Category Archives: News

2016 Lasker Awards shows importance of animal research

The 2016 Lasker Awards have highlighted some great discoveries and the scientists behind them. This guest post by Samuel Henager, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, investigates how animal studies contributed to the discoveries celebrated by this years’ Lasker Awards.

Basic Medical Research Award

The 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award was awarded to William G. Kaelin, Jr. of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Peter J. Ratcliffe of University of Oxford, Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for their work in discovering how cells sense and respond to changes in oxygen levels.

Image Credit:  Lasker Foundation

Image Credit: Lasker Foundation

Oxygen is crucial for survival, but at the same time, too much can be toxic for cells and damage DNA and proteins. Thus, it is crucial for cells to be able to sense and respond to the concentration of oxygen in its environment. Semenza and Ratcliffe discovered that under low-oxygen conditions the protein hypoxia-inducible factor-1a (HIF-1α) turns on many genes. Subsequently Kaelin and Ratcliffe discovered that under high-oxygen conditions, an enzyme called prolyl hydroxylase caused HIF-1a to be destroyed by the protein von Hippel-Lindau (VHL). VHL is mutated in von Hippel-Lindau disease, which is characterized by large tumors made of blood vessels. In the disease, HIF-1α levels are artificially high due to a defective VHL protein, thus tricking the body into thinking it needs more oxygen, and mistakenly growing unneeded blood vessels to carry oxygen to seemingly low-oxygen tissues.

The discovery of the full pathway for how cells respond to differing levels of oxygen has fueled ongoing research. Stopping the destruction of HIF-1α can help with anemia, a condition where low iron makes red blood cells less effective at carrying oxygen, by increasing the production of red blood cells. There are also cancer treatment applications, as some tumors’ survival depends on HIF-1α to spur the development of new blood vessels.

Anemia. Image Credit: NIH

Anemia. Image Credit: NIH

HIF-1α is conserved across a wide variety of species, and many animal models played a crucial role in the discovery of HIF-1α and its function. The first study by Ratcliffe that indicated a wide-spread response to low oxygen used multiple cell culture systems from monkey, pig, Chinese hamster, rat, and mouse cells. In later studies by Kaelin, Ratcliffe, and Semenza, reticulocytes—precursors to red blood cells—from rabbits were used to generate HIF-1α protein to study in vitro.  Xenopus laevis (frog) cells were used to study how prolyl hydroxylase was involved in the destruction of HIF-1α. C. elegans (roundworm) were used to investigate how mutations in VHL affected a whole organism’s ability to respond to low oxygen levels. Mice were used to study how HIF-1a might be involved in anemia. The discoveries celebrated by this award have fueled new avenues of research and the development of novel therapies, and animal models will surely continue to be a key part of this story.

Clinical Medical Research Award

The 2016 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award was given to Ralf Bartenschlager of Heidelberg University, Charles M. Rice of Rockefeller University, and Michael J. Sofia of Arbutus Biopharma for their work in developing a system to replicate Hepatitis C virus (HCV) in the lab and for using this system to develop new drugs to cure Hepatitis C infections.

Image Credit: Lasker Foundation

Image Credit: Lasker Foundation

Hepatitis C can be a devastating illness, leading to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, and liver cancer.  Previous treatments to fight the infection were highly toxic and did not effectively cure the person from disease. Drs. Bartenschlager, Rice, and Sofia all contributed to discovering a much safer, effective treatment for Hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C prevalence

Hepatitis C prevalence. Image Credit: CDC

The virus responsible for Hepatitis C was identified in 1989. For many years after its discovery, scientists struggled to create a strain of HCV that could replicate under laboratory conditions so that they could study the components and life-cycle of the virus in order to develop treatments or a vaccine. In the late 1990s, Dr. Rice recreated the full genetic sequence of the virus, and used this sequence to infect chimpanzees with the virus. At the time, chimpanzees were the only animal model for hepatitis, and he needed to make sure that the sequence he had identified was capable of replicating and causing disease. At the same time, Dr. Bartenschlager was attempting to infect liver cells using the newly identified sequence, but never detected replication. He was unsuccessful until he inserted a drug-resistance gene into the virus which allowed infected cells to survive when the culture was treated with a lethal drug. He also identified several mutations in the virus that allowed for better replication. With this improved sequence he was able to successfully infect a liver cell line with hepatitis C, which allowed scientists to study the virus in depth and begin to develop therapies for the disease. Dr. Sofia led a team of pharmaceutical researchers that developed a novel therapy for hepatitis. This new therapy is able to cure chronic hepatitis for many patients, who otherwise would be at risk for liver failure and liver cancer.

This is not only a great story of finding a cure for what can be a devastating disease, but also a great example of the value of non-human primate (NHP) research. The cellular replication system developed by Dr. Bartenschlager was important for developing drugs and studying the life-cycle of the hepatitis viruses, but for many years, the only way to study HCV was in a chimpanzee model. Chronic hepatitis C infection can lead to liver cancer, but how the virus or disease contributes to cancer development is not known. Humanized mouse models of hepatitis have been introduced in recent years, and scientists continue to work to improve their accuracy. These mouse models will be crucial as scientists work to unravel the remaining questions surrounding this disease, and work to develop effective treatments and vaccines.

Samuel Henager

Graduate student, Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Dettmer Goes to Washington, Part 4

Dr Dettmer

Dr Dettmer

In the first 3 parts of this series, I described my experiences at Capitol Hill Day, my interview with the National Association for Biomedical Research, and my interview with Rep. John Delaney (D-MD, 6). In this instalment of the series, I interview Lisa Kaeser, J.D., the Director of Legislation and Public Policy for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Here, she answers questions regarding her role in the legislative process, focusing in particular on science policy, and the ways in which NIH as an institution – and individual scientists – can become involved.

According to Kaeser, one of the major ways scientists funded by the NICHD, and other institutes within NIH, can become involved is by regularly engaging with their institute’s Office of Legislation and Public Policy about recent scientific discoveries, advances in the field, and especially the rigorous methods involved. This interaction helps these offices to “get it right” when giving briefings to policymakers in Congress.

What role(s) do you take in the legislative process surrounding science policy?

Our office is named the Office of Legislative and Public Policy to address the nexus between science and public policy. Helping to explain scientific advances and the scientific process to policymakers means that we must have a broad understanding of the wide range of science conducted and supported by NICHD. This often takes the form of briefings on Capitol Hill and responding to letters and other inquiries. Of course, I work closely with our scientists to make sure I’m getting it right. Conversely, policymakers in Congress — who must answer to their constituents — offer legislative proposals that may have a helpful, harmful, or benign effect on the science we fund. It’s up to our office to interpret those proposals and, if asked, provide technical assistance on what their impact might be on NICHD’s work.

How does your office work to keep legislators informed of science topics and the latest scientific findings to inform policy?

NICHD has a terrific Office of Communications that provides a huge amount of information on our website, including press releases on new scientific findings and “spotlights” that highlight a researcher or scientific topic area. NICHD also is fortunate to work with a wide variety of constituency organizations that support some aspect of our research. These range from large professional medical societies, to organizations representing scientific disciplines, diseases or condition-specific groups, and are collectively known as the “Friends of NICHD.”  These organizations and their members are effective advocates for science, so it’s critical that we keep them informed about recent advances and get their input on research priorities. For example, NICHD has a monthly newsletter that pulls together the most recent scientific highlights, which we send to all of these groups to help them describe NICHD’s work on Capitol Hill. In addition, the groups are helpful in sponsoring and arranging for congressional briefings, where our scientific staff are asked to speak about research in their fields of expertise.

nichd

What particular steps in the legislative process does NIH become involved in (and, is there an example of science policy that NIH has been involved in that you could provide)?

  • Responding to congressional requests/inquiries: everything from science policy (e.g., stem cell research, research with animals), an update on the latest research developments (e.g., autism), to the status of a grant application in their state or district.
  • Requests for briefings: scientific presentations must be tailored to a lay audience.
  • Requests for technical assistance on proposed legislation: NICHD may not take a “position” on legislation unless the Administration has taken a position. So comments must be limited to what effects the proposed legislative language might have on the research enterprise. For example, legislation that would require NICHD to report back to Congress on progress being made in a specific area might not be especially onerous, whereas legislation that would require establishment of a large research resource (but without additional funding) might not only be redundant with current research efforts, but force difficult funding decisions for the Institute.
  • Preparing for hearings and briefings: The NIH Director is asked to appear before both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees each year. Staff of the 27 NIH Institutes and Centers contribute to a large database of scientific issue briefs that he uses to prepare for the multitude of questions that may be posed by the committees’ members. In addition, each Institute Director may submit a statement for the hearing record that highlights recent research advances and priorities.

In which steps of the process can scientists effectively engage and become involved?

The first step is to become informed about the process, which is what the SfN Early Career Policy Ambassador program, and others like it, do so effectively. While scientists who are Federal employees may not lobby using government time or resources, they are free to speak or write to policymakers on their own time without using their government titles. Non-government scientists are not restricted from working with policymakers, including writing, meetings, or even tours of their labs; they would probably want to work with their home institutions in arranging these visits. And most of the professional societies are deeply engaged in this process, so being an active member of these groups is an excellent way to make your voice heard.

Dr Amanda M. Dettmer

The views and opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the NIH.

Scientific community unites in defence of primate research

The Backstory

It’s been a busy few weeks for those who wish to explain the role of primates in research. Last week the NIH held a workshop on “Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates” (watch it back here). The Congressionally mandated workshop resulted from report language that was associated with a PETA campaign. PETA hoped the workshop would question whether primates should be used in research at all. Instead PETA were disappointed when many experts came together to talk about how primates remained important to medical and scientific research. Days before the event, PETA activist, Professor John Gluck, wrote to the New York Times to criticise the use of primates in research. Speaking of Research posted a response – “The ethics and value of responsible animal research” – that was signed by over 100 scientists. Other organisations have subsequently written back to the newspaper with letters published this week.

Over in the UK, a group of 21 academics (primarily anthropologists) including Sir David Attenborough (notable broadcaster and naturalist) wrote to the online-only Independent newspaper to call for an end to certain neuroscience experiments involving primates. This provoked a backlash from the research community, who accused him of being “seduced by pseudoscience“. They may have had a point – Attenborough’s letter,  organised by Cruelty Free International, backed itself up with a recent paper “Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity” (authored by two staff at Cruelty Free International). The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate Neuroscience Research told The Independent:

“We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. “

The paper (by Bailey & Taylor, 2016) itself suggests that several medical advances – such as Deep Brain Stimulation – did not rely on animal studies. This would not seem to match what can be seen in the academic literature, indeed Alim Benabid, who won a Lasker Award for his role in developing the technique noted the important role of animal models, including primates.

Researchers Unite!

There are many other events which have played into a frustration by primate researchers, but the response was huge. Understanding Animal Research coordinated a letter on the role of primates in research. Within a few days hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists had signed up. Notable signatories included: Sir John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, for their work in reprogramming mature cells into early stem cells; Sir John E Walker, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for elucidating the mechanisms behind the synthesis of ATP; Professor Mahlon DeLong and Alim Benabid, who jointly won the 2014 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their research developing Deep Brain Stimulation as a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s (the same discovery that the Bailey & Taylor, 2016, paper suggested did not require  primates); and Professor Miguel Nicolelis, whose Walk Again project allowed a young paraplegic in an exo-skeleton to kick a football.

neuroscience-starsOver twenty organisations, including Speaking of Research, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), and the American Psychological Association (APA) signed their support ( a full list of signatories can be found here). The letter was published by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, on 13th September (and the following day in print), along with an accompanying article.

Furthermore, around 400 researchers also signed on to the letter:

Nonhuman primates have long played a key role in life-changing medical advances. A recent white paper by nine scientific societies in the US produced a list of fifty medical advances from the last fifty years made possible through studies on nonhuman primates. These included: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; the MMR and hepatitis B vaccines; and earlier diagnosis and better treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer.

The biological similarities between humans and other primates means that they are sometimes the only effective model for complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. More than ten million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide, and a recent study estimated that one in three people born in 2015 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Primate research offers treatments, and hope for future treatments, to patients and their families. Already over two hundred thousand Parkinson’s patients have had their life dramatically improved thanks to Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, which reduces the tremors of sufferers. This treatment was developed from research carried out in a few hundred monkeys in the 1980-90s.

Given that primates are intelligent and sensitive animals, such research requires a higher level of ethical justification. The scientific community continues to work together to minimise the suffering of primates wherever possible. We welcome the worldwide effort to Replace, Refine and Reduce the use of primates in research.

We, the undersigned, believe that if we are to effectively combat the scourge of neurodegenerative and other crippling diseases, we will require the careful and considered use of nonhuman primates. Stringent regulations across the developed world exist to ensure that primates are only used where there is no other available model – be that the use of a mouse or a non-animal alternative and to protect the wellbeing of those animals still required. The use of primates is not undertaken lightly, however, while not all primate research results in a new treatment, it nonetheless plays a role in developing both the basic and applied knowledge that is crucial for medical advances.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

Get involved – show your support!

While, the letter itself is published. Understanding Animal Research are continuing the accept signatories from neuroscientists and primate researchers (signatories must be from academia and must hold a PhD, MD or equivalent). These are being updated on a regular basis on their website.

So if you wish to sign – click here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PrimateLetter

Already they are up to over 550 signatories – just one week after they started collecting (considerably more than the 21 signatories that Cruelty Free International managed in their letter, and with a lot more expertise in the area of Neuroscience).

Speaking of Research

Of White Papers And Commentators: The Use Of Nonhuman Primates In Research

Two weeks ago, nine scientific societies, including the American Physiological Society, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Academy for Neurology, published a white paper entitled “The critical role of nonhuman primates in medical research“. The paper, which notes how nonhuman primates are critical to all stages of research, provides a huge number of examples of medical breakthroughs made possible thanks to studies in nonhuman primates. Among the paper’s appendices is a list of over fifty medical advances from the last fifty years alone; these include: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B; and surgeries such as heart and lung transplants. This is no small feat considering the group of species accounts for around only 0.1% of animal research in most countries (that provide data).

critical-role-of-non-human-primates-in-medical-research

On September 2nd, 2016, John P. Gluck wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher“. Gluck is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. However, this Op-Ed has not come out of the blue. Gluck has long worked alongside PETA and other animal rights groups to condemn nonhuman primate studies. This op-ed is timed for just before today’s NIH workshop on “Ensuring continued responsible research with non-human primates” – a workshop that PETA is petitioning congress about. The article explains why Gluck stopped conducting animal research, his ethical stance against it, and concludes by saying:

“The federal government should establish a national commission to develop the principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research. We already accept that ethical limits on experiments involving humans are important enough that we are willing to forgo possible breakthroughs. There is no ethical argument that justifies not doing the same for animals.”

This is disingenuous of Gluck. The strict regulatory system that exists in the US, and most other developed nations, is the very embodiment of principles aimed to guide decisions on when and how we should conduct studies on nonhuman primates (as well as other species). Some countries have specific regulations surrounding primate research (e.g. the UK considers them a specially protected species and researchers must explain why no other species can be used instead). In the US, all primate research is governed by the Animal Welfare Act (enforced by the USDA), and any research receiving federal funds will also be subject to the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Animals (PHS policy; enforced by OLAW). The PHS Policy also endorses the US Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Use in Testing, Research and Training, which forms the foundation for ethical and humane care and use of laboratory animals in the US. Every research protocol must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – a group made up of including scientists, veterinarians and lay-persons – who review and evaluate the study, recommending ways in which it could be improved (both scientifically and from an animal welfare perspective).

Other commentators have noticed this as well. As Wesley J Smith writes in the National Review:

Gluck would have readers believe there are no strict ethical regulations that govern primate research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Animal Welfare Act already has many stringent requirements governing research on monkeys-as the law should-including cost-benefit analyses, the requirement that any pain experiments cause be palliated, and the requirement that oversight boards approve the purpose and approach of proposed experiments.

Ultimately, Gluck’s article reads as an ethical objection to animal research with some scientific gloss. The heart of his objections is Singer-esque in nature (he mentions Peter Singer earlier in the article). He almost directly condemns our different treatment of humans and nonhuman primates as speciesist:

The ethical principle that many of us used to justify primate experiments seemed so obvious: If you are ethically prevented from conducting a particular experiment with humans because of the pain and risks involved, the use of animals is warranted. Yet research spanning the spectrum from cognitive ethology to neuroscience has made it clear that we have consistently underestimated animals’ mental complexity and pain sensitivity, and therefore the potential for harm. The obvious question is why the harms experienced by these animals, which will be at least similar to humans, fail to matter? How did being a different member of the primate grouping that includes humans automatically alter the moral universe?

No doubt our understanding of the cognitive abilities of animals has improved, and with it has come a greater appreciation for their capacity to suffer. We are a long way from the 17th century philosophers, like Malebranche, who thought animals could not suffer. Our greater understanding of the capacity of animals to suffer pain or distress informs the way we treat animals in laboratories. For example, it was not until the early 1990s that the USDA adopted regulations requiring group housing of nonhuman primates (DiVincenti and Wyatt, 2011), this was thanks to many years of studies showing that nonhuman primate welfare was best met by keeping primates in social groups. As such, it is wrong for Gluck to claim that harm to animals “fail to matter”. While we may give animals a different consideration compared to humans (it is legal to eat animals and keep them as pets), it would be wrong to say they exist outside our moral sphere. The UK’s House of Lords set up a select committee in 2002 to look at animal studies; when assessing the ethics they concluded (s 2.5):

The unanimous view of the Select Committee is that it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering.

This is the heart of sensible moral consideration – that we should minimise the suffering of animals wherever possible while realising that we also have a moral imperative to conduct animal studies to reduce greater suffering among humans and animals.

Image from Californian National Primate Research Center

Photo by Kathy West.

Primates at the Californian National Primate Research Center. Reproduced with permission.

And there is no doubt we have a moral imperative. To return to the recent white paper:

Research with monkeys is critical to increasing our knowledge of how the human brain works and its role in cognitive, motor and mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression. This research is also fundamental to understanding how to prevent and treat emerging infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola. NHP research is uncovering critical information about the most common and costly metabolic disorder in the U.S. – type 2 diabetes – as well as the obesity that leads to most cases.

Without NHP research, we lose our ability to learn better ways to prevent negative pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. This research is also helping scientists to uncover information that makes human organ transplants easier and more accessible, literally giving new life to those whose kidneys, hearts and lungs are failing.

The eradication of these diseases is not worth giving up on. For some animals such research could be the difference between survival and eradication. Ebola has a 95% mortality rate for gorillas. An outbreak in 1995 reportedly killed more than 90% of the gorillas at a national park in Gabon. Overall it is estimated that one third of all the world’s gorillas have been wiped out by Ebola in the last 20 years. If nonhuman primate research (primarily in monkeys rather than great apes), can come up with a vaccine then it will be both animals and humans who can benefit. Humans are unique in that they are the only species with the cognitive capability of making a decision of this magnitude. In the words of Wesley J Smith:

This is the difficult fact that can’t be avoided: We need primate research if we are going to advance science, relieve human suffering, and bring new treatments into medicine’s armamentarium. At some point, we have to decide whether to help humans or not experiment on monkeys.

Looking forward to today’s NIH workshop (which will be streamed live online), it would seem they have struck the right tone. Reviewing the evidence, reviewing the policies, and looking to see what can be improved – that is the essence of science – while still appreciating that the duty of the NIH is to improve the health of a nation.

[T]he Office of Science Policy is taking the lead in planning a workshop on September 7th, 2016 that will convene experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare. Workshop participants will discuss the oversight framework governing the use of non-human primates in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research endeavors. At this workshop, participants will also explore the state of the science involving non-human primates as research models and discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies. NIH is committed to ensuring that research with non-human primates can continue responsibly as we move forward in advancing our mission to seek fundamental knowledge and enhance health outcomes.

Tom Holder

The ethics and value of responsible animal research

This post, signed by over 90 scientists, is in response to an article published 09/04/16 in the New York Times titled: “Second thoughts of an animal researcher.” 

The ethics and value of responsible animal research

Last week we learned that in the first decade since its introduction the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine has cut the rate of cervical cancer by half. Experts estimate that the vaccine could eradicate cancer caused by the virus within the next 40 years. This is indeed good news, as today cervical cancer kills about 250,000 women every year.

Such breakthroughs are the result of decades of research that typically begin with the study of basic mechanisms of cancer in-vitro, the development of disease models and therapies in animals, and their translation to humans. In the particular case of the HPV vaccine rabbits, mice, cattle and human volunteers were used in the research dating back to the 1930s, when Richard Shope first isolated viral particles from wart-like tumors in the Eastern cottontail rabbit.

Medical history is replete with such stories and their contribution to human health is undeniable. A couple of generations ago a visit to a physician might have resulted in a recommendation to induce vomiting, diarrhea or, more commonly, bleeding. Diphtheria, mumps, measles and polio were common and untreatable. Treatment for mental health disorders included malarial shock therapy, lobotomy, lifelong institutionalization, and worse. Life expectancy in the U.S. was less than 50 years; it is now close to 80 years.

Animal research was instrumental in most of these past achievements, and the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the use of animals in research is critical to make progress in many areas of biomedical and behavioral research. However, some members of the public and a few scientists express doubt about the moral justification for the work.

Such is the case with Professor John Gluck, a former primate researcher who conducted lab research decades ago, in the 1960s-1980s, during a time with different standards and regulations compared to contemporary practice. Gluck writes about his own ethical unease which eventually led him to abandon his work with animals and to argue that the existing system for reviewing and conducting animal research should be revised. Gluck appears to think that if others have not arrived at his same conclusion it must be because of their failure to engage in moral reasoning.

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

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

The fact is that most scientists and the public have wrestled with moral questions about the use of animals in research for over 100 years. The results of this ongoing, thoughtful reflection are personal and professional codes of ethics, laws and regulations in the US and other countries, and widespread societal changes in our views and treatment of other animals. Society as a whole considers as morally permissible the regulated and justified use of animals to advance medical knowledge, to improve the well-being of human and nonhuman animals alike, and to understand the health of the environment.

Had animal research leading to the HPV vaccine been banned, cervical cancer today would continue to kill women at a constant rate. Many of us believe that there is a moral imperative to use scientific knowledge and research skills to improve the lives of these women by means of well-regulated, responsible animal research. Opponents may argue that such research should be banned because all nonhuman animals deserve equal moral concern to what we offer human beings.

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

As a society we must grapple with and debate these questions and arrive at a democratic decision to such moral disputes. It is unfortunate that meaningful debate is impeded when critics attack the work by falsely claiming that animal research has no value for human health. They incorrectly assert that scientists can do as they please in their laboratories or, worse, that scientists, veterinarians and technicians do not truly care about the well-being of their animal subjects. And they mislead the public by claiming that alternatives exist (such as computer simulations, cell culture, human testing) that can fully substitute the goals of animal research. Indeed, Professor Gluck attempted to reinforce such falsehoods about animal research and animal researchers in his op-ed piece.

The truth is that the care and treatment of animal subjects is protected not only by carefully specified standards, but also by a well-developed federal oversight system that is transparent to the public. Alternatives are used when they exist and when it is possible. Scientists themselves have worked effectively to produce many of the alternative methods and to continue to refine practices to improve animal welfare. The weighing of scientific objectives with consideration of animal welfare is required by law before the approval of any experimental protocol.

Gluck argues that the US government should convene a national commission to consider the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals in medical research. However, he must recognize that animals in research studies are just a small fraction of all animals used by humans for a wide range of purposes that include food, entertainment, labor, clothing, and companionship.

The comparison is particularly true with respect to the number of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, and fish that are eaten. But even restricting the discussion to nonhuman primates (the topic of Gluck’s essay) it is also the case that nonhuman primates are a small, but important, fraction- generally less than 1%- of captive animals involved in research. Furthermore, in the US, there are just over 1,000 facilities that house nonhuman primates and that are licensed or registered with the USDA. Of those, fewer than 20% are research-registered facilities. The gross majority are licensed zoos, or various entertainment venues for the public.

Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Dr. Gluck and others have called on NIH to review its ethical practices when, in fact, following their logic, they should be asking the FDA for a moral justification for the production and consumption of filet mignon. Eating a steak has never saved a life; vaccines and therapies developed with the use of animals in research do so every single day. When such inversion of priorities is made evident, one must conclude that it is not those seeking to advance knowledge and human health via carefully regulated work who are at fault in their moral reasoning.

Moral decisions about the use of animals in research require consideration of the fact that science does not provide a recipe that will lead us directly to a cure for an illness. Instead, it provides a recipe to understand incrementally the physical and biological processes in nature, which we can then apply to make this a better world by reducing suffering for humans and for other animals.

Scientists, students, veterinarians, and staff who engage in biomedical and behavioral research with animals do it not because they have failed to consider the moral issues. They do it precisely because they have thought about them carefully and arrived at the conclusion that failing to do the research would prevent us from developing new cures, such as the HPV vaccine that now stands to eradicate cervical cancer, or being prepared to face new threats, such as confronting the Zika virus.

As the National Institutes of Health convenes this week to examine the science and ethics of research with nonhuman primates, one must remember the important contributions the work has made to the study of child health and development, diabetes and obesity, mental health, transplant tolerance, vaccines, HIV/AIDS, deep brain stimulation (DBS) and the development of brain-machine interfaces, among many other areas. Evidence for the contributions of animal research to such advances is widely available, including most recently, in a white paper. It is this evidence that provides the foundation for why animal research — occurring within an ethical and regulatory framework that requires consideration of both scientific objectives and animal welfare — is endorsed by a wide range of scientific and medical organizations.

Dario L. Ringach, PhD, Departments of Neurobiology & Psychology, University of California Los Angeles

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Megan R. Gunnar, PhD, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota

Mark A. Krause, PhD, Department of Psychology, Southern Oregon University

Mary Dozier, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Delaware

Aaron Batista, PhD, Department of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh

Bijan Pesaran, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Brittany R. Howell, PhD, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota

Greg Horwitz, PhD, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Washington

John P. Capitanio, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis

Jose Carmena, PhD, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California, Berkeley

Robert A. Shapiro PhD, Department of Neuroscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Koen Van Rompay, DVM, PhD, California National Primate Research Center

David Jentsch, PhD, Department of Psychology, Binghamton University

George F. Michel, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina-Greensboro

Chana Akins, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky

Ian Nauhaus, PhD, Center for Perceptual Systems, University of Texas at Austin

Kimberley A. Phillips, PhD, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Program, Trinity University

Drake Morgan, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, University of Florida

Michael Shadlen, MD/PhD, The Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Columbia University

Ed Callaway, PhD,  The Salk Institute for Biological Sciences

Eliza Bliss-Moreau, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis

Mehrdad Jazayeri, PhD, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

Wayne E. Pratt, PhD, Department of Psychology, Wake Forest University

Ken Miller, PhD, Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, Columbia University

Kristina Nielsen, PhD, The Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University

Mary E. Cain, PhD, Department of Psychological Sciences, Kansas State University

Mar Sanchez, PhD, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Emory University

Anthony Movshon, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Michael E. Goldberg, MD, Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Columbia University

Michele Basso, PhD, Brain Research Institute, University of California Los Angeles

Andreas Tolias, PhD, Baylor College of Medicine

Margaret Livingstone, PhD, Harvard Medical School

Doris Tsao, PhD, Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Dora Angelaki, PhD, Baylor College of Medicine

Jeff Weiner, PhD, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Wake Forest School of Medicine

Elizabeth Simpson, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Miami

Robert Wurtz. PhD, Scientist Emeritus, NIH

Christian R. Abee, DVM, DACLAM, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Jon Levine, PhD, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

John H. Morrison, PhD, California National Primate Research Center, University of California Davis

Paul Johnson, MD,  Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University

Nancy L Haigwood, PhD, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Oregon Health & Science University

Michael Mustari, PhD, Washington National Primate Research Center, University of Washington

Andrew A. Lackner, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, Tulane National Primate Research Center, Tulane University Health Sciences Center

Alessandra Angelucci, PhD, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Utah

Brenda McCowan, PhD, Population Health & Reproduction School of Veterinary Medicine, UC-Davis

Alan Brady DVM, ACLAM, Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Lisa Savage, PhD, Department of Psychology, Binghamton University

Steven J. Schapiro, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Nicolle Matthews-Carr, PhD, BCBA-D

Stephen I Helms Tillery, PhD, School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University

Regina Gazes, PhD, Department of Psychology, Bucknell University

Nim Tottenham, PhD, Department of Psychology, Columbia University

Michael J. Beran, PhD, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University

Doug Wallace, PhD, Psychology Department, Northern Illinois University

Gary Greenberg PhD, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, Wichita State University

Richard Born, MD, Harvard Medical School

Lee E. Miller, PhD, Departments of Physiology & Biomedical Engineering, Northwestern University

Paul M Plotsky, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Emory University

John J. Sakon, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Rick A. Finch, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Charles R. Menzel, PhD, Language Research Center, Georgia State University

Farran Briggs, PhD, Department of Physiology and Neurobiology, Dartmouth University

Alan M. Daniel, PhD, Department of Social Science, Glenville State College

Corrina Ross, PhD, Department of Biology, Texas A&M University

Cynthia Anne Crawford, PhD, Department of Psychology, California State University

William D. Hopkins, PhD, Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University

Klaus A. Miczek, PhD, Department of Psychology, Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences, Tufts University

Jeffrey Schall, PhD, Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University

David A. Washburn, PhD, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University

Gene P. Sackett, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology and National Primate Research Center, University of Washington

Jerrold S. Meyer, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts

Lynn Fairbanks, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA

Moshe Syzf, PhD, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, McGill University

Mark Seagraves, PhD, Department of Neurobiology, Northwestern University

Thomas Albright, PhD, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Peter J. Pierre, PhD, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, UW-Madison

Jack Bergman, PhD, Department of Behavioral Biology, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Michael A. Taffe, PhD, The Scripps Research Institute

Kim Wallen, PhD, Department of Psychology and Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University

John A. Vanchiere, MD, PhD, Department of Pediatrics, LSU Health Sciences Center – Shreveport

Anita A Disney, PhD, Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University

Limin Chen, MD, PhD, Department of Radiology & Radiological Sciences, Vanderbilt University

Stanton B. Gray, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

David Abbott, PhD, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ramnarayan Ramachandran, PhD, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Dorothy M. Fragaszy, PhD, Behavioral and Brain Sciences Program, Psychology Department, University of Georgia

Joe H. Simmons, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Kathleen A. Grant, PhD, Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health Sciences University

Gary Dunbar, PhD, Department of Psychology, Central Michigan University

Paul Glimcher, PhD, Professor of Neural Science, Psychology and Economics, New York University

Larry Williams, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

Julie M. Worlein, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Washington

Nathan Fox, PhD, Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland

Mary Dallman, PhD, Emerita, Department of
Physiology, University of California, San Francisco

W. Thomas Boyce, MD, Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco

Philip H. Knight Chair, PhD, PSI Center for Translational Neuroscience,  University of Oregon

The signatories here are expressing their personal views which do not necessarily reflect those of their institutions.

Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas: A recap of a session at the American Society of Primatologists/International Primatological Society Meeting 2016

Research with nonhuman primates in laboratory settings is a tiny fraction of both laboratory research and nonhuman primate research. The topic is of disproportionate interest, however, for many reasons, and is reflected by a recent symposium at the joint meeting of The American Society of Primatologists and International Primatological Society. The session was titled “Use and care of captive non-human primates: Evaluating and improving ethical requirements.”  The session was notable for a number of reasons.

  • Despite its inclusion in the scientific program of scientific societies, the session presented little evidence and little balance.
  • The panelists were tied to organizations and/or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with nonhuman primates, yet did not disclose these ties upfront and failed to provide their basic starting assumptions or to acknowledge their positions.
  • The fact-less rhetoric did not provide a basis for productive discussion about captive primate care or changes to existing regulations, as would have been provided with evidence-based presentations.
Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Starting assumptions

We wrote yesterday about why providing basic starting assumptions is key when entering any dialogue, particularly when that dialogue involves conversations about the ethical and moral considerations related to the use of animals in biomedical research. If basic starting assumptions are not put forth at the start of a dialogue, then potential areas for agreement cannot be identified – if they in fact exist at all.

Unfortunately, this tenet was not practiced during the symposium. The organizers, anthropologists Drs. Barbara J. King and Marni M. LaFleur, wrote that the symposium was intended to“invite IPS and ASP members to come together and discuss how we may best manage the care and oversight of captive-living nonhuman primates.” At face value, this invitation seemed like a safe haven for “discussion and collaboration amongst researchers, veterinarians, technicians, and caregivers.” (In fact, data-driven sessions like these occur regularly at ASP meetings amongst the experts who care for and study captive primates.) However, the organizers and panelists failed to disclose their basic assumptions upfront, namely that they oppose the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research.

Several speakers in the symposium have affiliated with campaigns by PETA, an organization that very clearly offers an absolutist position stating that animals should never be experimented on. The Vice President of Animal Research Issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Kathleen Conlee, was also featured. HSUS’ position is less clear, though one of Conlee’s slides stated that the organization’s aim is to “Promote 3R’s but push for replacement of invasive research as quickly as possible.”

Macaques. Kathy West. CNPRC. 17

Macaques. Photo credit: Kathy West

As many attendees of the session attested after it concluded, the panelists’ failure to establish positions upfront resulted in a session with a very narrow focus that did not actually result in constructive discussion. Although the speakers’ stances on biomedical research were not stated upfront, they became readily apparent in each presentation.

The symposium followed a roundtable format, with the 6 speakers each presenting for about 5 minutes and a Q&A session for about an hour and a half afterward. Notably, the speakers did not include information on the well-established regulations and processes that are in place to balance research objectives, animal welfare, and public interests in scientific advances. (In 2015, ASP held a roundtable that thoroughly addressed these topics with evidence-based material.) Some presenters did show historical timelines of a few pieces of legislation enacted to address and ensure animal welfare (e.g., the passage of and amendments to the Animal Welfare Act), though nearly all presentations were lacking in evidence-based arguments. Instead, they often relied on outdated and out-of-context photographs (some from undercover investigations, which Conlee proudly acknowledged to the audience that HSUS had undertaken). Granted, the 5-minute time-slot for each speaker precluded the ability to delve into details, but one has to wonder if this format was a means to deliberately exclude the evidence-based regulations and processes that exist for laboratory animals.

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Who should evaluate primate research?

The first speaker, LaFleur, wrote in the abstract of her presentation: “Ethical standards and cost-benefit analyses of non-human primates in research must continually be evaluated and reevaluated, by a diverse range of experts (including those without vested interests).” By “vested interests,” LaFleur presumably meant those working in primate research. What wasn’t clear is whether the panelists believe that they themselves and organizations such as PETA and HSUS also have clearly vested interests. For example, PETA has an extremely vested interests in this issue, yet nowhere during the session was it disclosed that panelist King has worked actively on campaigns organized by PETA (for other panelists’ ties to PETA; see below).

Most important though, from the perspective of beginning with fact:  The analyses of non-human primates in research to which LaFleur refers already routinely occurs by experts in the field: the trained scientists, veterinarians, and colony managers, including many members of ASP, who work with primates in captive settings on a daily basis and dedicate much of their research programs toward understanding and improving their welfare (see, for one recent example, this special issue of the American Journal of Primatology, dedicated solely to the well-being of laboratory nonhuman primates).

LaFleur also wrote in her abstract, “I argue that experimental procedures which cause permanent and irreversible harm on individual non-human primates should not be deemed ethically permissible.”

Macaques. Kathy West. CNPRC. 19

Photo credit: Kathy West

Yet, LaFleur failed to make a clear case for exactly why her position is justified in a way that is more appropriate than the position held by others who were part of the multi-level review that weighs scientific objectives and animal welfare and grants approval for research projects.

Furthermore, the slides that LaFleur presented at the conference showed data-free descriptions not of experimental procedures broadly, but of a single research topic. Her focus was on studies of infant development in monkeys (work she termed “maternal deprivation”) at the NIH and the criticism that she, King, and others leveled at ASP in regards to the society’s open support for research at the NIH. For example, in one of her slides, LaFleur stated that 54 members of ASP had signed a letter she co-authored to ASP asking for a reconsideration of their support letter for an NIH research project. In fact, in reading through the list of signatories, it is not at all clear to long-time members of ASP whether many of the signatories had ever been members of the society. One must question why this misinformation was presented at such a large meeting and also why this single research topic was the focus.

Another slide asked the question, “Can we not have differing opinions from our friends and colleagues?” Of course differing opinions may exist. What we strive for, however, are regulations and policies that are based in scientific evidence in order to provide for animal health and well-being. In the context of dialogue and the supposed focus on the symposium, the larger question is whether focusing on differing opinions about one research project and one area of study is a good substitute for serious and thoughtful consideration to identify core principles that can guide continuing changes in practice and policy.

Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman came closest to laying out her basic assumptions upfront in her abstract, in which she wrote, “the primate research community should consider whether retirement of all NHP from biomedical research to sanctuary is warranted.” Lopresti-Goodman provided a few slides that cited research studies to back her written statement that “many individuals who experience…adverse conditions exhibit abnormal and/or stereotypic behaviors, and develop symptoms of psychological distress that mirror those of psychopathology in humans,” though it is notable that she did not disclose at any time during the session that she has co-authored articles with PETA employees and others staunchly opposed to animal research.

Zebrafish: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Zebrafish: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Moreover, several in the audience questioned her direct knowledge, experience, and expertise on the topic given her training and publication record in human perception and cognition.

 

Evaluating a claim from HSUS:  What is the evidence on environmental enrichment for nonhuman primates in captive settings?

In the US, all facilities registered or licensed to house nonhuman primates by the federal agency charged with oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) are required to have a plan for environmental enrichment for those animals. Evidence-based evaluation of practices aimed at meeting the goal of maintaining animals’ health and well-being, in balance with scientific objectives, is the subject of research by many ASP members and those scientific results are on display at most ASP meetings.  The findings inform practices across the range of settings in which nonhuman primates live in captivity.

Conlee’s symposium presentation took a very narrow view, focusing on an analysis that her organization (HSUS) completed of enrichment plans from 38 universities and 18 federal facilities. Those plans were obtained, in part, via use of open records laws. The analysis was aimed at evaluating whether the plans were compliant with federal law. The abstract made a startling claim:  “Plans were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards … The analysis revealed a majority of plans (44) were not adequate.”  To be clear, what that claim suggests is that 44% of the facilities — facilities that are regularly inspected by a federal agency, the USDA– are failing to comply with federal law.

Marmosets. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Titi monkeys. Photo credit: Kathy West

Serious claim – can it be evaluated?  Unfortunately, not well.  The analysis is unpublished and unavailable for public view or critique. Conlee provided no details about the methodology, including critical definitions of coding schemes for “plans [that] were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards” and the subsequent data analysis.

The results Conlee presented were confined to bullet points on one slide rather than actual data with accompanying statistical analysis. Collectively, the “study” did not meet ASP’s (and other societies’) criteria for scientific presentations, but was nonetheless was presented as though it were an empirical study. While that is disappointing enough, the fact that the presentation and abstract made serious claims potentially misrepresenting a large number of dedicated research centers is even more reason to hold presenters to a standard of evidence.

Finally, Conlee presented a slide stating, “USDA requirements for all regulated facilities: no change in 30 years.” However, this statement is misleading. As Justin McNulty, IACUC & IBC Manager at The University of Texas at Austin, pointed out in the discussion following the presentations, “The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals was just revised in 2011 and was reviewed by some of the people in this room. The recommendations contained in the Guide were based on published data, scientific principles, and expert opinion.” As described in the preface to the 8th Edition of The Guide, “The Guide is intended to assist investigators in fulfilling their obligation to plan and conduct animal experiments in accord with the highest scientific, humane, and ethical principle.”

Lack of evidence for the benefit-risk ratio in laboratory primate research?

LaFleur also gave King’s presentation in her absence. In her written abstract, King wrote, “I will discuss case studies that are lab-based and involve maternal-deprivation and other invasive experiments on cercopithecines; peer-reviewed scientific material from both the cercopithecine and also the comparative chimpanzee literature will provide context for discussing the benefit-harm ratio of such research on monkeys.” However, this presentation also lacked evidence-based claims and relied on references from the news media, as in one slide that touted the primate facilities that closed, or are in the process of phasing out, in 2015. In giving the presentation, LaFleur incorrectly stated that, with respect to the phasing out of the NICHD’s primate research, “those 300 monkeys [were] from the maternal deprivation work.”  This is false: only a small percentage of the colony at this facility each year has undergone nursery-rearing. Furthermore, as noted above, the actual process in place for evaluating balance of potential benefit and scientific objectives with animal welfare was not well addressed by the panelists.

Summary

Collectively, the session left much to be desired for those seeking data-driven suggestions for improving the captive care of non-human primates. As Dr. Karen Hambright, Professor of Psychology at the College of Coastal Georgia and long-time ASP member, stated during the discussion period, “As an educator who has worked with and is familiar with the conditions of animals in both zoos and labs, it my job to teach people to think critically and to base their views on evidence and not on emotional responses to polarizing rhetoric.”

King and LaFleur’s symposium abstract ended with the question, “How specifically can productive discussion about ethics be furthered among primatologists who work primarily on lab science and primatologists who work primarily on animal welfare, always acknowledging that these two groups may overlap?” A good start would be to enact practices that are foundational to any honest dialogue: namely, spelling out basic positions upfront and disclosing any potential conflicts of interest. Productive discussion could then ensue with evidence-based comments and suggestions.

Amanda Dettmer

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.

 

Confusing public agendas: Is it animal welfare? Or an absolutist campaign disguised as a call for “dialogue”?

A recent symposium at the joint meeting of The American Society of Primatologists and International Society of Primatologists focused on questions about the oversight and regulation of the housing, care, and treatment of nonhuman primates in research. Presentations of scientific research that primatologists conduct in order to inform animal care practices are a regular occurrence at ASP. This session, however, was billed as a call for dialogue. The organizers and participants included affiliates of groups and campaigns, including HSUS and PETA, that are often opposed to many types of primate research. ASP and ISP members conduct primate research in field, laboratory, zoo, and other settings across the world. The focus of this conference session appeared to be largely on laboratory  research, and particularly, that work funded by the US federal agency—the National Institutes of Health—that is charged with scientific research relevant to advancing public health.

Macaque. Photo credit: Kathy West. CNPRC.

Macaque. Photo credit: Kathy West. CNPRC.

Such research is a popular target for PETA and other groups opposed to the use of nonhuman animals in research, yet it remains a fact that the great majority of US facilities that house nonhuman primates are not dedicated research facilities (see graphic; summary illustration of data from USDA). As shown here, of the just over 1,000 US facilities that are either USDA-registered for research or USDA-licensed to house nonhuman primates for other purposes,  roughly 1/5th hold research registration. The majority are exhibitors. That includes zoos and other facilities that display animals to the public or engage in public interaction with the animals. In the US, the number of primates housed within each facility is reported annually for research institutions and is published by the USDA (for example, see here); however, the number of primates housed in licensed facilities is not easily accessible. This is similar to other countries.

Number of facilities by type of USDA-registration or license. Exhibitors include zoos and other facilities with public interaction.

Number of facilities by type of USDA-registration or license. Exhibitors include zoos and other facilities with public interaction. (Note: Although not necessarily required by federal law, sanctuaries may choose to be licensed as exhibitors because there is no separate category for sanctuaries.)

We’ve written previously about the standards of care, external oversight, and public transparency of federally-funded research within dedicated research facilities in comparison to zoos, sanctuaries, breeders, dealers, and private owners of nonhuman primates (Bennett & Panicker, 2016). In fact, some of these comparisons are central to discussions in recent months about decisions to ensure the best outcomes and long-term care of retired chimpanzees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The limited focus of the recent ASP/ISP conference session to nonhuman primates used in research in the US (18% of facilities) could have many explanations. We will return to consideration of these points, and to a fuller discussion of the session, in subsequent posts. To begin, however, we return to excerpts from a post we made in 2013, with points that are foundational and key to a fair dialogue.

*****

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Fair partners in dialogue: Starting assumptions matter and they should be spelled out

The importance and need for civil, open dialogue about the complex set of issues involved in use of animals is among the points of agreement between members of the scientific community, the public, animal rights activists, and others. Speaking of Research, along with others, has consistently advocated for and engaged in such dialogue via a number of venues, including our blog, public events, conference presentations, and articles.

One of the important purposes of dialogue is to communicate diverse viewpoints and values on animal research and one key to understanding those viewpoints and values is consideration of the basic starting assumptions, or positions, from which they arise. However, such dialogue often takes place without clear specification of the starting positions held by the people engaged in the conversation. Speaking of Research has previously highlighted the problem with this approach– for example, see Prof. Dario Ringach’s posts on a series of public forums on ethics and animal research (here, here, here).

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

The basic position of those engaged in animal research is obvious in part by the nature of their work. Furthermore, the very structure of the current regulations and practices reflect– both implicitly and explicitly – a set of positions on the ethical and moral considerations relevant to the use of animals in research (*see below).

What are the positions of those who oppose laboratory animal research?

In some cases, these are clearly stated. In the case of absolutists, the position is that no matter what potential benefit the work may result in, no use of animals is morally justified. This extends across all animals – from fruit-fly to primate. Furthermore, all uses of animals, regardless of whether there are alternatives and regardless of the need, are treated identically. In other words, the use of a mouse in research aimed at new discoveries to treat childhood disease is considered morally equivalent to the use of a cow to produce hamburger, the use of an elephant in a circus, or a mink for a fur coat.

In this framework, the focus often excludes consideration of the harms that would accrue as a consequence of enacting the animal rights agenda. For example, the harm to both humans and other animals of foregoing research or intervening on behalf of animals. As a result, while the absolutist position is often represented as one that involves only benefits and no harms, this is a false representation. While some animal rights groups are clear about their absolutist position, others—to our knowledge—are not.

On the other hand are those who avoid identifying directly with an absolutist position, but instead focus on the need for development of alternatives to use of animals in invasive research. This is a goal that may be widely desired and shared. It does not, however, address the question of what should be done in absence of alternatives and in light of current needs that can only be addressed by animal studies. In turn then, this position is silent with respect to moral and ethical consideration of a broad swath of research and fails to offer a framework to guide current actions.

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

We believe that the goal of promoting better dialogue would be assisted by making these positions clear and we provide a starting place below. We welcome additions by individuals and groups, as well as clarification or correction if any are unintentionally misrepresented. (For additional groups see original post).

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Offers clear statement of absolutist position. “PETA has always been known for uncompromising, unwavering views on animal rights. PETA was founded in 1980 and is dedicated to establishing and defending the rights of all animals. PETA operates under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.”

New England Anti-Vivisection Society: Offers clear statement of absolutist position. “Is NEAVS against all animal experiments? Yes. For ethical, economic and scientific reasons, NEAVS is unequivocally opposed to all experiments on animals and works to replace them with humane and scientifically superior alternatives that are more relevant and predictive for humans.”

Humane Society of the United States (HSUS): Does not, to our knowledge, offer a clear position on whether it is morally acceptable to use animals in research when there is no alternative. What they do say: “As do most scientists, The HSUS advocates an end to the use of animals in research and testing that is harmful to the animals. Accordingly, we strive to decrease and eventually eliminate harm to animals used for these purposes.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM/Physicians Committee): Does not, to our knowledge, offer a clear position on whether it is morally acceptable to use animals in research when there is no alternative. What they do say: “We promote alternatives to animal research and animal testing.”

How is this relevant to building productive dialogue?

For those engaged in dialogue about the ethical and moral considerations related to the use of non-human animals in research, even this brief list makes clear that it is important to ask participants to begin by putting their basic starting assumption forward. Why? For one reason, because those assumptions are key to identifying whether there are potential areas of agreement or none at all.

For example, discussing refinement of laboratory animal care with an absolutist—someone fundamentally opposed to animals in laboratories—misses the point. No amount of refinement would make the work acceptable to them. In this case, the more critical questions for discussion would include consideration of the relative risks and potential benefits of failing to perform research for which there are currently no alternatives to animal-based studies. Consideration of species’ capacities and criteria for differential status– if any– would also be a useful starting point.

white-mouse-pair-in-cage-with-cardboard-tubeWhat about dialogue with those individuals and groups who do not provide a clear position? Does it matter?

Some would argue that it does not because the dialogue is only concerned with animal welfare and with reducing harm to nonhuman animals, or with pushing forward to develop non-animal alternatives for some types of research. In fact, framed in this way, most scientists are not only in the same camp, but are also the people who work actively to produce evidence-based improvements in welfare and development of successful alternatives.

The problem, however, is that real-time, critical decision-making about human use of other animals in research is not simple. It does require serious, fact-based consideration of the full range of risks and potential benefits, including consideration of the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman animals. It also requires clarity about alternatives, where they exist and where they do not. And it requires some understanding of the time-scales in which knowledge unfolds – often decades – and a basic appreciation for the scientific process.

It is easy to argue that developing non-animal alternatives for invasive research should be prioritized. But this argument does little to address the question of what to do now, what we do in absence of these alternatives, and what choices we should make as a society. Those questions are at the center of dialogue and the core issues with which the scientific community and others wrestle. To address them productively, and in a way that considers the public interest in both the harms and benefits of research, requires articulation of starting assumptions and foundational views.

Allyson J. Bennett

Excerpted from previous post “Fair partners in dialogue: Starting assumptions matter and they should be spelled out” 6/12/13

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*For example, in the U.S., the laws and regulations that govern animal research mandate that proposals for use of vertebrate animals (including rats, mice, birds) provide, among other things: 1) a justification of the potential benefits of the work; 2) an identification of potential harms and means to reduce them; 3) evidence that alternatives to using animals are unavailable; 4) the use of the least “complex” species necessary to answer that question; and 5) much detail about the animals’ care and treatment, including the qualifications and training of the personnel involved. Consideration of these issues occurs not only at the stage of IACUC evaluation, but throughout the scientists’ selection of questions and studies to pursue, peer review and selection of projects for funding (more here). Furthermore, the entirety of the project must proceed in compliance with a thorough set of regulations designed on the basis of the 3Rs – reduce, replace, and refine (for more about regulation see here, more about 3Rs, here).

In other words, while there is always room for continued improvement, the structure is designed to require that the major ethical and moral considerations relevant to animal research be addressed by those involved in performing and overseeing the work. This structure also incorporates explicit consideration of changes that arise from new knowledge. That includes evolving knowledge about different species’ capacities and needs, as well as the development of alternatives to animal-based studies for particular uses. It also includes advances in our scientific understanding that demonstrate the greater need for basic research that requires use of animals to address key questions.