Monthly Archives: February 2010

ScienceBlogs fight for Research

Over the last few days we’ve seen a battle develop between science bloggers and elements of the extreme animal rights movement. This furore followed the panel discussion that gathered groups in favor and opposed to the use of animals in research. The debate itself was deemed a success by all who took part, with Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science releasing a joint statement to this effect:

Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science held what, in our judgement and that of many of our colleagues, was an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of biomedical research using animals […] Dialogue prevailed.

Sadly, not all activists were as pleased with this free and open dialogue. The Negotiation is Over blog (the name says it all really… – note this is an AR extremist website) written by Camille Marino, Dr. Stephen Best, Jason Miller and others, made clear their contempt for dialogue. This hypocrisy is evident when you consider it was they who have been calling for scientists to engage in public debate.

To interfere with the efforts for a public forum on this issue they began by publishing the address and contact details for Janet Stemwedel (one of the speakers), and tried to undermine the other pro-research speakers explaining:

NONE OF THEM ARE MEDICAL DOCTORS; repeat, NONE of the three vivisectionists have EVER treated a single patient in their lives and their torture of animals has NEVER helped a human patient.

This appears to show a significant misunderstanding as to the difference between clinical doctors who work directly with patients, and researchers who bring about an understanding of the human body and the pathologies that affect them. Without researchers, working with animal models, we would not have most of the medical treatments which doctors use to improve the lives of billions of people. A more personal explanation was given by PZ Myers on the Pharyngula blog who counteracted the accusations against Colin Blakemore:

My daughter was born with mild strabismus. Our doctor was rightly concerned, and took us aside to explain what happens to the brain in these case, citing the research done on cats (which I was already familiar with, since I was trained as a developmental neurobiologist). The brain is a plastic organ, and even for several years after birth, it is being wired and remodeled — the optic nerves are making connections with specialized targets in the brain. The young brain actually tests for disparities in the signals from the two eyes and makes adjustments to minimize noise in the signal — too much variance, and it automatically starts shutting down confusing inputs. We knew from the work on cats that, while my daughter had two perfectly functional eyes, her brain was going to respond by rewiring to ignore one of them.

She spent her first several years with therapy designed from the perspective of our understanding of how the plastic brain works — understanding directly derived from the work of people like Blakemore. She also had a series of surgeries to adjust and strengthen the muscles of her eyes.

Think about this: you have a baby daughter who needs precise surgeries done on the tiny, delicate muscles of her eyes. Do you want her to be the very first practice surgery the doctor has ever done, or would you rather, perhaps, that the doctor had done his practice surgeries on animals first? Early in my career, I worked as an animal care assistant in a department of surgery, and that’s what most of the animals were used for: teaching medical students the basics of their craft, running students through simple procedures that made them learn how to handle tissues, how to cope with bleeding, how to repair damage, all stuff that you cannot do except on living organisms.

In the weeks leading up to the panel discussion, activists carried out demonstrations outside the homes of three UCLA researchers – David Jentsch (founder of Pro-test for Science), Dario Ringach and Edythe London.

"UCLA kills animals for profit" is about as close to the mark as "surgeons render people unconcious for cash" ... both wildly miss the point

NIO’s pro-violent leanings (and we’re not just talking violence against property) were made more than evident:

[Jentch] too has a “rent-a-cop” in front of his house twenty-four hours a day, ever since his car was blown up last year. Most everyone agrees that it would have been great if he had been in it!

In a follow up post Ms Marino leaves us in no doubt as to her true motives:

the time for rational discourse has expired and the time for militant and implacable struggle has commenced

This strikes me as being another way of saying, “we failed miserably to address your points with any coherence or rationality, so we’ll be resorting to more extreme measures”. The Meddling Kids blog took a closer look at the question of extremism:

These people are extremists. When you add the word “extreme” to any position, you take all the capacity for logic and discourse out of the equation. You cannot go to them and talk. You cannot bridge the gap. There is a wire that is simply not there anymore in the gray matter, and you might as well try reasoning with a can of tuna. I believe extremism is a form of psychosis, like an ideological narcissistic personality disorder. The best that we can do is keep our eyes on them and be there when they screw up to remove them. And that goes for all extremists.

Sadly, NIO went one step further by calling for activists to go to the school where Ringach’s children are educated. This provoked widespread outrage across the blogs. Dr. Stemwedel of the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog reported:

For just daring to stand up and share his view, Dario was targeted for more home demonstrations. And now, activists threaten to bring the demonstrations to his children’s schools, to “educate fellow students what their classmate’s father does for a living”.

Express the view that scientific research is worth doing, plan on your kids being harassed? Is that what we’ve come to? Is this really the society we want to live in?

If it’s not, we need to stand up and say so, in no uncertain terms.

Having differing opinions is not a crime. Nobody’s kids should be targeted for harassment because you disagree with their parents. We need to call this behavior out, no matter who does it, no matter what cause they hope to further with it.

Scicurious on the Neurotopia blog also expressed anger at the activists, encouraging researchers to speak up. This fantastic post includes an explanation of the importance of animals in research, and an essay of Scicurious’s personal experience of working with animals:

People are entitled to their opinions. Many people DO disagree, believing that animal research is ethically wrong, no matter what it may provide for humanity, and that’s fine. Their opinions are as valid as mine. There is no problem in disagreeing with what we do, and asking us to change what we do and how we do it. Protest, change laws and legislation. Enter into a dialogue. There are many people who disagree and do so in a way that harms no one, and that certainly doesn’t go after someone’s children. Some tactics are too much. No child should live in fear because of what their parents do for a living. Our hiding needs to be over. We shouldn’t have to do our work in fear of threats, intimidation, and severe bodily harm. We need to speak up.

Speaking of Research echo this call for scientists to speak up rather than backdown in the face of activist aggression (and we are not just talking about those scientists who have been targeted – we must all stand up together). We encourage people to get involved in any way they can.

Scientists, students and members of the public stand up in support of lifesaving medical research

The White Coat Underground blog addressed the hypocrisy of animal rights activists:

The hypocrisy of these groups is infinite. To change the way our society views animal research, you have to actually convince society that your position has merit.  You can’t (morally) force it on anyone through threats and violence. The animal rights crowd knows this, and they know that they are nowhere near convincing a significant number of people.  Since they have failed at dialog and debate, they have switched to terrorism, and targeting researches isn’t enough for them—now they are targeting children.

MarkCC of the Good Math, Bad Math blog spoke of how his family has personally benefited from animal research – something which most of us will probably sympathise with then we think about the treatments that ourselves and our family’s have benefited from. It is also worth noting that as a computer scientist Mark is more aware than most as to the limits of computer simulations as an alternative to animal models:

I can say for certain that I wouldn’t be alive today without the results of animal research: I had life-saving surgery using a technique that was developed using animals. I rely on medications that were originally developed using animal models. My mother is alive today because of animal research: she’s diabetic, and relies on both insulin and medications which were developed using animal research. My father survived cancer for 15 years because of animal research: his cancer was treated using a radiation therapy technique that was generated using animal research. My sister isn’t a cripple today, because of animal research. She had severe scoliosis which would have crippled her, but which was corrected using a surgical technique developed using animals. My wife would be terribly ill without animal research: she’s got an autoimmune disorder that damages the thyroid; people with it need to take thyroid hormone replacements, developed – all together now – using animal research. I could easily go on: there’s probably barely a person alive today who hasn’t benefited dramatically from animal research. It’s an essential tool of science.

The flurry of science blogs resulted in a torrent of pro-research and anti-violence comments being posted on the NIO website – much to the displeasure of Marino. This was nicely summed up by Orac of the Respectful Insolence blog:

The reaction of Marino to the valid criticism of her advocacy of violence against researchers that flowed into her blog after a Pharyngulanche led science-based individuals there, where those who saw the unhinged rants against scientists were understandably disgusted, was most instructive, as is her formal “response.” It is very clear that Marino is not used to having to defend her hate-filled, violence fetishism, as her responses consist mostly of rants against “vivisectors” coupled with “invitations” to critics to be interviewed by her.

More posts also came from Nick Anthis of The Scientific Activist, DrugMonkey (an interesting post about Sentience), the Ambivalent Academic blog and some more on speaking up from Dr. Stemwedel. Also, Orac’s (Respectful Insolence blog) report of the recent events is not to be missed – he takes a good look at some of the interchanges between bloggers on both the NIO and Scienceblog websites.

PZ Myers (Pharyngula) also directed a lot of traffic to our website with a mini-endorsement:

Earlier, I linked to that ghastly “Negotiation is Over” anti-research site. Let me balance that with a link to the pro-science site, Speaking of Research. Compare the two, it’s enlightening. Guess which one relies on shrieking all-caps accusations and threats of dire harm to the people on the other side?

NIO and its editors have made their position clear – that they are part of an extremist minority in the AR movement who are not interested in reason or dialogue. They have proposed, endorsed and celebrated violence within their movement and we call on all clear-thinking people – both those for and against the use of animals for research – to openly condemn their words and their actions. We thank Bruins for Animals, Ray Greek, and the many scientific bloggers (many of whom are mentioned above), for openly opposing this extremist fringe, and we hope many more follow in their path.


Tom Holder

Please check out our relevant posts on:
Getting Involved – How you can get involved
AR Extremism – Our look at Animal rights extremism and what to do about it
The Panel Discussion – “Score One for Dialogue”, written by SR member Megan Wyeth.
Joint Statement against violence – by Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science

Joint Statement by Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science

In an effort to establish a dialogue between those holding different opinions on the role of animals in research, Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science held what, in our judgement and that of many of our colleagues, was an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of biomedical research using animals.

In the weeks leading to the event, a handful of animal rights activists, with the only goal of preventing this dialogue from happening, harassed UCLA investigators at their homes and ran a campaign of intimidation through websites.  Organizers and panelists on both sides of the event forcefully condemned these attempts at derailing our meeting.  We prevailed.   Dialogue prevailed.

Unfortunately, this outcome has not been universally well received.  Some appear determined to continue with their attempts at interfering with this fresh direction the debate is taking.  In a move that defies logic, these activists are now suggesting children are legitimate targets of their protests.

Nobody should tolerate these renewed attempts at silencing our voices.  Scientists and animal rights activists who are committed to an open dialogue that will allow the public to become better educated on these important issues should now stand up together, publicly condemn such actions and defend the right of everyone to express freely their opinions.

Anyone willing to participate in an honest, rational and open dialogue is welcome at the table.

Jill Ryther, Kristy Anderson, David Jentsch and Dario Ringach

Score one for dialogue

On Tuesday evening students and faculty of UCLA filtered through security for a unique opportunity to listen to a spectrum of opinions on the ethics and science of animal research at an event co-organized by campus groups Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science.

Six expert panelists had 15 minutes each to share their perspectives, followed by an hour for the audience to pose questions through moderator David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times.  As a proud donor to ASPCA, and an individual directly benefiting from animal research with an insulin pump for his diabetes, Lazarus declared himself to be a living embodiment of the debate.

The six panelists were:

  • Janet D. Stemwedel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, San Jose State University.
  • Ray Greek, M.D., President of Americans for Medical Advancement
  • Colin Blakemore, FMedSci FRS, Professor of Neuroscience, Oxford University
  • Niall Shanks, Ph. D., Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Wichita State
  • Dario L. Ringach, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles Professor
  • Robert Jones, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, California State University, Chico

Dr. Jentsch (UCLA Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience) introduced the evening by reflecting that academia has always been rife with colleagues who disagree, but who approach the issue with a reasoned exchange of ideas.  “Both groups claim to promote free and open dialogue about the issue of animal rights, something which Jentsch said first prompted him to approach Bruins for Animals about organizing a discussion,” reported the Daily Bruin.  Co-founders of Bruins for Animals thanked everyone for their participation.

Dr. Ringach led off the panel with a strong statement about the innumerable contributions of animal research to human health, knowledge and progress.  One hundred years ago, “Life expectancy in the US was less than 50 years; it is now close to 80….Animal research has contributed to many of these advances.”  He listed medicines for premature babies, vaccinations to eradicate and inoculate against disease, and blood thinners for heart disease all as life-saving treatments developed with the help of animals.  He also stressed the importance of basic research as a compliment to clinical research.  He explained that it is impossible to be certain where the next breakthrough will come from, but that science is a continuum with each study building on previous studies to solve the mysteries of life and disease.

Drs. Shanks and Greek did not directly refute advances made with the help of animals, suggesting instead that they could have been made without animals.  They further made assertions that toxicological responses in animals are poorly predictive of similar effects in humans, and that only humans are worthwhile subjects of research to benefit humans.

Dr. Blakemore began with a history of the controversy over animal research, concluding that it must be humane, responsible, and well-regulated to be accepted.  He asked people to reflect on whether biological researchers alone among scientists truly are ignorant and antiquated, stubbornly and maliciously clinging to archaic scientific methods rather than pushing the boundaries of their field with state-of-the-art technologies.  He described his experience as the Executive at the U.K. Medical Research Council during which time funding for human research well exceeded that dedicated to studies on animals.

Dr. Stemwedel asked people to consider that scientists also strive to be ethical, and that the characteristic is not monopolized by animal rights activists.  She explained that believing we have greater obligations to our fellow humans certainly does not mean that we have carte blanche to treat animals however we want.  Dr. Blakemore pointed out that researchers actively develop and enthusiastically take advantage of alternatives to animals in research because all agree that it is not ideal.  Thus far such alternatives are valuable in combination with judicious use of animals, but cannot fully supplant it.

The ethical arguments are more shaded than the facts of science.  Dr. Stemwedel proposed that humans are special because we have moral capability.  She noted that while there are historic examples of societies treating human populations in ways seen as egregious today but considered moral at the time, the difference being that even then the people they subjugated demonstrated their moral ability, while nonhuman animals cannot.  There was a general agreement that moral boundaries are dynamic and can change, and it is up to society as a whole to decide what it is that we feel comfortable doing.

Dr. Jones contended that the difference between humans and other animals is a false dichotomy, arguing that there is no defensible reason for speciesism.  He claimed that the differences between species are analogous to superficial and amoral differences within species, like race, sex, and religion.  Rather than humanity, the animal rights side of the panel agreed on sentience – the ability to feel pain – as being the appropriate attribute for drawing the line for experimentation.  Dr. Jones contested using moral ability as the place to draw the line because people who are amoral due to mental impairment (people who do sometimes participate in invasive and risky clinical trials with the consent of their guardian) are nevertheless appropriately precluded from terminal research by their human status, rather than being grouped with other (amoral) animals.

There were a number of areas of common ground between panelists.  For example, it was asserted that of all the reasons humans use animals, biomedical research is the only one whose aim is to improve humanity, that it is imperative to abolish any undue suffering and to develop alternatives, as well as, that it is crucial to further this dialogue, and to condemn threats and violence.

Upon being asked what changes he would like to see, Dr. Jones’ reply was three-fold: that biomedical scientists be educated in the ethics of animal research, that the Animal Welfare Act be extended to cover all vertebrates (as in the U.K.), and for increased transparency in research institutions – that they open up in service to informing the public about the truth.

On the pro-research side Dr. Ringach closed by calling for more discourse, with an inspirational call to all scientists to speak out and to explain their research, and for granting institutions to publically support them.  He also pointed out a fork in the road for factions in the animal rights movement, urging that we proceed together with no tolerance for campaigns of violence and intimidation.  Coordinators on both sides faced vehement criticism for organizing this discussion, and in a show of supreme courage and dedication, they persevered to pull off a productive evening.

The event was conducted in a collegial spirit with a respectful audience and panelist members who want to make progress on this issue listening thoughtfully to one another. The evening was a breakthrough success from all perspectives.  A report on the event in Nature emphasized the overriding sentiment that “Scientists in the United States must publicly discuss the merits of animal research if they are to win over the public and neutralize the threat from activists….  ‘The only way to breakthroughs is to have the courage to be open,’ Blakemore told Nature.” We all hope to carry this forward towards future advances.

In summary, the debate will go on, but, for now, we can score one for dialogue.


Megan Wyeth

Mice pave the way to a cord blood transplant advance

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow that affects over 200,000 Americans and still kills thousands every year despite the great progress made over recent decades in developing  effective treatments for many leukemia types.  When undergoing treatment for leukemia many patients require hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) transplantation to replace the blood stem cells that are killed off along with the cancer cells by radiation or chemotherapy.  The most usual source of such HSCs is the blood or bone marrow of the patient themselves or a donor, but unfortunately it is often not possible to use the patient’s own cells because of the risk that some might be cancerous, while finding a donor whose cells are compatible with the patient is difficult, especially for members of ethnic minorities.  As a result of the growing numbers of patients waiting for suitable cells to become available for transplant scientists have turned to another source;  umbilical cord blood (CB) cells.  CB cells have the useful property of being partially immunologically privileged so that the match between the donor and recipient does not have to be as exact as for bone marrow or blood derived cells, but this advantage comes at the price that only small amounts of CB cells can be obtained from each umbilical cord.  To overcome this limitation on the use of CB cells scientists have sought to develop methods to expand in vitro the number of cells obtained from the umbilical cord before transplanting them into patients, and scientists recently announced the first successful clinical trial of in vitro expanded CB cells in leukemia patients (1) after a decade of research and refinement in mice.

Blood smear of the final blast crisis phase of chronic myelogenous leukemia, a disease whose treatment often includes hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Reproduced courtesy of the CDC Public Health Image Library.

Our story doesn’t however start with mice but with the fly Drosophila melanogaster,  a key model organism in developmental research.  Almost a century ago the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan identified a strain of D. Melanogaster which had characteristic notches in their wings, so the gene whose inactivation caused this trait was named Notch.  Since the revolution in molecular biology got underway in the 1980’s scientists studying D. melanogaster have learned that Notch  is a cell surface receptor which regulates the development of many tissues, and found that it plays a similar role in many other species, including mammals which have 4 versions of the Notch gene.  This all became relevant to the expansion of CB cells when a team lead by Dr. Irwin D. Bernstein of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that the Notch 1 gene was expressed in human hematopoietic  stem cells and decided to investigate the role of Notch 1 in regulating the ability of these cells to expand their numbers and subsequently differentiate into all the many different kinds of blood cell. A decade ago they used a modified virus to express Notch 1 in mouse bone marrow hematopoietic stem cells and found that these cells became immortal, producing far more cells than hematopoietic stem cells normally do in vitro, and that these cells could be made to differentiate into a wide range of blood cell types in vitro. However they found that while the Notch 1 expressing cells were incorporated into the bone marrow and gave rise to a wide variety of cell types when  transplanted along with unmodified hematopoietic stem cells into mice whose own bone marrow stem cells had been removed by radiation treatment , they did not do so when transplanted on their own (2).  This indicated that while using a viral vector to express Notch1 continually enhanced the ability of hematopoietic stem cells to self-renew and multiply it also impaired the other vital characteristic of these cells, namely their ability to differentiate into mature blood cells.

To overcome this problem Dr. Bernstein’s team turned to a modified version of Delta-1, the natural ligand of Notch, which could be used activate the Notch pathway and expand hematopoietic stem cells in vitro. When the cells were transplanted into the bone marrow the notch pathway would no longer be activated to such an extent and the cells could differentiate normally.  In the years that followed they tested and refined their Notch-mediated in vitro expansion technique, first using mouse bone marrow hematopoietic stem cells and when that was successful switching to human cord blood hematopoietic cells.  All this time they evaluated the ability of modified cells to engraft and repopulate blood and thymus with the full spectrum of blood cells by transplanting them into mice; including NOD-SCID mice which were genetically modified to be immunodeficient so that they could receive human cord blood cells that can then develop into a functioning immune system.

In the latest paper published online in Nature Medicine (1) Colleen Delaney and colleagues describe the final refinements to their technique. One major refinement concerned the source of the cell population to be expanded.  In previous studies they used a sub-population of CB  cells termed CD34+CD38- as the starting population in their in vitro expansion, a reasonable decision since CD34+CD38- are the most primitive form of hematopoietic cell with the greatest capacity to develop into the full range of other blood cell types.  Unfortunately the purification of CD34+ CD38- cells is a process that itself entails the loss of many CB hematopoietic cells, not an ideal situation when they are already in short supply.  So they compared a starting population of CD34+ cells with the more highly purified CD34+ CD38- population, and found that the CD34+ derived cells actually performed better when transplanted into mice.  The Notch-mediated in vitro expansion technique they had developed and refined over the preceding decade had produced cells that were able to engraft into the bone marrow a lot more quickly than untreated CB  hematopoietic stem cells and start producing immune cells earlier and in greater numbers,  it was now time to take it into human trials.

The phase I trials reported in the Nature Medicine paper involved transplanting the in vitro expanded CB cells alongside unmanipulated CB cells into high-risk leukemia patients, with the primary objective of evaluating the safety of the procedure.  At the end of the trial it was apparent that not only was the procedure not associated with any unexpected safety concerns, but that engraftment of the transplanted cells and production of immune cells was significantly enhanced, enabling the immune systems of the patients to recover more quickly.  While there are more and larger trials to come, this outcome raises the hope that umbilical cord blood cells will in future be able to offer many more leukemia patients the chance of earlier treatment and a quicker recovery.

Paul Browne Ph.D.

1)      Delaney C. et al. “Notch-mediated expansion of human cord blood progenitor cells capable of rapid myeloid reconstitution.” Nat. Med. Published online 17 January 2010 doi:10.1038/nm.2080

2)      Varnum-Finney B. Et al. “Pluripotent, cytokine-dependent, hematopoietic stem cells are immortalized by constitutive Notch1 signaling” Nat. Med. Volume 6, Number 11, Pages 1278-1281 (2000) doi: 10.1038/81390

Bruins for Animals and Dr. Ray Greek speak against extremists’ attempt to derail dialogue

The upcoming panel discussion, Perspectives on the Science and Ethics of Animals Used in Research, at the University of California Los Angeles co-hosted by Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science has drawn interest all around. The event is the result of joint efforts by the two groups working together “with the goal of opening an ongoing dialogue between individuals who are in favor of or against the use of animals in biomedical research.”  The panel will include six speakers who will present their views on the use of animals in biomedical research, as well as moderator-driven discussion based on questions submitted by the audience.

“The event is structured to maximize the opportunity to engage in a civil, intellectually honest discussion on issues about which people hold passionate, differing opinions. This event must demonstrate that such a discussion can effectively take place in order for future dialogue to be possible.”

More information about the February 16th panel discussion can be found at Pro-Test for Science, Bruins for Animals, and Speaking of Research.

In the weeks leading up to the event, it has become clear that some members of the animal activist community are using the occasion to focus threats, intimidation, and harassment on members of the panel, UCLA scientists, and research advocates. At the same time, other opponents of the use of animals in medical research have stepped forward to condemn the threats and the apparent attempts to sabotage efforts for discussion. Bruins for Animals issued the following statement on their website:

“Ideally this event would be open to the general public and originally this was our intention. Due to the fact that a group of violent individuals attempted to stop this event by threats and intimidation, we have had no option but to make this event closed to the broad public due to security concerns. These same individuals have called for open debates and are now apparently trying to sabotage our efforts to promote open dialogue and education of this important issue. It is unfortunate that the actions of a small group have resulted in the closing of this event that so many of you wish to attend, and for this, we apologize. …

Bruins for Animals condemns the use of violence, moreover the violence perpetrated by certain individuals has resulted in overshadowing the scientific and ethical reasons why many are opposed to vivisection.”

Dr. Ray Greek, one of the panel participants speaking against the use of animals in biomedical research, also addressed the issue in a thoughtful essay.  Greek begins by noting the uniqueness and significance of the event, and goes on to discuss the impetus for his essay.

“This is the first time, in my recollection, that experts in their fields opposed, to varying degrees, to using animals in research and experts in favor of such use have sat down at the same forum and presented their views. As such, the event is very controversial and unfortunately more heat than light has been generated. It is the source of some of this heat that I would like to address in the essay.”

Dr. Ray Greek

Greek’s essay is a welcome discussion of the panel’s purpose and potential to encourage dialogue about the use of animals in research.  He addresses a wide range of questions and issues, including his assessment of the venue, the selection of panel participants, the audience, and the need for security. Greek criticizes the attempts of various vocal activists to derail or diminish the event:

“More pointedly, I do not understand the opposition coming from animal rightists. … But this event is the first in a series of events where the AR and AV communities are getting what they have wanted and yet I am reading what can only be described as vitriol and not well-informed vitriol at that.”

And also points out what seems obvious to almost everyone:

“If activists wish to engage in direct action, promote direct action, condone violence in the pursuit of certain outcomes and so forth, so be it. (Now is not the time and this is not the forum for a debate about the ethics of such actions and positions.) But it is disingenuous to simultaneously act in the ways described above and then feign surprise and offense when society does not take seriously their request to participate in an event that functions in the confines of the norms of society. You cannot have it both ways.”

There are a number of noted schisms between factions in the animal activist community and heated discussion over agendas, tactics, and methods of advocating for their viewpoints. Greek addresses this issue as well, with a pointed comment about the harassment directed at UCLA scientists.

“But while we are on the topic, when was the last time a protest, especially home demos (a tactic favoured by some of those expressing vitriol over the February 16 event), resulted in immediate change? If individuals in the AR and AV movements are serious about having the scientific facts on their side and wanting a forum to have those facts presented to society in general, they might consider the old medical adage: first do no harm. Continuing home demos after a researcher has agreed to a panel discussion and subsequent debate is not helpful. The researcher is under no pressure from society to participate in the process. Society already agrees with him that vivisection is a necessary evil. If the researcher is going to continue to be exposed to threats and harassment irrespective of his actions, then why bother?”

Speaking of Research does not agree with Dr. Greek’s position on the use of animals in research or many of his arguments about the validity and usefulness of the results of animal studies. We have in common, however, our understanding of one major purpose of this panel, and more broadly of encouraging discussion of this complex issue in public forums.  As Greek says:

“The purpose of the panel and subsequent debate is not for anyone to change the minds of people with a vested interest in the process (this is a straw man set up by the writer)* but rather to air the various positions in a forum so society can be exposed to them and thus make a decision about the validity of the views expressed. (*The writer Greek refers to is an animal extremist posting from See You in the Streets.)”

We believe that the UCLA panel is an important step forward.  There have been few other occasions and groups that have worked together to identify common ground, debate, and discuss animal research publicly. These include the 2006 debate at the University of Wisconsin Madison between scientist and Institution Animal Care and Use Committee chair Eric Sandgren and Rick Bogle, an animal activist and founder of Primate Freedom.  In the UK, The Boyd Group, is a “forum for open exchange of views on issues of concern related to the use of animals in science.” Its membership includes individuals and organizations from the spectrum of views on the use of animals in research and its objectives are “to promote dialogue between these diverse people and organisations; and, where there is consensus, to recommend practical steps towards achieving common goals.” These efforts are accompanied by a range of other types of activities that promote engagement and dialogue between members of the scientific community, research advocates, and the public.

We appreciate the effort that Bruins for Animals and Dr. Greek have taken to make public statements condemning the tactics of animal activists who advocate for, or condone, violence against scientists and supporters of animal research.  We look forward to this event, where panelists will offer their broad range of personal views on the science and ethics of animal research.  We sincerely hope the event will mark a new beginning where civil dialogue and debate are possible in a topic that evokes strong emotions from all sides.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

Animal Research Cures – There’s even a Website

The American Physiological Society (APS) has developed a new website to help explain the important role animal research plays in modern medicine – . APS has been at the forefront of biomedical research advocacy, with a clear position statement on the importance of animal research and educational material on their website, as well as showing strong support for the Pro-Test Petition. The new website continues APS’s efforts to educate the public by providing answers to many common concerns about animal research such as “Why can’t they use computers instead?” and “Is research painful?” This frank and open explanation of animal research is necessary if we are ever to win over the hearts and minds of the American public.

On the website you can download the “Finding Cures, Saving Lives” brochure which provides easy-to-read information on how animal research has enabled many developments in modern medicine. Speaking of Research applauds the efforts of APS in tackling this tricky and controversial issue in a direct and up front manner.



The Similarity of Human and Animal Models

Most scientists who incorporate animals in their research do so under the strong belief that modern animals (particularly those closest to us in evolutionary terms) exhibit an amazing genetic, physiological and behavioral similarity to Homo sapiens, making them effective model systems in which to understand both humans and animals alike. This is particularly true of monkeys and great apes, and it is the reason that primatologists and physical anthropologists have – for nearly a century – studied these species in the wild and in laboratories. They believe that apes and monkeys are so similar to us that this study can reveal insights into the origins of the human species, to our culture and to our evolutionary history.

This homology is not just contained solely within the primate family, however. Dogs also share a remarkable amount in common with us. This is probably because the human species has spent millenia shaping the genome of the domesticated dog through selective breeding in order to make it an ideal companion who shares our emotional and cognitive lives. Not long ago, it was shown that domesticated dogs have a unique ability to understand the social cues embedded in subtle human behavior, like eye gaze, while many chimpanzees do not. This is probably why we favor them as companions – they seem to understand our thoughts and emotions because they have this ability. Importantly, many patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders have difficulty with understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, impairing their ability to relate socially. This suggests that the study of domesticated dogs may provide a unique opportunity to explain the basis of aspects of autism. We can ask what is it that differentiates dogs from other animals that conferred upon them this ability to understand the minds of others. We can then test whether interventions that work through that mechanism are useful treatments for social problems in autism.

A recent paper by researchers in Boston, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, further exposes the potential for bio-behavioral studies in dogs. These scientists noted that a significant number of Dobermans had a tendency to engage in behaviors reminiscent of human Obsessive Compulsive Behavior (OCD; including abnormal self grooming – called trichotillomania – and other repetitive motor movements like pacing and checking). By studying a large family of Dobermans who exhibited these traits, the scientists were able to show that there were genetic causes to the behavior and to provide evidence that mutations on dog chromosome 7 were associated with these symptoms. Upon further analysis of their data, they identified an interesting gene (cadherin 2) which is expressed within the brain and may directly relate to these behaviors. We now have an important set of questions to test: what brain circuits is cadherin 2 expressed in? Does the same gene, which is known to be present in humans, relate to OCD? If so, can we treat the symptoms and lessen the distress of patients with OCD by targeting this gene? The millions of patients with OCD undoubtedly await an answer to these questions. What is more, we now have important information that may help to make the lives of these dogs better through lessening the behavioral problems they have inherited through their genes.

Of additional note, these researchers made this discovery by observing the dogs’ behavior and by obtaining a blood sample, revealing the fact that – as many researchers have long asserted – the descriptions of all biomedical research as “vivisection” is a far cry from the truth. Scientists typically refine their approaches in order to use the least invasive and distressing methods to uncover the facts that are required. This is particularly true when considering complex species with evolved cognitive and emotional abilities – like dogs and monkeys. I personally care for two small dogs, and because of this, I – like other scientists – am exceptionally sensitive to the impact of an experiment on the animals that live in our labs. It is with that in mind that we struggle to carry out our research in as refined a manner as is possible given the scientific question being investigated. Indeed, as I have previously asserted, there are many scientific questions that cannot be answered well if the welfare of the subject is ignored and/or if the animal is exposed to stress that will alter its behavior.

While invasive methods are sometimes required to make progress towards treatments for human disease, at other times they are not. Researchers judiciously choose the method that produces the necessary data with the least impact on the subject, and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees review the decision of any scientist about the level of invasiveness of his/her study. That not withstanding, studies in non-human animals continue to be foundational for our understanding of ourselves, and discoveries regarding the function of the brain and body in health and disease will continue to be made thanks to animal research.


David Jentsch