Monthly Archives: February 2011

Highlights from Nature’s Q&A

Today (about 5 minutes ago), Nature ran an online Q&A session on the subject of animal research to fit in with its latest special editorial on the topic.

There was a lot of interesting background to the Q&A session in the latest issue including a the results of a poll of around 1,000 scientists. Over 90% of the scientists (70% of whom conduct research) believed that animal research was crucial to the advancement of biomedical science (2.7% disagree, 0.7% strongly disagree):

Nature Poll of 1,000 ResearchersA more interesting result came from the question that asked:

Nature Poll of 1,000 ResearchersIt was interesting to see that the UK, where animal rights activism is at an all-time low, considers it a bigger threat than the US. Perhaps this is because the UK has seen the damage that animal rights activism can do to biomedical research. Also of note was that almost no one in the rest of Europe disagreed with the premise, perhaps reflecting the generally high levels of extremism which have occurred across the continent.

Another background article was Tipu Aziz and John Stein’s (of Pro-Test) piece on the importance of speaking out (we approve!) Their article was next to Ranga Yogeshwar who suggested those conducting animal research should “[s]tay as far away from the camera as possible” (we don’t approve!!) Tipu and John made a clear and forceful argument, and their conclusion is one of the most clear and succinct pieces of reasoning for advocacy:

In this electronic age, remaining silent is not an option for scientists engaged in animal research; anyone can use Google to look up what a researcher does. The sensible thing is to be proactive and prepared to defend our work. The public needs to hear all sides of the story.

Anyhow, on to the Q&A:

The discussion began with questions over the impact of animal rights activism and extremism on the scientists and their research. This was later beautifully summed up by the Nature news writer and discussion moderator, Daniel Cressey:

What we were trying to bring out in the feature is that the fringes are currently defining the debate for a huge proportion of policy makers and scientists. I’d love to get to the point where the minority who are extremists don’t have this power over the debate.

His fellow news writer and discussion moderator, Brendan Maher, commented:

[…] that violent elements are few and far between. But they do so much to derail any fruitful conversation, they must be countered strongly. As soon as you introduce fear or intimidation into the debate, there’s no more room for intelligent conversation.

There were some comments on the impact of Pro-Test in the UK, as well as the benefits of added legal restraints and sanctions to activist actions. In reply to concerns from one scientist about speaking up, Daniel Cressey replied:

I think that the Pro-Test group has shown how support of animal research can be done, and done well and safely. The real danger – to my mind – is keeping silent on this. Scientists should be proud of the work they do, whether or not that involves animals.

In the UK there is the perception that tougher laws have helped. One of our features from this week looks at one activist who fell foul of them ( In the US they have had some teething problems, but they do show that attacks on animal researchers will not be tolerated.

Discussion quickly moved onto the 3Rs, and whether enough was being done to ensure they were being put in place. ToniS said:

We asked our researchers if there were blockers to doing more for the 3Rs. They all said “time.” They are under so many pressures to focus on commercialization. How do we MAKE the time internally or do we “outsource” through academia, consortia, or scholarships?

Science Blogger Harlequinclrty took the time to comment on some of the replies (in 140 characters or less):

And @tomholder nails it: “It is not a case of 3Rs research or normal research—the 3Rs are just principles of good science” #animalresearch

And @tomholder continues to nail it: “just because they are not called the 3Rs does not mean people don’t use them” #animalresearch

At the accusation that the 3Rs was not understood by all scientists, Barbara Davies of Understanding Animal Research said:

Let’s face it, the three Rs are jargon. If we talk about the principles underlying the jargon, most scientists will recognise them.

There were many more insightful comments from the variety of people who contributed, and you can read it all on Nature’s website.


Tom Holder


The Animal Researcher who Refused to Hide

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) highlights a recurring theme in the struggle between researchers engaged in responsible, legitimate scientific study of animal subjects and critics of that research. That is, an open willingness of a few fanatical elements within the animal rights movement to embrace violent acts and an effort of more “moderate” elements to personally distance themselves from the perpetration of violence, while tacitly justifying it, in the same breath.

Jerry Vlasak, spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, is quoted:

If Jentsch won’t stop [using animals in his research] when you ask nicely, when you picket in front of his house, or when you burn his car,” says Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for underground animal-rights groups, “maybe he’ll stop when you hit him over the head with a two-by-four.”

This chilling statement, while steeped in hatred and sociopathy, is not surprising. Mr. Vlasak has created a cottage industry around making such statements, likely because of the notoriety and public attention he receives when he makes them. The repetitive nature of his open embrace of such threats of harm belie the fact that he really has little else of any merit to add to the discussion of the ethics and science of animal-based research.

What is increasingly noteworthy, however, is the willingness of self-identifying non-violent activists to justify, explain away or apologize for the violent acts used to intimidate researchers.

In February of 2010, Pro-test for Science joined together with a student animal rights organization, Bruins for Animals, to host a civil dialogue on the science and ethics of animal-based research. Despite our attempt to build a rational and open discussion with the group, the Chronicle reporter indicates that Bruins for Animals:

does not endorse violence, but Kristy Anderson, who founded it in 2004, says she understands the anger behind the attacks on researchers and wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner or later, a scientist got hurt.”

If animal rights activists feel that they are being moderate when they do little more than refuse to “endorse violence”, they are deluded and wrong. Moderation and civility involves the repudiation of violence – a far cry from the poorly veiled attempt to pin the blame for animal rights extremism on researchers who are doing nothing more than engaging in legitimate, ethical and legal research intended to save life.

Robert Jones, a philosophy faculty member at CSU-Chico, restates Ms. Andersen’s take on extremist violence when he tries to explain their position.

  They believe what you are doing is morally wrong, and they feel disempowered to stop it,” he told Mr. Jentsch.”

What the author of the Chronicle article did not describe is his unwillingness to say that what animal rights extremists are doing to scientists is wrong, or – for that matter – his unwillingness to criticize similar efforts by anti-abortionists like Operation Rescue or anti-gay hate groups. One only has to stop for a moment to realize just what Ms. Andersen and Mr. Jones are really saying: if animal researchers, abortion providers or people practicing their sexual preferences in private make you mad enough, it is only understandable that you might turn around and hurt them; if one feels powerless to stop perceived unacceptable and immoral behavior of others, “any means necessary” is an unfortunate but expected consequence.

The parallels between elements within the animal rights movements and the hate mongers from the religious right are revealed in these statements. All these groups involve zealots who hold a point of view that they believe is uniquely enlightened. Each has a self concept that incorporates moral superiority and purity of vision. All believe that those who violate their moral framework are sinners, and that they are entitled to mete out justice in turn.

So, what happens when a group like this sets their sights on you because of your job and/or characteristics? Will others turn away and “understand” the violence and hatred directed at you?

Or will we all, as members of a civilization of rational human beings, come together and say – once and for all – that harassment, intimidation and threats are unacceptable and must be stopped? And, more importantly, will we start to combat violence and confront extremism now, before it finds its way to the door of others?

David Jentsch

Overcoming paralysis: From Monkey to Man at the University of Pittsburgh

On Friday the New York Times reported that scientists at the University of Pittsburgh are ready to start clinical trials of two different brain implant systems, known as brain machine interfaces,  that aim to give quadriplegic patients control over a prosthetic limb.

In the main project a team led by Professor Andrew Schwartz and Professor Michael Boninger will, over the next two years,  place two sensors, each of which consists of an array of 100 electrodes that record the activity of about 50 nerve cells, just beneath the skulls of three patients. The signals collected from these sensors should allow the patients to control the movement of a prosthetic arm and hand.  In 2008 Professor John Stein wrote an article for Speaking of Research on the monkey studies that Prof. Schwartz performed while developing these sensors.  In these studies the monkeys displayed a finer degree of dexterity in manipulating a robotic arm than the scientists had anticipated, and learned to use the robotic arm surprisingly quickly, suggesting that paralysis victims may also be able to learn to use the prosthetic arm in a relatively short space of time.

The smaller project uses an alternative approach called electrocorticography, which also used a sensor implanted under the skull, but measures the activity of populations of nerve cells rather than individual neurons. This technique has the advantage of being less invasive than the electrodes that need to make direct contact with neurons, as the risk of infection is reduced when the protective meninges are not penetrated during implantation of the sensor.  Although it was previously thought to be a less precise approach than the direct measurment of single neuron activity, a  recent monkey study has demonstrated that brain machine interfaces based on electrocorticogram sensors can rival the performance of sensors that measure neuron activity directly, this and other studies have prompted the clinical evaluation of this approach.

Interesting  as these trials are, they represent only a few of the technologies being developed to treat paralysis, other techniques we have examined in recent years include neuroprosthetic devices that bridge severed spinal cords, stem cells, and therapies that encourage the regrowth and repair of damaged nerve tissue. Much of this research is still at a relatively early stage, but it is exciting to see that these techniques are starting to move from the bench to the bedside.

Paul Browne

Advancing gene therapy, debunking AR propaganda.

The promise of curing genetic diseases by replacing damaged genes with healthy ones is slowly becoming a reality. One recent story is the development of therapy in humans to reverse a form of childhood blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA.

OregonLive reports on the story of Alexe Webb who, soon after birth, was diagnosed with LCA the most common cause of inherited blindness in children. Her doctor, Dr. Richard Weleber, said “With this trial, she has the opportunity to have much better vision. We hope the treatment is very durable, that it will last for many decades, even for life.”

As detailed at the National Eye Institute web site:

The groundbreaking clinical trials to restore vision in patients with LCA rest on 15 years of basic research with animals. Long before the gene transfer procedure could be tested in people, four critical milestones had to be met: the discovery of the RPE65 gene; creation of a mouse model that illustrates the gene’s functions and what happens when it’s missing; development of a safe way to carry healthy replacement genes to the target within the eye; and studies of the procedure in a large animal model — dogs.”


The report continues:

Dogs carrying a nearly identical mutation to Alexe’s were the first test subjects. Within two weeks of treatment, three nearly blind dogs were able to navigate with little problem, Dr. Jean Bennett, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia told the Journal of the American Medical Association in October. The effects of a single injection persisted for more than 10 years in the first dog treated. Researchers learned that retinal cells may be ideal targets for gene therapy because they don’t divide much, allowing replaced genes to persist.”


This isn’t the first time that this use of gene therapy to treat LCA has caught our attention, back in 2009 Anna Matynia wrote a piece which highlighted the value of the briard dog to this research. All in all it is a great example of how gene therapy is starting to change the face of medicine.

The briard dog, crucial to the development of gene therapy for LCA

In other news we reported last week on how the animal rights zealots at PCRM were willing to endanger the lives of preterm babies by attacking an important training program at the University of Washington.  We were pleased to note an editorial in the Seattle Times which comes down firmly on the side of the University of Washington, the Seattle Times clearly recognizes that Dr. Dennis Maycock and his colleagues at the University of Washington are the real responsible and ethical physicians in this debate.

The problem of specialist pediatric training programs coming under attack from AR activists is not however limited to Seattle, PeTA are attempting to close down a similar training program at Primary Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) in Salt Lake City. The Daily Herald has reported how PeTA have resorted to false claims that PCMC have conceded to their demands. Once again doctors have had to confront misleading animal rights propaganda, with Dr. Bonnie Midget of PCMC pointing out that:

There is no simulator for a 2-pound premature infant,We would love it if someone would make one.”


We at Speaking of Research applaud the responsible physicians at the University of Washington and PCMC who brave threats and harassment to stand up for the welfare of their youngest patients.

Dario Ringach and Paul Browne

A fish named Hope

If you have watched any British TV channels in the past week or two, you may have seen the excellent ads produced by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) as part of a major fundraising drive to support their new Mending Broken Hearts campaign.

The Mending Broken Hearts campaign is a major new multidisciplinary initiative which seeks to harness the power of regenerative medicine to better treat, and one day cure, heart failure. If you want to learn more about this work, the BHF website has information on the science behind the initiative, and why their scientists are studying zebrafish.

It is an ambitious and fascinating project, and an excellent example of how the differences between species can be as valuable to medical advancement as the similarities.

But that’s not all that is striking about this campaign.

This is a fundraising campaign by a major medical research charity that not only acknowledges the importance of animal research, but places it centre stage. Little more than a decade ago that would have been unthinkable in the UK.

When I first started my career in science in the late 1990’s public support for animal research in the UK was considerably lower than it is now, and few scientists willing to discuss their work in public or counter the misleading propaganda of animal rights activists.  Animal rights extremists appeared to be able to harass, intimidate and coerce at will, using tactics such as hate mail, vandalism, arson, grave robbing and violence to force several animal breeders to close, and even contributing to a decision by Cambridge University to abandon plans to construct a new primate laboratory in 2004.  As the 21st century dawned the future of biomedical research in the UK looked very bleak.

But behind the scenes things were changing. The tireless efforts of research advocacy groups including RDS and the Coalition for Medical Progress (now merged to form Understanding Animal Research ), Sense about Science, and Seriously Ill for Medical Research, who spoke up for animal research and countered the distortions spread by animal research, and the bravery of individuals including the Oxford neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore and patient activist Andrew Blake, who continued to speak out in support of animal research despite threats against themselves and their families, began to yield dividends. As time went on more and more scientists were persuaded to discuss the role of animal research in their work in more detail when talking to journalists, rather than referring obliquely to “laboratory studies”, and by the middle of the decade opinion polls indicated that public support for the use of animals in medical research had increased dramatically. Politicians also began to wake up to the threat posed to science in the UK by animal rights extremism, and the danger that other unrepresentative minorities might adopt the tactics of animal rights extremists to foist their views on the rest of society: Something had to be done. A series of laws were passed to prevent intimidation and harassment being used as campaign tools, while for the first time sufficient resources were made available to police units to counter domestic extremism.

The tide finally turned in the spring of 2006 when hundreds of citizens, scientists, students in Oxford joined together under the banner of Pro-Test to march in support the construction of a new animal research laboratory.  Responding to threats by animal rights extremists, and inspired by the example set by Laurie Pycroft, the marchers showed that they would not be silenced and would not be intimidated. That rally, and the widespread coverage it received in national and international news media, released a pent-up wave of support from animal research that almost instantly changed the tenor of the debate on animal research in the UK. The new Oxford laboratory was completed in 2008.

Now five years later many of the animal rights extremists whose terror campaigns made the lives of so many people a misery are behind bars, and scientists are more willing than ever before to talk about the contribution of animal research to medical progress.

So the zebrafish are not just an example of the promise of 21st century medicine, but show us that if scientists and supporters of science stand together we can defeat extremism, we can counter the lies and distortions spread by animal rights campaigns, and we can secure the future of scientific medicine. That’s a lot of hope for such a small fish.

The zebrafish, latest star of medical research.


Paul Browne

Caring for Sick Babies: Science versus Animal Rights

There can be few areas of medicine that are as emotionally and ethically fraught as the treatment of babies born with life threatening or debilitating illness. Doctors must constantly weigh up potential benefits to the baby of any procedure against risk that the procedure may harm either the baby or mother. Nevertheless, it’s an area of medicine that has seen significant progress in recent years, and as we have discussed before many of the medical advances have stemmed from animal research.

Earlier this week the New York Times reported on a large clinical trial at three medical centres that specialise in fetal surgery, which demonstrated that infants with Spina Bifida were more likely to walk and experience fewer neurological problems if operated on before being born rather than afterward. Spina Bifida is a birth defect caused by the incomplete closure of the embryonic neural tube, the precursor to the brain and spinal cord, which should take place during the first month of pregnancy, and it is associated with major lifelong disability.

Professor Scott Adzik, who led the study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, explained the benefits observed in the trial to the New York Times:

Before surgery, babies in the prenatal group had more severe spinal lesions than the postnatal group, but more in the prenatal group had better results, said a co-author, Dr. Scott Adzick, chief of pediatric surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Those who received prenatal surgery were half as likely to have a shunt, and eight times as likely to have a normally positioned brainstem. There was “much better motor function of the legs,” Dr. Adzick said, and at 30 months old, nearly twice as many walked without crutches or orthotics.

Although they were born at 34 weeks of pregnancy on average, compared with 37 weeks for the postnatal group, there was no difference in cognitive development, said Dr. Catherine Spong, chief of pregnancy and perinatology at the child health institute.

Dr. Adzick said prenatal surgery may “stop exposure of the developing spinal cord and perhaps avert further neurological damage” or stop the leak of spinal fluid that causes brainstem problems. ”


Professor Adzik is one of the pioneers of fetal surgery for Spina Bifida, having performed the first such operation in 1997, and you won’t be too surprised to learn that animal research informed his decision to attempt this procedure.

Before attempting this surgery Professor Adzik needed to know whether the disability seen in Spina Bifida was due to the neural cord defect, or to a secondary effect due to the exposure of the spinal cord to the interuterine fluid.  In the first case surgery would not help to prevent disability, in the second case it might help and experimental surgery on human fetuses would be ethically justifiable.

To determine which case applied Professor Adzik and colleagues performed a series of studies in sheep (1).  They found that surgically exposing the normal spinal cord of midgestational sheep fetuses to amniotic fluid leads to a human-like Spina Bifida with paraplegia at birth, indicating that the exposed neural tissue is progressively destroyed during pregnancy, and that much of the disability seen in Spina Bifida is due a secondary effect of exposure to the interuterine environment rather than the primary neural cord defect. When they repaired the spinal cord in utero, the disability in animals at birth was greatly reduced. This result gave Professor Adzik and his colleagues at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia the confidence to undertake the first operation to correct Spina Bifida in utero, an operation that led to the far larger clinical trial reported this week.

By way of contrast an article in the Seattle Times reports on how the very misleadingly named “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine” (PCRM) is trying to stop a medical training program for very early pre-term infants from using live ferrets in its training program. What is very refreshing about this story is how Dr. Dennis Maycock, the leader of the University of Washington program, patiently explaining why simulators are not appropriate for some of the very specialist training they undertake, and the very good care they take of ferrets used in this training.  Of course we are very familiar with the anti-scientific agenda of PCRM, and applaud Dr. Maycock for exposing their hollow propaganda.

So all in all it’s been a week that has highlighted the difference between those who seek to save lives through the responsible and ethical use of animals in research and training, and those who would favor animal rights ideology over the lives and health of the youngest members of our society.

Addendum: While we are on the subject of animal rights groups who like to give the impression that they are not animal rights groups, check out this great new post on HSUS by scienceblogger Erv.


Paul Browne

1)      Meuli M, Meuli-Simmen C, Hutchins GM, Yingling CD, Hoffman KM, Harrison MR, Adzick NS. “In utero surgery rescues neurological function at birth in sheep with spina bifida.” Nat Med. 1995 Apr;1(4):342-7. PubMed:7585064

How to Build a Beating Heart

On Friday I discussed one of the recent developments in the science of tissue engineering, the development of artificial blood vessels for transplant by Dr. Laura Niklason of Yale University.  Tonight National Geographic’s Explores series is taking a more global look at how tissue engineering is delivering in the clinic and promising much for the future. You can buy the Nat Geo program here or watch a preview here.

The program focuses on the groundbreaking work done my Professor Harald Ott and Dr. Doris Taylor at the University of Minnesota, who created a bioengineered rat heart was able to sustain its own contractions and respond appropriately to pharmacological stimulus.

As well as tissue-engineered hearts, the program will look at how Luke Massella, born with spina bifida, has benefited from the transplant of a lab-grown bladder, a procedure which was pioneered in dogs  back in 1998 by  Professor Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University. Professor Atala has since gone on to lead a team which has engineered more than 20 different tissues, work that has relied heavily on the insights gained from animal research.

So tune into National Geographic Explorer tonight at 10pm EST and learn how tissue engineering is transforming medicine and bringing hope to millions of patients.

Paul Browne