  CNPRC investigations into potential effects of long-term binge drinking episodes on later pregnancies in primates demonstrate that binge-levels of alcohol were associated with reduced embryo development, changes in the oocyte and cumulus cell gene expression, and an increase in spontaneous abortion during very early gestation, even after alcohol consumption had ceased. http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/binge-drinking-implications-for-human-health/
  •  A powerful new imaging technique has been developed at the CNPRC that could vastly improve the success of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, including IVF, by increasing the ability to predict which embryos stand the highest chance of continuing to develop normally.http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/predicting-embryo-success-with-in-vitro-fertilization/
  •  Research at the CNPRC has shown a link between sugar consumption in healthy females and disrupted oocyte maturation and in vitro pre-implantation embryo in healthy animals. http://www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/donec-at-mauris-enim-duis-nisi-tellus/

Regenerative Medicine

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

Stem Cells and Gene Therapy:

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

Tuberculosis and HIV

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

[Updated 01/27/15]

Animal welfare inspectors clear UW-Madison cat research of PETA allegations, important hearing research continues

A second federal agency charged with oversight of animal research has completed a thorough investigation of an animal rights group’s complaints about sound localization research with cats at the University of Wisconsin. Summary of the result:  “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”

We have written previously (here, here, here) about reviews conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This time the report is from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW).  Once again, the complaint by PETA is based on hundreds of pages of records that the animal rights group received from the UW via open records requests.  In response to these complaints both federal agencies have sent teams that include veterinarians to look at the animals, records, and research at UW-Madison.

new graphic - AR cycle 10.07.13 ajbIn addition to the USDA and OLAW reviews, during this period the NIH institute funding the sound localization project, the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD), also took action. NIDCD suspended one part of the research— but not the entire project— from April-September 2013 when the final report was issued. Whether the suspension was the result of PETA’s allegations is not clear. What is clear is that the NIH and scientific community have long supported and valued this specific research and– more broadly–  the contribution of animal models to success in this field and advances in scientific understanding and human health. The PI of this work, Professor Tom Yin, has been funded by NIH for many years. As is the case of all NIH-funded research, a competitive expert scientific panel provides rigorous critical analysis of the proposed science. Only a small fraction of proposals are identified as valuable, worthwhile, and likely to succeed. In this case, the PI’s research was deemed justifiable and worthy following scientific review, NIH review, and IACUC review. Furthermore, the scientific contributions Yin’s work is evident in many ways. For example, it is widely cited in the field (e.g., over 5000 citations of his scientific papers). Yin discusses the targeted research in these videos:

In brief, Professor Yin’s laboratory conducts fundamental basic research that has resulted in better understanding of complex brain function and how hearing works. By using a combination of electrophysiological recordings, anatomical studies and behavioral studies, the lab is studying the mechanisms used by the brain to put together inputs from the two ears to improve hearing. The scientific discoveries have public benefit because they provide foundational understanding with broad applicability. Knowing how the brain integrates sound received by both ears and how that allows for localization of sounds is an important part of work towards improving the quality of life and functioning of millions of people with hearing impairment.

Many types of research in this area require recording and studying a real functioning brain, there are no non-animal alternatives. Cats are among the best animal models for this work for a number of reasons. Among them: most of the information we have about the auditory system comes from studies in cats, they are nocturnal hunters with excellent sound localization abilities, and what we know about the cat’s nervous system shows that it is very similar to that of humans. The importance of cats and other animal models to research in this field is widely acknowledged, including by this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and particularly the work of Graeme Clarke, which laid the foundations for the development of multichannel cochlear implants through studies in cats and rats.

As we have discussed previously, consideration of the use of animals in research includes not only weighing its potential benefits, but also evaluation of the animals’ welfare. The welfare of all of research animals is a priority and one that is ensured through the careful efforts of research, veterinary, and animal care personnel. Furthermore, oversight of animals’ care and treatment occurs at individual, institutional, and federal levels. A small number of cats (less than a dozen) participate in UW-Madison’s sound localization research. The cats are healthy and well-adjusted to their work, play, and living environments as was documented in the OLAW report. In that report, external reviewers who had thoroughly reviewed the lab and records, examined the animals, and interviewed the animal care and veterinary personnel, research staff, and scientists were satisfied with the animals’ condition and treatment.  Potential for pain or suffering is minimized through careful efforts: Surgery is performed under deep anesthesia, just like surgery for humans. Infections are a risk, but they affect the animals only a fraction of the time they are in study. Furthermore, infections are caught early through extensive and careful monitoring, treated immediately and resolved quickly in all but a very small number of cases. In no cases are they allowed to be untreated or to cause suffering or unrelieved pain.

OLAW’s summary conclusion, released September 30, confirmed that the research and animal treatment were appropriate: “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.” Furthermore, the report concluded that PETA’s specific allegations were unsupported. The report also acknowledged UW’s efforts to continue refinement in the animals’ care and treatment:  “OLAW found that while the specific allegations did not accurately reflect the entire clinical and research condition of the cats, changes were made to enhance the care of the animals and potentially improve research outcomes.” Furthermore, the report includes many extremely positive descriptions of the animals’ condition and care.

UW responded:

“The OLAW investigation is the third review of the lab and its animal subjects by the federal government, all instigated by PETA within the past year. To date, none of the many allegations of mistreatment made by the organization to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or OLAW have been substantiated. ‘Contrary to the misleading claims made by PETA, the conclusions cited in the OLAW report reflect our view that the animals in the study are in excellent health, are well treated and cared for, and used to further important research in an appropriate and humane manner,’ says Dan Uhlrich, UW-Madison associate vice chancellor for research policy.  ‘Significant university and federal resources have been repeatedly redirected to respond to these unfounded allegations. This is a questionable use of scarce and valuable public resources, which we feel damages the best interests of the public, science, affected researchers, and the dedicated animal care and veterinary staffs responsible for the health and wellbeing of our animals.”

The OLAW summary report, including 36 appendix exhibits, can be found on their website. The UW has also shared detailed information about the research, the reviews, and the animal program with the broad public via its website, release of hundreds of records, and videos in which the scientist and others speak about the value of the work and how it is conducted.  In other words, as we’ve noted before, there are many venues for the public to learn more about the work, its conduct, and the detailed process of regulatory oversight.

What was PETA’s response?

Hint:  It did not include acknowledgement that OLAW, USDA, and the University of Wisconsin gave serious consideration to PETA’s complaint, performed a thorough investigation, and provided a detailed, specific public response on each of the allegations that the animal rights group raised. Nor did PETA’s response include an acknowledgement that perhaps they were wrong.  And nothing in their public responses indicated – front and center – that PETA’s mission and objective is to end all animal research. PETA’s position is fundamentally absolutist. Regardless of animals’ welfare and regardless of the consequences for the public that benefits from responsible, ethical and humanely-conducted animal studies, PETA is opposed to all use of nonhuman animals. Thus, there are presumably no conditions under which PETA would find laboratory animal research acceptable. (We welcome correction from PETA if this is a misrepresentation of their position.)

It is not surprising then that, as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, PETA’s spokesman did not accept the OLAW conclusion, but rather vowed:  “This campaign is going to continue until that lab is empty and there are no cats in it,’” Goodman said without specifying the group’s next steps.”

PETA’s next steps in its quest to close the laboratory will probably include some of the characteristic stunts for which they are famous. At the UW this has included small protests on campus, the PETA mobile billboard truck driving around Madison, and an actor and PETA staffer gaining media coverage for disruption and arrest at a UW System Board of Regents meeting. Review of their campaign strategy thus far provides a few other clues for what to expect at the UW and elsewhere. For example, last week PETA set up at the campus job fair to recruit for an “undercover investigator.”  PETA’s Jeremy Beckham netted a local television interview with the tactic. Not a new tactic for animal rights groups, as seen in this campaign directed at Oregon Health Sciences University several years ago.

As we’ve written before however, focusing on these stunts and underestimating the broader gains that PETA has made and that negatively affect science and public interests can be a mistake.  In the case of this campaign and all of the associated events, two things in particular are worth notice by the broader community.  First, the way in which PETA used the openness of records and the public responsiveness of the regulatory process to feed their campaign; and second, the use of emotive tactics that encourage harassment of scientists and others in research institutions. The graphic above captures the general strategy used by many activist groups, highlights the costs, and raises a number of questions. In particular, one question that merits serious discussion is how to better assess the full range of actual costs and critical evaluation of realized benefits to animal welfare, science, and public interests.

Despite the conclusion of multiple federal reviews that failed to support their allegations, PETA is continuing to smear the research and to promote petition and email campaigns to the NIH, UW-Madison, and others. As one of the exhibits in the OLAW report shows, the NIDCD received 562 phone calls and approximately 190,000 emails about cat research. While that represents a tiny fraction of the American public and likely includes many form messages, its inclusion in the OLAW report suggests it may have been relevant to the NIH’s response.  No doubt that number increased after PETA linked a form email to its mixed martial arts assault on scientists videogame in order to encourage players to complain to NIH about the UW research.  Of course the game also encourages players to entertain the idea of harming scientists. As we’ve seen before, these highly emotional tactics can have the general effect of eliciting threatening and disturbing messages from those who follow PETA. For example, this recent tweet:

Beth Carter 10.5.13 tweet

The PETA campaign and response following the USDA and OLAW reports makes their objective clear once again:  to end research and close labs. Nothing new there. The question to ask now however, is how research institutions, scientists, federal agencies, and the public should respond to campaigns like this. In particular, this set of events provides additional strong evidence that there is little broad value in engagement with groups that have a singular agenda and little interest in serious dialogue, accuracy, or acknowledgement of the complex issues and choices in animal research conducted for public benefit.  For scientists and research institutions interested in dialogue and better understanding of animal research, using that time and energy to communicate directly with the public about their research, why they are doing it and what it involves makes more sense.

More here:

http://speakingofresearch.com/2012/09/20/defending-science-and-countering-falsehood-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-2/

http://speakingofresearch.com/2012/10/12/as-predicted-uw-cleared-peta-caught-lying-again/

http://speakingofresearch.com/2013/02/08/a-lesson-in-hypocrisy-as-peta-cries-foul-over-one-cats-death-while-secretly-killing-hundreds-more/