Author Archives: David Jentsch

Animal rights campaigns: When free speech takes a hideous turn

An important principle of American democracy is that the free exchange of ideas is crucial to social progress. We accept that protected speech can be often be ugly, provoke social unrest and include acts of civil disobedience. Yet, as far as possible, we must ensure that people are free to express their ideas – this cannot happen when individuals on one side of the debate are harassed and threatened. We’ve seen this happen in the abortion debate. Now, we see it unfold in the animal rights debate.

Organized harassment, intimidation, threats and firebombs directed at individuals involved in biomedical research involving animals, as well as other animal-related industries, and their families, are neither uncommon, nor are they protected forms of free speech.  While these are the tactics are used by a relatively small group of animal rights extremists who work under the motto — “animal liberation by all means necessary”, the escalation of violence from radical elements of the movement has been fueled in recent years by a larger group of activists who sit by the sidelines celebrating these criminal acts and inciting individuals to more violence. There is an even larger majority which appears at least to silently approve.  Only a disappointingly tiny group of animal rights philosophers and organizations have been vocal in condemning the violence from the fringes of the animal rights movement.

Some of the activists have taken to the internet in order to publish the addresses of their “targets” along with carefully worded incitements to violence; others have initiated campaigns of hate against their victims; yet others have shown up outside the targets’ front doors at night, wearing ski-masks, and frightening children inside with chants like “we know where you sleep”. This is, in good part, the free speech so many activists want to defend.

Protesters scream outside a researcher's home, routinely harassing the entire neighborhood

The behavior of animal rights extremists parallels that of radical, anti-abortion groups that targeted physicians who provided abortions to women who needed or requested them.  To seek a remedy to the escalating violence from these groups, President Bill Clinton passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, that prohibits trespassing, vandalism, threats of violence, stalking, arson and bombings directed at reproductive health care clinics or their personnel.  The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act simply attempts to control the criminal acts of animal rights extremists in a similar fashion.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) contains a clause indicating that nothing within it should be construed to “prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”  It is clear that only illegal conduct that is not covered under the First Amendment can be construed as violating the Act. Animal activists and advocates willing to express their views and educate the public regarding them can do so freely.

It is those that support campaigns of intimidation, threats and hatred that want to challenge it. It is those that want to use their speech to frighten and torment into submission others that dislike the enhanced punishments. It is those that want to enforce their views on society by force (which defines terrorism) that want it struck down.

We applaud Senator Feinstein for her stance in supporting legislation whose only goal is to respond to terrorist activities of a few and allow the rest of society to hold a civil debate on these the moral relationship between humans and non-human animals.


David Jentsch and Dario Ringach

Fanning the flames of fear

Over the New Year’s weekend, the people of Los Angeles were gripped by a rash of arsons that targeted vehicles and homes. The fires sent people scurrying from bed in the middle of the night, with children in arms, in a desperate attempt to avoid harm. An understandable fear gripped the community, with people parking their cars down the street so that, if the arsonist came, the resulting fire would not spread to their house, risking the safety of their sleeping families.

The string of arsons was, apparently, the action of a single hate-filled man who was determined to inflict his anger on helpless targets. He went out into the night, applied accelerant to cars and set them on fire.

I, like other biomedical researchers in Los Angeles, had a powerful, personal response to viewing these events unfold. It was only 30 months ago that an animal rights extremist, morally blinded by hate and rage, walked through the gates of my yard at 4 am and set my car on fire, risking my life and that of those who lived around me. I can still see the flames when I close my eyes, and I can sometimes still feel the heat of the fire on my face, so I knew very well what these new victims that I watched on television were feeling: fear, panic, sadness and total confusion.

Animal rights extremists torched my car in 2009

The extremist elements that claim responsibility for these actions often indicate that they cause no harm to people; they say that they limit their actions to economic damage (WARNING: link takes you to an animal extremist website). They claim to break windows, steal documents, free animals and – yes – set cars and homes on fire, but they often insist that they do not hurt or injure people.

The claims that they cause no harm are proved hollow by the looks on the faces of people fleeing their burning homes on New Year’s eve. Extremist animal rights elements, like the man who set the New Year’s Eve fires, have one goal – not to cause financial losses to their targets – but to inflict psychological damage in the form of terror. In that sense, their targets are as much the people who have yet to be attacked as they are the individual whose car is on fire.

The events of last weekend underscore the fact that hatred is not unique to animal rights extremists. But it does demonstrate how powerful and insidious these forms of attack can be and how essential it is for our broader civil society to reject the actions of those who use thuggish tactics to achieve their ends of their movement.


David Jentsch

On Friday, January 6, KCET, a Southern California PBS station, will re-air the story (‘Testing the Limits’) that addresses the harassment of Los Angeles researchers by local animal rights activists. You can watch it as it broadcasts (2/6 at 830 PM PST; 2/7 at 6 PM PST; 2/8 at 630 PM PST or 2/9 at 1030 PM PST); the program is also archived on their website (click here).

Afterthoughts on IoM report on the use of chimps in scientific research

Thursday marked an important moment in the history of animal research.  The long-anticipated report of a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IoM) to consider whether chimpanzee research is scientifically necessary released its report, quickly followed by a statement from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, the director accepting the committee’s recommendations.

The report acknowledged that chimpanzees were vital to past progress, but that at present there is limited necessity and justification for them in research.  It did not endorse a ban on chimpanzee research, nor the continuation of the moratorium on breeding, stating that these could potentially cause “unacceptable losses to the public’s health”.  It also made clear that “animal research remains a critical tool in protecting and advancing the public’s health”.   Both animal activists and biomedical researchers were simultaneously pleased and disappointed by different aspects of the report.

Speaking of Research believes there are many positive elements in the IoM report and to the surrounding discussion.  Above all, the report encouraged public dialogue, education, and serious civil conversation about the scientific and ethical (as well as practical and political) issues that surround animal research.  The IoM report provides a thoughtful, expert review of a range of issues involved in the consideration of the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research.

There were, however, a couple important points to note within the IoM report and its deliberations.

First, the charge of the IoM committee to assess the “scientific necessity” of the work, while specifically avoiding ethical issues, was clearly ill-posed, and – as the committee quickly realized – nearly impossible to carry out.

We acknowledge the committee held serious discussions about the science of chimpanzee research and the availability of alternative methods, but it is notable that these were guided by principles that are ethical in nature.  Namely:

  1. The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
  2. There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
  3. The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained in either ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.

Moreover, the IoM committee explicitly recognized that “ethics was at the core of any discussion […] on the continued used of chimpanzees in research”.

It is evident that the tension about the use of chimpanzees in research is not merely about science.  In fact, it is not even primarily about science, as arguably chimps can stand as valid scientific models in many areas of research.  It isn’t even about the cost of research.

It is largely about ethics.

Consequently, the panel appears to have felt, at points, uncomfortable in their own shoes.  On one hand it maintained that considering ethical issues was not part of its charge; on the other, it produced a list of guiding principles that reflect ethical rather than scientific considerations, finally concluding that it did not have the required expertise to evaluate the ethical dimensions of chimpanzee research.

We believe discussions on the science and ethics of animal research are inextricably linked and both should be part of any public discussion on animal research. An honest, open and civil discussion on both the science and ethics of animal research that includes animal advocates, animal welfare organizations, scientists, patients and their families, patient advocacy groups, public health officials and the medical leadership of the country.

We would like emphasize that the guiding principles “adopted” by the panel are in fact very similar to the three Rs and current NIH guidelines that already guide decision-making regarding animal research.  By quickly adopting the IoM committee’s recommendations without additional comment, NIH may be sending the unintentional message that such principles are not at play in work with other species.  We think this issue needs to be addressed and clarified by the NIH.

The IOM panel clearly demonstrated the power of a comprehensive and critical analysis that accounts for progress in research, changes in technologies, models, and questions.  However, proceeding in critical analysis on a species-by-species basis is problematic for a number of reasons. We argue that a more general appraisal of the ethics and science of animal research is warranted.

a)     As illustrated by the IOM report and surrounding discussion, the “species-wise” approach ignores the more basic and important questions that are at the heart of the issue (the ethical dimension) and that this deserves a much more thorough and broader public discussion based upon empirical data and facts.

b)     There is no reason to think that changes in the technology, questions, and need for certain projects that contributed to a reduction in the requirement for chimpanzees in research might not also apply to other types of animals.  One may productively ask, for example, whether some studies currently conducted using mice might turn to zebra fish or drosophila instead?

c)     A broad review, beyond a single species, is also requisite to addressing the value of comparative studies, which are an integral part of strong science. Repeating work in more than one species is sometimes essential. Just because a finding is demonstrated in one species doesn’t mean it is a commonality in all.  Whereas the US Guiding Principles require that the lowest possible species be used, there are legitimate scientific reasons to repeat some studies in multiple species.

We believe that conducting a broader review of animal research could significantly advance public understanding of the role that it plays in medical and scientific progress.  In many ways, such an exercise is long overdue. The report’s conclusions clearly show the value of a rigorous, thoughtful, and public review of even the most controversial type of research. But public interest in animal studies extends far beyond chimpanzee research.

Addendum: There is an interesting discussion of the implications of the IOM report in Nature News this week, which highlights the fact that the majority of biomedical research projects that currently use Chimpanzees are likely to meet the new criteria proposed by the IOM panel

Speaking of Research

This is the fifth of a series of posts aimed at encouraging thoughtful and fact-based consideration of the full range of complex issues associated with chimpanzee research and both short- and long-term responsibility for their welfare, care and housing. Previous Speaking of Research posts on chimpanzee research include:

08/12/11: Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research.

10/13/11: Joseph M. Erwin, PhD Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.

11/21/11: A closer look at the Great Ape Protection Act.

12/08/11: What cost savings?  A closer look at the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011

All in a day’s work: Scientists promote alternatives

Once upon a time, the medication BoTox (made by a company called Allergan) was tested for its potency, on a batch by batch basis, in living animals. This medication, which is really a protein derived from bacteria, has many important therapeutic purposes. For example, it has been shown to be very effective in the treatment of chronic migraine headaches – a condition that can have disabling effects on those who suffer from it. It is used to treat disorders in which people sweat profusely (hyperhidrosis) or have overactive bladders, both of which affect people’s qualities of life by impairing normal social functioning. It has also been used in the treatment of motor disorders like spasticity and dystonia, preventing the irregular and disruptive involuntary movements that are found in these disorders, thereby reducing the physical pain that is so often a consequence of them. Of course, it has also been used for aesthetic reasons, an arguably less compelling medical use.

BoTox is used to treat patients with spastic cerebral palsy, lesseing the pain they suffer as a result of their uncontrolled movements

Because the potency of individual batches of BoTox produced vary, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States required Allergan to test each batch on live animals. For each batch, studies were conducted in which the amount of BoTox that was required to produce a specific toxic effect was evaluated in live animals, and the dose was adjusted to ensure that the potency of the drug across batches could be accounted for (roughly, if the batch was half as potent, this can be accounted for by giving twice the dose, ensuring that clinical effects were stable over time). This testing involved a lot of animals, mostly mice.

However, earlier this summer, the FDA changed its mind. It was approached by an organization that had – at considerable expense – developed a test that could determine BoTox potency just as well as the animal tests – but without involving live animals. The test is conducted on cells in a dish.

The organization spent millions of dollars to develop the test and to petition the FDA to consider this replacement for live animal use based upon its empirical results. They were successful.

Who was this organization? Was it the Humane Society of the United States? Perhaps it was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine?

It was none of these. Indeed, since none of these organizations spend their operating budgets on the laboratory research that is required to develop alternatives to live animal studies, it couldn’t have been any of them.

So, who accomplished this? It was Allergan itself. Biomedical researchers at the company who used animals in their tests became determined to find a model system that could replace living animals, and they didn’t stop until they found one. They did this though it came at a huge expense to the company. They were committed to producing medicines that people need and to use the fewest animals in the process, and they accomplished that. As the Allergen press release notes, there have been several attempts, using a variety of methods, over the past two decades to develop a replacement for the LD50 test, but until now all these have fallen short.  A report from a 2008 scientific workshop convened by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM)  and the National Toxicology Program Interagency Program for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) provides a good overview of many of the challenges involved in delevoling a replacement for the LD50 test, and the different approaches used to address them.

As always, the alternatives that exist for animal use in biomedical science came from the very scientists who are otherwise roundly criticized by the anti-animal research movement. Maybe the irony is lost on organizations like PCRM, HSUS and PeTA, but not on us. At UCLA, our administration has instituted a funding program that provides seed funding to scientists to promote work on refinement, reduction and replacement. What have the leading anti-research groups done? Nothing, but complain. Perhaps instead of criticizing scientists, these organizations should join with us in attempting to discover alternatives and reduce animal use.


David Jentsch

Lighting the Way to New Treatments

A variety of diseases in humans happen when proteins with important cellular functions are lacking or are produced in abnormally low amounts. One example is type-2 diabetes mellitus which is caused by a complex set of problems involving the use of sugars (mostly, glucose) as an energy source. After eating, sugars in food are taken up by the body, and a set of biochemical events in the gut and metabolic organs (pancreas, liver) that control the levels of sugar in the blood and that allow cells to take up and use the sugar properly are activated. When those mechanisms do not function properly, blood sugar levels can become very high (hyperglycemia) and other forms of toxicity can result. Because there are many proteins involved in this process, type-2 diabetes can result from multiple different defects in different molecular pathways. This often makes type-2 diabetes difficult to treat, in some cases it can be reversed by lifestyle and dietary modification, while in many others the use of insulin or an anti-diabetic drugs such as metformin is required alongside dietary modification in order to achieve adequate control over glucose levels. In a significant minority of cases even the combination of medication and lifestyle changes is not effective enough to prevent the consequences of type-2 diabetes, such as cardiovascular and kidney disease.

A variety of novel treatments have been proposed, ranging from drugs that alter the functions of the defective proteins, to gene and/or protein therapy. In each case, the idea is to cause the proteins to be expressed and/or function normally, allowing sugar metabolism to progress optimally. Gene therapy involves causing a patient’s cells to express an artificial gene with the hope that it will, in turn, make more of a needed protein. Alternatively, therapies can involve direct administration of the protein, after it has been made by cells growing in a dish or by genetically-engineered animals (insulin treatment for type-1 diabetes is a good example). Gene therapy has many potential limitations, ranging from difficulties with the methods used to get the genes into the cells, to the fact that the cells may not express the protein in a normal amount and/or manner. Protein therapy suffers from the fact that it is very difficult to produce proteins suitable for drug treatment in large amounts or with sufficient potency and purity, meaning that these agents can be very expensive and have their own potential adverse effects.

A blended approach involves creating human cells that express proteins of interest in a laboratory, seeding them into an implantable “bio-reactor” and then placing the reactor into the patient’s body. Ideally, however, the expression of the protein by the cells in this bio-reactor would be controllable by the supervising physician, who could adjust it according to the patient’s needs and response to the treatment. This requires a “trigger” that turns up or down the activity of the cells. In a paper appearing in the journal Science, Swiss scientists have now demonstrated a method for controlling the production of proteins by an implanted bio-reactor; the trigger they developed is one free of any potential side effects of its own: namely, light.

To do this, they took advantage of an amazing mechanism – created by nature – that is buried deep in our eyes. Cells in our retina have proteins that sense light; when light strikes the proteins in these cells, a biochemical signal results which affects the physiology of the cell. This is the beginnings of how we see. In their article, Ye and colleagues report that theythat they used the light-sensitivity of the protein melanopsin to create cells in the laboratory that are capable of responding to light by producing a protein called glucagon like peptide-1, which promotes normal sugar balance and metabolism. They seeded these cells into a bio-reactor which they implanted just under the skin into mice that are type-2 diabetic. When they shined blue light onto the mice, some of it passed through the skin, reaching the bio-reactor. The cells released the protein, exactly as they were designed to do, and the secreted protein normalized the high blood sugar exhibited by the diabetic mice.

Blue light activates cells that express melanopsin proteins

Because different proteins are responsible for diabetes in different patients, it will eventually be possible to create individualized bio-reactors that restore the protein that is particularly important for that person; but in all cases, blue light can be the trigger. With that light comes the ability to control the levels of protein production according to the needs and response of the patient.

None of this would have been possible without decades of basic research into the biology of the eye (including studies in frogs which enabled the discovery of the critical light-sensitive protein melanopsin), into sugar metabolism  (in particular the studies in rats which identified glucagon like peptide-1 as an important regulator of insulin secretion ) and molecular genetics (which made it possible to modify the genetic structure of cells in the manner required here). Scientists working on these problems were not necessarily conducting research to cure human disease, but their discoveries laid the ground-work for these treatments anyway. Because of their enormous efforts, the new approach described by Ye and colleagues has potential for the treatment of a whole range of diseases where protein therapy is required, including cancer, liver disease and neurological problems. Once again, the future is “bright” for those suffering from those illnesses, thanks to the amazing combination of animal models and new technology.


David Jentsch

Fostering a community response to threats against future scientists

This past week, Negotiation is Over posted on its website encouragement for a new tactic against animal research—targeting university students who plan to enter the health sciences field.  NIO illustrates its proposed tactic by telling of its first “success” story:  the coercion of a Florida Atlantic University science student away from a research career.  What NIO fails to disclose is that this student’s public statement was made only after  an intense 24 hours of threatening emails, phone calls and other forms of harassment by the group and its leaders.

Speaking of Research has posted its response to NIO’s violent urgings.  We invite you to visit the blog and to share supportive comments for the student who was targeted.Speaking of Research, Americans for Medical Progress, and Pro-Test for Science are working together to provide individuals and institutions with information and guidance on equipping students and scientists of tomorrow with the skills they need to confront threats from animal rights activists/extremists.  Please contact us if you are a scientist, research advocate, or representative of a research institution who would like to receive this information.

The experts at our three research advocacy organizations are available to you for suggestions on how your organization can effectively support those who are studying for careers in the life sciences.  Our websites offer many information resources and ideas about ways to get involved in the kind of proactive public education and engagement that is essential to building public understanding of the vital role animal research plays in scientific and medical progress. Through a policy of openness about your research – and the role it plays in advncing medicine – you can build strong relationships with your community and local news media, and in doing so help ensure that you do not become a target for animal rights extremism.

Please join us in standing against this current threat and those who would stop vital animal research.

Americans for Medical Progress, Pro-Test for Science, and Speaking of Research

Here are a few general online resources.  Contact us for more to meet your specific needs:

AMP—Research Facts
AMP—Advocacy Materials
SR—AR Extremism
SR—The UK Experience
Society for Neuroscience—Best Practices for Protecting Researchers and Research
AAALAC International—links on animal research
Understanding Animal Research-Researcher’s Guide to Communications

A New Low at NIO: extremists threaten students

Earlier this week, the animal rights extremist group at posted an email they received from Alena – an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University – in response to their attempts to solicit local activists to attend an animal rights event:

Actually, I’m an undergrad researcher aiming to work at Scripps [Research Institute]! I currently test on animals and think that it is perfectly fine. In fact, it is the one of the only ways that we, scientists, can test drugs in order to treat human diseases. I’m sure someone in your family or even a friend you know has suffered from a disease or pathology that was treated (or cured) by medicines THAT ONLY CAME INTO EXISTENCE BECAUSE OF ANIMAL TESTING.

First off, we applaud Alena for standing up for what she believes in and for expressing support for the humane use of animals in research aimed at addressing the health and welfare of humans and animals alike. Not surprisingly, however, NIO launched an offensive of degrading and hateful emotional abuse that caused Alena to plead for them to:

…please stop saying such horrible, untrue things about me. It’s hurtful.

In response, they no doubt ratcheted up the threats, causing Alena to:

…denounc[e] animal testing and my involvement in it…. I will be looking for other career choices.

Not unlike perpetrators of child and spouse abuse who use fear of further attacks to ensure silence in their victims, NIO hopes that flooding the email boxes of young people with obscenities and rabid missives will ensure that the voices of scientists of tomorrow are suppressed. Even for NIO, this is a new low, and Speaking of Research sharply condemns those who chose to act like shameless bullies when harassing, threatening and intimidating any student, researcher or faculty member.

Nevertheless, a recent post at NIO underscores their belief that targeting students is an effective way forward:

Students are far more open to objective information and far more susceptible to applied persuasion tactics. The vested interests of industry-entrenched vivisectors lie in their bloody wallets and, truly, the only effective approaches to veteran abusers appear to be through incendiaries, intimidation, and violence. On the other hand, … students are far more malleable and easily manipulated.

What people who use fear and attacks to affect others forget is that, under threat, people will say almost anything, true or not. They may well get a statement or two like the one above, but overall, scientific research will continue and the vast majority of students will continue to feel safe and secure – especially when the scientific community rallies behind them to offer support.

What’s more, for each statement of capitulation they post to their website, there are countless other students who watch these events unfold and, in reaction, redouble their own commitment to science and to scientific advocacy.

Though NIO may refer to students as the “Soft bellied target of the vivisection complex” who “can be shut down with relative ease,” they should study their history. In the winter of 2005, the ALF launched a campaign that targeted students at Oxford University in the UK, declaring them to be “legitimate targets”. Did the students bow to the threats and arson attacks on their facilities? Not a chance! The students responded by launching the Pro-Test movement in support of animal research, and gave the ALF a drubbing which helped to turn the tide against AR extremism in the UK. The hate and lies of the ALF were simply no match for the solidarity shown by students and scientists at Oxford.

Similarly, the extremists at NIO may claim one victory, but they fail to see how much dedication they create at the exact same time.

At UCLA, faculty and students alike have been the target of a heinous and criminal campaign of violence and harassment. How many students have quit animal research and/or changed their careers? To our knowledge: none. Indeed, students at institutions like UCLA have become some of the most passionate and committed defenders of animal-based research.

Students Rallying at UCLA

At NIO, they see victories in stories like these. We say those victories are hollow and pathetic. If you share our view, leave a comment below showing support for Alena and other students like her. The scientists of tomorrow need to hear our voices.


Speaking of Research