Category Archives: Animal Rights News

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

Why we haven’t cured the common cold – a response to PETA’s science advisor, Dr. Julia Baines

For a previous post that also debunks comments made by PETA, read our article, “Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense”.

The United Kingdom recently released their annual statistics of scientific procedures on living animals and, as expected, interested parties weighed in and provided their views and interpretations of these numbers (e.g., here, here and here). While it is acknowledged that providing a context for these numbers is key, it is often quite difficult to do so without sufficient passage of time. Indeed, the timeframe required for the translation of research from bench to bedside takes years, if not decades. Moreover, as science is self-generating and self-correcting, there is no explicit requirement that an applied benefit results from all scientific research, including research performed on animals.

With this in mind, which facts can we infer from these annual statistics? We can, for example, quantify the number of animals used by species (mice, rats, primates, etc.), by establishment (e.g., government, university), and by study type (e.g., basic research, breeding, applied research) to name a few. We can also do a retrospective account of the amount of pain experienced (severity) by animals used in experimental procedures. What we should not do based on these statistics, is make false claims about the procedures involved in animal research and what animal research should have achieved. In what can only be viewed as an attempt to evoke the maximum emotional response, Dr. Julia Baines, a science advisor for PETA, was quoted as saying:

“Given that the latest Home Office statistics reveal that a staggering 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out on animals in British laboratories in 2015, we should have a cure for everything, including the common cold, by now if this was a useful method of gaining scientific information.” [Our emphasis]

As Dr. Baines correctly points out, 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out in British laboratories. And, it is true that 4.14 million is a large number of procedures. What Dr. Baines fails to do is to provide a fact-based context for those numbers, as for example was done here and here. Such a context would reflect, for example, that the number of animals used between 2013 and 2015 increased by only 0.5%. Next, Dr. Baines goes on to imply a causal relationship between animal use and a cure for all diseases, including the common cold. While this statement is at best an example of illogical abstraction and at worst logically flawed thinking below what one would expect from a “science advisor”, I found it useful to reflect on the question, “Why don’t we have a cure for the common cold?”

The first thing worth pointing out is that the common cold is not a single virus strain. Rhinoviruses are the most common form of the cold virus but even then there are over a hundred known types of rhinoviruses.

Furthermore, curing the common cold would mean eradicating a long list of viruses which cause similar symptoms, such as adenoviruses and coronaviruses. To further complicate matters, in a given geographical area, only 20 to 30 different types of the “cold virus” circulate each season, only 10% of those will show up next year for that season, and due to viral mutation, new strains will emerge across time.  Thus, we immediately see that for something seemingly as “simple” as the common cold, producing a “cure” is exceedingly difficult.

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Moreover, the statement by Julia that we should have a “cure for everything” is something that cutting edge science is working on. The basic premise is that because there are many viruses and many diseases caused by viruses, as well as many viral mutations, it may be virtually impossible to eradicate all viruses by utilizing single vaccinations. For example, Todd Rider is working on a broad spectrum antiviral approach, dubbed DRACO, which causes infected cells to die while leaving uninfected cells intact.

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

Consistent with the 3Rs, this method was first developed in vitro, and given that the method showed evidence of proof of principle, in vivo trials were begun, recognizing that currently, alternative methods such as in vitro studies complement rather than replace animal research.

Todd is not the only scientist working on this problem. Brian Lichty is adopting a somewhat different approach, looking at the mechanism via which immune cells detect viruses in the body and how they trigger an immune response. Both approaches recognize the complexity of curing viral diseases, both at the level of the host and the agent, and the valuable role which animal research plays in the development of cures.

What emerges from a review of scientific history and method is this: be patient.

Dr. Baines is not alone in wishing that cures and medical progress were faster and error-free – many of us have this wish. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way science or reality works. With the help of animal research, we have great potential for curing many diseases, including diseases which affect non-human animals. It just may take some time. More importantly, I encourage all readers of information on the internet to carefully scrutinize what is presented, including this post. We are often faced with common-sense notions in our everyday life, and we often do not question such information, particularly if it is something that is consistent with what we believe to be true. We saw this behaviour most recently with the release of the animal use statistics in the UK for 2015, with facts being flagrantly misrepresented and, frighteningly, widely publicized.

Jeremy D. Bailoo

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the interests of the University of Bern or the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern.

Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense

On 21st July the UK government released its stats on how many animals were used in UK research and the race was on. Many British universities raced to tweet the numbers of animals they’d used in 2015 and draw attention to their webpages on the subject. Science organisations raced to explain to the media what they were looking at in terms of real-world research. Animal rights groups raced to get their fantasy narrative into as many newspapers as possible.

Upon hearing of a 0.5% increase from 2013, Michelle Thew of Cruelty Free International said “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. This is perhaps unsurprising: in 2012, Thew noted of a 2% rise that “the lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; In 2013 (8% rise), Thew noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; and in 2015, after stats showed a 6% FALL in the animal statistics, she still noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. Perhaps it’s time for a new speechwriter?

Cruelty Free International also press released that “A shocking 30% of experiments were assessed by animal researchers and the Home Office as being moderate or severe”. This was a bit of statistical trickery. Having just mentioned that there were “4.14 million experiments* completed during 2015”, the 30% only referred to “experimental procedures” and not “procedures for creation and breeding of genetically altered animals” (see table below). The truth is that of the 4.14 million procedures, only 18.2% were moderate or severe (13.7% vs 4.5%), down from 19.2% in 2014 (14.4% moderate vs 4.8% severe)**.

*CFI’s press release uses ‘experiments’ and ‘procedures’ almost interchangeable. The UK tends to prefer ‘procedures’, which is any intervention, or set of interventions, which have the potential to cause suffering or harm equal or greater than a simple injection.

Severity of animal research in the UK in 2015

Severity of animal research procedures in the UK in 2015

Hyperbole came thick and fast from PETA, whose own press release noted “126,000 animals didn’t regain consciousness after experiments classified as ‘non-recovery’” before going on to mention severe experiments. Non-recovery studies mean animals are put under with anaesthetic and intentionally given an overdose of anaesthesia to ensure they never wake up**. These animals do not suffer from the procedure – they are completely anaesthetised from the beginning of surgery until death.

**For more information about severity categories in the UK, please read “Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures“. 

A special distinction, though, goes to Julia Baines from PETA, who wrote an article for International Business Times that gleefully twists reality to the point that Mark Twain would probably have considered it a credible piece of satire.

“Four million animals were used in British experiments in 2015 – why aren’t we using alternative methods?”

The title is fairly quickly answered by the fact that in the UK, it is illegal to use an animal if there’s an alternative. The author knows this, but still decides to spend another 651 words not mentioning it.

“Britain is officially one of the worst offenders in Europe for scientific animal testing. According to the annual government statistics released today, cats, dogs, monkeys and other animals were used in a staggering 4.14 million experiments in 2015, a figure comparable only to France and Germany throughout the continent.”

Well on a purely empirical level this is false. British, French and German figures are all considerably lower than those in Norway, which used 4.82 million animals in 2014 (mostly fish). Then there is the rather tricky description of animals used. Rather than mention the mice, rats and fish that account for over 93% of research, they pick three species which  together account for 0.2% of animal studies in the UK.

PETA misinforms public over statistics

“Currently, despite evidence that experiments on animals systematically fail to benefit humans, scientists in Britain …”

This huge statement is taken as fact. No “evidence” is provided. Perhaps she does not wish to bore us with details.

“continue to withhold food and water from animals in order to make them cooperate with experimenters; poison them with ever-increasing doses of toxic chemicals until they die; and attach bolts to their skulls so that they can be “fixed” to a chair.”

There is NOTHING in the article linked to, which suggests food was withheld, or even restricted. The study did restrict water intake for 6 days per week (It was not withheld; animals were always given adequate hydration). We spoke to the study author, who told us:
All animals get as much food and liquid as they want and need, and the animals are not food or water deprived. We maintain controlled access to food or liquid and give specific amounts for behavioural reactions, and we supplement food or water if they don’t get enough during experimental sessions.

The second claim is even more egregious, as of the list of 19 studies linked to, NOT ONE involves repeatedly increasing the dosages of a compound until an animal dies. Rather, studies are full of phrases like “Animal welfare costs are minimised by the careful selection of dose levels to reduce the likelihood of unexpected toxicity” and other such animal welfare considerations.

The final claim is misleading due to the information left out. The description seems to evoke images of Frankenstein’s monster. The original paper says “The monkeys were trained to sit in restraining chair in front of a computer with the head fixed”. Surgical screws are required to fix their head. The surgery is done under anaesthesia in a sterile environment.

“Worse even than the fact that these tests are ineffective is that for decades, some doctors believe experiments on animals have actually derailed medical progress. For example, according to Steven R. Kaufman and Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, we delayed our understanding of polio transmission, heart disease, and diabetes because we studied them in other species.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have previously been criticised for their activism and claims by the American Medical Association, who passed a resolution in 1990 that condemned PCRM for “implying that physicians who support the use of animals in biomedical research are irresponsible, for misrepresenting the critical role animals play in research and teaching, and for obscuring the overwhelming support for such research which exists among practicing physicians in the United States” [Page 123]. Their claims about the delayed understanding of polio transmission, heart disease and diabetes have been thoroughly debunked by us before:

All of this also seems to ignore that monkeys were key to our understanding of polio and development of an oral vaccine; a number of animal models were essential for the development of treatments for cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation; and dogs were indispensable for the discovery and isolation of insulin to treat diabetics.

Indeed the president of the Royal College of Surgeons said in 1993, “I think there is no doubt whatsoever that all forms of cardiac surgery which depend upon the heart-lung machine were developed through experiments on animals. There is no way that the heart-lung machine could have been devised and developed other than through studies on living creatures”.

“And Richard Klausner, the former head of the US National Cancer Institute, has also admitted, “The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.””

Now we come to the misrepresentation of someone who does have credibility, Dr Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute. Speaking of Research has mythbusted before the claim that “We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.”, but it was a throwaway quote lifted from this Los Angeles Times feature. Back in its proper context, it’s a reaction to the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, i.e. it means ‘we’re trying!’ Of course, other treatments for cancer based on animal studies did/do work. Why does Dr Baines think we don’t have cancer treatments? Breast cancer drug Herceptin is based on a humanised mouse antibody. How would Dr Baines have acquired this without a mouse?

Dr Baines’ next few paragraphs discuss alternative technologies such as ‘organs on a chip’ and 3D human skin cultures. No doubt these are exciting and important methods which, in their rightful place, can help to improve our understanding of medicine and disease. However, they are just one of a number of tools – including animals – which are used together to build up a picture of biomedical research. To this end I must return to my earlier point that under UK law you must use non-animal methods instead of an animal wherever they can be used. However, sometimes we need a full, living organism – for example neither skin cultures nor organ on a chip  get pregnant – they are of limited use in such research. The Home Office website clearly states “Implementing the 3Rs requires that, in every research proposal, animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible”. Alternatively check the original legislation – Section 5 (5).

Implementation of the 3Rs in UK law

“Seventy-nine per cent of the British public wish to see more exploration of these kinds of non-animal methods. The problem is that at the moment, the scientific community and the government lack the political will to end animal tests. It is unconscionable that of the £300 million in UK government funding for biosciences, only about 1 per cent is directed towards replacing animals in experiments.”

It is unclear where Dr Baines got her £300million figure from since just one of the UK’s bioscience funders – The Medical Research Council (MRC) – allocates some £678 million [p.20] each year to research. Other government funders of animal research include the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  (BBSRC; £334m) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Not all of this funding is for animal studies, for instance the MRC estimates one third of its research programmes involve animal studies. This is likely to be much lower for the EPSRC.

Calculating funding into replacements is similarly hard. The National Centre for the 3Rs, which looks at developing alternatives to animals, had an annual budget of around £10 million (the actual amount changes year to year). The BBSRC estimates they spend £1.5m on 3Rs research. Many other Government-funded projects will involve furthering the 3Rs, but will not be noted as this if it is not the prime objective of the research.

Another problem is in comparing funding for the developing of non-animal methods, with funding for using animal methods. Dr Baines has not attempted to look at the millions of pounds spent using non-animal methods – computers, tissue studies, human studies. Nor has she compared funding into developing replacements with funding for developing new, better, animal models – which will account for only a small proportion of overall animal studies. Apples and pears indeed.

There’s a just a bit of time to fit in some scaremongering before she leaves us.

“But if this nation continues down the same road it always has regarding animal testing, then uncoupling from EU legislation could lead to lowering animal welfare standards and permitting tests on animals that are currently deemed illegal under EU law – betraying both humans and animals.”

This is of course about the UK leaving the EU. What Dr Baines fails to mention is the fact that EU regulations around animal research have never been policed at the European level – they’re transposed into a UK law via Parliament so leaving the EU should not affect them. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that EU law was heavily based on the UK system, which has been in place since 1986.

Chimpanzee in IB articleFinally is the question of pictures. It is unclear if those responsible for the choice of images are Dr Baines or IB Times. The first image is that of a chimp. Now, chimps aren’t used in UK research. No Great Ape has been used for over 30 years in regulated research in the UK, and reading the caption the picture was taken in Germany in 1995. How illustrative of UK research! For good measure we also have some rats but they’re not from the UK either, they’re from China in 2008, a country with less strict animal research laws than exist in the UK. We can see how the images contrast with those taken by The Sun newspaper a few days earlier, showing what a UK lab actually looks like.

Overall, what’s striking about the article is how divorced its narrative has become from reality and I can only wonder at what mental gymnastics are required by the author to convince themselves they’re not purposely trying to misinform.

While we have taken apart PETA’s claims one statement at a time, not everyone has the scientific knowledge to do so. Many are left innocently believing, and even repeating, the claims made by PETA. Dr Baines, on the other hand, should know better. It is disappointing to see any scientist abusing the trust her position affords her by writing articles like this.

Chris and Tom

Speaking of Research

Guest Post: Manchester protests miss the point

Today’s guest post is from Patrick Smith, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, UK. He discusses an upcoming animal rights demonstration in his city, which is taking place as part of World Day for Animals in Laboratories (Part of World Week for Animals in Labs).

This Saturday (23rd April), Manchester Animal Action are hosting the World Day for Animals in Laboratories. Over 200 activists plan to march from Piccadilly Gardens to the University of Manchester campus, where they will lay white flowers at University buildings to protest what they see as the inhumane treatment of animals.

Ironically, this protest has prompted a lockdown of the University buildings, meaning many students and researchers may be unable to check on their animals over the weekend. I know that some students may feel intimidated by the protest and won’t feel safe going in to University on Saturday. Hopefully others will refuse to be cowed by the threat of such activism.

An advertisement for Saturday’s march. Note the image of a chimpanzee – a species banned from use in research in the UK since 1986

An advertisement for Saturday’s march. Note the image of a chimpanzee – a species banned from use in research in the UK since 1986

After speaking with some of the protestors on social media prior to the demonstration, I’ve become aware of how much misinformation is spread amongst AR activists, especially regarding the University of Manchester. I wanted to make clear how much the University is doing to ensure the humane treatment of animals and reduce the use of animals in research.

The UK has some of the strictest regulations surrounding animal research in the world. Performing research on animals has to pass ethical review, a multi-stage process that requires researchers to prove that the research is necessary, minimises the suffering of animals and is scientifically sound.

The University of Manchester adheres to strict national guidelines, as its animal research policy makes clear. Like many UK research establishments, the University of Manchester is extensively involved with the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), an organisation that aims to ensure all animal research is a last resort, and is carried out with care and scientific rigour. As part of the University’s relationship with NC3Rs, all researchers must also adhere to the ARRIVE guidelines, which aim to ensure the accurate and responsible reporting of animal research findings.

All animal researchers at the University are fully trained on a rigorous Home Office course, and the University employs full time animal technicians and a veterinary surgeon to ensure that animal welfare is a top priority. Animals are housed in social groups and in stimulating environments, and constantly monitored for health and wellbeing. The University states that it “permits the use of animals in scientific procedures only where there is no reasonable alternative available”.

Within the research units themselves, all these guidelines are followed strictly; anaesthetic and pain killers are administered according to ASPA (Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act) guidelines; “All procedures must be carried out under general or local anaesthesia unless administering the anaesthetic would cause more suffering for the animal than the procedure itself or would be incompatible with the purposes of the procedures”. The only times anaesthetic is not given to animals is where the procedure is very mild (i.e. taking blood samples), or where an experiment won’t work with anaesthetised animals (i.e. running a maze). The vast majority of potentially painful procedures are carried out with extensive pain relief.

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research

Animal rights activists are still upset with the University’s research. I encountered some who were offended by the idea of even minimal animal suffering, saying that “any suffering is too much”. This is actually a reasonable statement; if you believe that any suffering (animal or human) is terrible, then it makes sense to perform animal research where there are no alternatives available. The medical advances made due to animal research are undeniable, and unfortunately some animals have to suffer minimally for us to reduce worldwide suffering.

I have been accused by AR activists of being speciesist; putting human rights above animal rights. But to employ a utilitarian philosophy, where we want to reduce the amount of future suffering in the world, it is immoral to not undertake animal research. Allowing victims of disease to face immeasurable future suffering, when an animal model could potentially save them, seems cruel. Don’t patients deserve to feel hope from knowing researchers are using all scientific methods available?

The AR position is easy to understand; they think animals are suffering needlessly. But in the UK, and at the University of Manchester, animals are only used in research when there are no alternatives available, and where significant medical progress can be made. Animals are treated better than most animals in the world, especially those in the meat industry.

I understand that seeing animals suffer is heartbreaking. But it’s something that has to be done to fight cruel diseases and save lives. I know that many animal researchers and technicians are animal lovers and deeply care about suffering. They want to see an end to suffering wherever possible; and that is something that can be achieved with responsible, humane animal research.

Patrick Smith
PhD student at the University of Manchester

Animal Justice Project misleading public over Swedish malaria study

At the end of last year, the Animal Justice Project and Djurrättsalliansen Animal Rights (AR) groups hit the news once again by organizing an online petition to stop pre-clinical trials of a new malaria vaccine on 24 monkeys that are currently at the Astrid Fagraeus Laboratory (AFL), part of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. This petition, supported by Dr Jane Goodall, has now hit the news again, since a number of celebrities – including Moby and Joanna Lumley – have publicly shown their support for the petition.

The authors are requesting to stop the “import of 120 macaque monkeys into the university” based on allegations that they will be used “for inhumane and futile malaria research”. Further on, they claim “the Swedish researchers will infect 120 macaque monkeys with malaria parasites and then perform multiple invasive procedures on the monkeys over a period of at least one year”.

Apparently, the authors of the petition didn’t bother to read the information on their website, which clearly states that while “the ethical permit for malaria vaccine research covers the use of 120 monkeys”, they are only planning to use 24 monkeys in this study. Moreover, the authors of the petition completely disregard the description of the study procedure, where it says that “the animals will not receive malaria since there are laboratory analyses available using the blood samples that can predict the capacity of the immune responses to block infection”.

In fact, during the whole study not only will animals not be infected with malaria, but only blood samples will be collected, a mild procedure which isn’t much different than what any of us might expect from our local doctor. There will be no “bone marrow biopsies, repeated vaccinations and blood sampling” or even “lymph node biopsies […] from the armpit or groin”, as the authors behind this petition claim.

Image of the monkey housing at AFL

Image of the monkey housing at AFL

According to the Karolinska Institute, the AFL is in fact the only facility in Sweden that is authorized to conduct animal studies according to Good Laboratory Practices (GLP). It should be noted that this study was subjected to a rigorous evaluation to make sure all procedures to which the animals will be subjected are according to the standards set by the Directive 2010/63/EU, that the petition itself cites.

The AFL facility is also worth making mention of. It is a purpose build, AAALAC accredited primate facility that aims to provide “the best possible environment” for its animals. The pride in the facility is clear when you begin to read the huge amount of information – including pictures – that the Karolinska Institute provide about it on their website. They detail everything from the housing designs and materials, to the cleaning and training processes, and the way they transport and import the animals.

The cages are designed to give the monkeys the greatest possible scope to move around, jump, climb and adopt any conceivable body position without hindrance. Ropes, swings, shelves, climbing frames, hay-filled nests and so on are used to increase the useable area and make the entire volume of the cage available to them.

Malaria patient in Ethiopia

Malaria patient in Ethiopia

As for the claim that this is a “futile malaria research”, it should be noted that to date there is still no highly effective vaccine that can protect from this disease (though the RTS,S vaccine provides some protection against some strains), which killed close to 600 000 people last year, most of which children under the age of 5, and is still a threat to more 214 million people every year. This disease is not only a real threat for children’s lives in endemic areas, but is also a serious barrier to their economical sustainability, having tremendous maintenance costs. Moreover, these particular vaccine candidates being tested by the Karolinska Institute are intended to target one of the most devastating forms of the disease (cerebral malaria), which is not only lethal in most cases, but causes serious cognitive damages to the children that are able to survive it. To claim this research is futile is not only a weak lie, but also a disregard for all the consequences of such a terrible disease.

Speaking of Research

Announcement About NIH Monkey Research Leaves Unanswered Questions

Late Friday, Buzzfeed broke a story reporting on the planned phase-out of on-site housing of monkeys at one of the National Institutes of Health intramural laboratories, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Laboratory of Comparative Ethology in Poolesville, Maryland. As NICHD Director  Constantine Stratakis outlined in an interview with Science News, the phase-out has been in the planning stages for some time and reflects a combination of economic considerations, the age of the facility, and the eventual retirement of the lab’s 69-year old head, a scientist whose 30+ year career has– and continues– to produce a great many important discoveries. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with other recent announcements about primate research, the news left many with questions and impressions about broader impacts.

Monkeys involved in developmental and behavioral research at Stephen Suomi's lab in Poolesville

Monkeys involved in developmental and behavioral research at Stephen Suomi’s lab in Poolesville, Maryland.

What is clear is that the science is valuable and that the work is conducted with care for the animals (see previous NIH reports, here). Science is the essential foundation of medical progress and discovery that benefits society, humans, animals, and the environment. Dr. Stephen Suomi and his scientific collaborators – leading scientists around the world — have together made scientific discoveries that are reflected in over 500 published papers. (see list here).

The significance of those findings is reflected in the over 10,000 times Suomi’s papers have been cited in peer-reviewed publications. The citations are by a broad range of clinicians and by scientists studying humans and other animals in order to better understand genetics, immunology, neurobiology, pharmacology, behavior and other aspects of health. The esteem in which this work is held was clear in statements of support issued by both the  American Psychological Association and American Society of Primalogists (ASP) earlier this year,  as well as the NIH’s own response to PETA’s allegations last January.

Dr. Suomi’s collaborators include over 60 scientists – with PhDs and MDs – from five different institutes at NIH and 40 different institutions, universities and research centers, including those from 7 different countries outside of the US.

The US is a leader in funding medical and scientific research that benefits people around the globe. NIH’s own research centers – the intramural program – provides scientists and students from all over the world the opportunity to conduct research, make discoveries, and train the next generation of basic and clinical researchers.

The NIH has not ended primate research within the intramural program.  There are many scientists and laboratories whose work depends on humane, ethical studies of monkeys. Those studies continue.

It is work that has contributed to new understanding of a broad range of threats to human health and well-being —stroke, Parkinson’s disease, autism, depression, cancer, diabetes, addiction, and more. The list is long and includes diseases that touch nearly everyone, resulting in suffering and harm that scientists are obliged to address with expert knowledge and training, using the best approaches to discovery that they have available now.

The science is led by experts working for the public to make the world better for the public. The US has a strong system for direction, review, and oversight of animal research.  The public contributes to that via its elected representatives. Political campaigns by groups fundamentally opposed to all use of animals in research threaten the very fabric of science on which medical progress depends.  The public should be concerned about efforts to undermine science and medicine. The future depends on serious, fact-informed, and thoughtful dialogue.  Anything less is a serious harm to public interests in science and to future generations.

Speaking of Research

 

Dangerous and Irresponsible: PETA attempts to intimidate NIH Director Francis Collins

PETA campaigns are rarely benign, from misrepresenting science to glorifying violence against women and scientists. Their latest campaign, reported yesterday by Science Insider, is no different. PETA have sent hundreds of letters to the neighbors of both NIH Director, Francis Collins, and world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, as part of a long running campaign against Dr Suomi’s NIH-funded research into the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates.

PetaLetter_Collins

These letters, condemning Dr Suomi’s research, are full of inaccuracies. His work has been defended by several large scientific organisations. When PETA first launched their campaign against Dr Suomi earlier this year the American Psychological Association wrote:

We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

The American Society of Primatologists statement noted:

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

While the NIH’s own very robust statement, which it issued this January following a review of Dr Suomi’s research programme sparked by PETA’s complaint, concluded that it:

has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.

Yet the letters are more than just another incident of misrepresented research. They are irresponsible and dangerous. By posting Dr Collins’ and Dr Suomi’s addresses, alongside a misleading picture of the NIH research, they have potentially given animal rights extremists the necessary information to carry out extremist actions. We have seen similar address releases in past result in terrifying home demonstrations as well as acts of vandalism and worse.

PETA have been involved in animal rights activism for decades and should be well aware of the potential risks – this whole strategy comes down to the harassment of scientists and their families to scare them from conducting important biomedical research. Indeed, a statement by PETA’s Alka Chandna to Science Insider that “If I had a neighbor who was doing this, I would want to know about it…It’s similar to having a sexual predator in your neighborhood.” suggests that harassment and intimidation is exactly what PETA have in mind. It becomes all the more sinister when you remember PETA’s record in glorifying and encouraging violence, and supporting violent animal rights extremists.

As Speaking of Research member Prof. David Jentsch noted in his comments to Science Insider:

PETA’s arguments about the value of the science fails on its merits, so they resort to these deeply personal attacks. We’re seeing more of these types of tactics across the animal rights movement. They’re essentially saying to scientists, ‘We know where you live.’

Is this what PETA want?

Is this what PETA want?

So will PETA’s approach succeed? The fact is that very few of the scientists targeted by PETA or other animal rights extremists have ever given up their research, and for some – and David Jentsch himself is a good example – being targeted has prompted them to become vocal advocates for animal research, which one suspects is not the result the animal rights groups intended.

It’s also worth noting that on previous occasions where animal rights extremists have targeted the neighbors of scientists on this way, they have responded with displays of support for the scientist and their family. We expect that this time will be no different (especially as PETA are hardly the most trusted of organizations).

It seems unlikely that Collins will be cowed by PETA’s tactics, after all as a researcher who has spoken up in favour of human embryonic stem cell research when it was under threat, and who as NIH Director frequently has to deal the demands of wilfully ignorant and frequently obnoxious politicians, he has probably developed quite a thick skin.

Indeed, during a discussion of the NIH’s flagship BRAIN Initiative at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last month Collins was asked directly about non-human primate research, and responded by acknowledging the need for non-human primate research in the BRAIN Initiative and the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Some commentators have suggested a connection between the PETA campaign and yesterday’s announcement by the NIH that it has decided to retire all its remaining research chimpanzees. While some may be tempted to think this, it seems unlikely to be the case. As several researchers noted in the Nature News article reporting the NIH decision, there are still some question marks over the NIH’s decision. In particular how the NIH will ensure that the conditions in which the chimps are retired to meet the high welfare standards of current NIH facilities, and how it will affect valuable non-invasive neurocognitive, genomic, and behavioural research that most sanctuaries do not have the facilities to support, is still far from clear.

However, it is also readily apparent that this decision was driven by the fast decreasing use of chimps in biomedical research over the past 5 years, and in particular the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to give research chimps endangered species protection, which prevents any invasive biomedical research that doesn’t benefit wild chimpanzee populations, a ruling that arguably made supporting even a small research chimp colony unviable for the NIH. PETA’s most recent harassment campaign is unlikely to have had much – if any – affect on the NIH’s decision making.

Francis Collins

The situation is very different for other non-human primate species, which continue to play a crucial role in many areas of NIH-funded research. Francis Collins himself noted this  in the official statement on the decision to no longer support chimpanzee research, when he concluded by writing:

These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH.

Speaking of Research applauds Francis Collins’ continued support for non-human primate research, and his refusal to concede to PETA’s attempts to bully him into a decision that would do serious damage to the NIH’s status a world leader in biomedical research, and indeed to progress against a wide range of devastating diseases.

Speaking of Research condemns the efforts of PETA to stand in the way of medical research that can change lives. Almost 20% of the US suffered from mental health illnesses in the past year. The research community is morally obligated to do what it can to help understand and treat these devastating conditions. We also condemn a PETA tactic that risks exposing researchers to acts of violent extremism that PETA claim not to support.

We hope Francis Collins and the NIH will not bow to pressure, but will continue to stand up in defense of the research community and the importance of biomedical research.

Speaking of Research