Category Archives: Animal Rights News

FDA response to Goodall letter found lacking

On September 25, 2017, Dr. Scott Gottlieb , Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) replied to a scathing letter from Dr. Jane Goodall, where Goodall denounced what she called the “cruel and unnecessary nicotine addiction experiments on monkeys”. We previously evaluated that letter from Goodall and now do the same with Commissioner Gottlieb’s letter.

The FDA Commissioner’s letter starts with an acknowledged appreciation of Goodall’s opinion and a re-statement of the FDA’s commitment to compliance with the rules and guidance governing the use of animals for research. It is indeed admirable that Commissioner Gottlieb places emphasis on compliance with the long-standing regulatory framework and guidance governing animal research in the US. What is unacknowledged in the letter is that all studies involving animals used in research, including the one that Goodall references, are continually monitored with respect to such compliance.

Gottlieb writes:

“After learning of concerns related to the study you referenced, I directed the Agency to place a hold on the research study earlier this month. Accordingly, at this time, all experimentation involving the monkeys in the study you referenced has been halted.”

Several things are surprising about this approach. Foremost, the vague reference to “concerns” when coupled with the failure to mention the review and oversight mechanisms in place, can give a public impression that is confusing. For example, is Gottlieb saying that his response is driven by Goodall and WCW? Speaking of Research, like the scientific community, supports an effective oversight system that has mechanisms for investigation and correction of animal welfare issues. In this letter, however, the Commissioner appears to bow to celebrity opinion, halting an ongoing experiment without providing evidence or acknowledgement of the continual monitoring that surrounds research. In fact, subsequent media coverage of Gottlieb’s response also conveys the impression that the decision was made directly in response to Goodall’s letter.

This is alarming on many levels. There is, for example, no acknowledgement of contact with the research institution’s federally-mandated review board (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, IACUC), no mention of the FDA’s process for review of research, or evaluation of records. Instead, the letter suggests that the federal agency’s decision is a bow to celebrity pressure from Goodall, who is acting on behalf of an anti-animal research organization (White Coat Waste, WCW).

Gottlieb continues:

“I asked for a medical team of primate experts to conduct a site visit to evaluate the safety and well-being of the monkeys and to understand whether there are additional precautions needed.”

This statement and the announcement of “halting” the study, absent any other information, imply that animal health and well-being are in immediate jeopardy. The evidence for that claim is not presented. If the animals were in immediate jeopardy, we would expect that the facility’s personnel would be taking action. Whether that is the case or not cannot be ascertained from Gottlieb’s letter. At the very least, the commissioner’s letter should acknowledge any ongoing efforts by his agency’s personnel—including those at National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR).

Squirrel monkey. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The letter can leave readers with the several wrong impressions by leaving out any information about the expertise of the existing veterinary, animal care, and scientific staff at the federal facility. Readers may be left with impression that primate experts—including scientists and veterinarians — are absent at the long-standing federal research facility, the NCTR. That is unlikely to be the case. Further, even when people with a high level of expertise and experience are present, adverse events that require thoughtful review and modifications in procedures sometimes occur. Animal research, like all human endeavors, has potential for error. Research teams, IACUCs, and regulatory bodies all play a role in making sure that those errors are addressed and corrected. Thus, in light of full transparency, actions taken by the institutional IACUC, the scientists, and the facility’s veterinarians, along with further information including the timing and venue for a public report of findings before decisions are taken need to be specified.

Gottlieb’s letter continues:

“I also appointed an independent FDA review team, led by senior career experts and with the guidance of primate veterinarians, to assess the science and integrity of the animal research process for this study. I also asked this team to evaluate whether the re-initiation of the study you referenced is necessary to fulfill FDA’s public health responsibilities, or if the study should be halted indefinitely.”

This is one of the more troubling aspects of the FDA commission’s letter as it is unclear whether he is aware that firstly, this study must have gone through rigorous review in terms of scientific merit, evaluation of the risks to the animals being used as well as the proposed benefit to humans, when it was funded. Secondly, the IACUC at this institution will have vetted all procedures being performed on these animals, including consideration of response and correction should an adverse situation occur.

Finally, separate to this letter, but parallel to this issue, an FDA spokeswoman is quoted as stating, “the agency is also considering creating a wider-ranging function that would provide for even greater oversight of the care of animals in the agency’s possession.”

This statement is alarming in its lack of specificity and requires clarification. Does it mean that FDA is conducting a re-assessment of the existing federal structure for reviewing and conducting all animal research? If so, what is the impetus for the review? How is it different from existing policies? Who is involved in the review? What is the process by which public interests in scientific research that informs public health policy will be protected and scientific objectives balanced with animal welfare? How will the public be assured that the full range of relevant expertise is included in the review? There are many additional questions—all raised by the statement, none addressed, as far as we are aware, by any other materials provided by the FDA.

Finally, it is also important, in light of full transparency that the FDA provides an update about its ongoing lawsuit with WCW. The WCW suit appears to have arisen as a consequence of the FDA’s response to a WCW freedom of information (FOIA) request for records about the NCTR research. At this time, it is unclear whether the FDA’s decision to suspend this ongoing and already scientifically-justified funded research is related to this lawsuit. The Washington Post writes:

“Goodall was enlisted in the fight against the monkey tests by the White Coat Waste Project, an advocacy group that says its goal is to publicize and end taxpayer-funded animal experiments. In January, the organization obtained 64 pages of documents on the nicotine-addiction research from the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act. It is suing the agency to get more information on the research’s costs, as well as veterinary records and photographs and videos of the experiments.”

Speaking of Research is not the only organization concerned with the FDA response. The American Psychological Association (APA), the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), and the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD), have jointly penned their own letter to the FDA demanding a clear explanation for the suspension of the nicotine research project. Part of it is quoted below:

“As you may be aware, Dr. Goodall’s letter to you came at the behest of an organization, White Coat Waste Project (WCW), that is fundamentally opposed to all research with nonhuman animals. Your decision to suspend the research is extremely troubling because it appears to have occurred without any substantive input from experts in the scientific community who have deep knowledge and understanding of research on substance use disorders. Furthermore, the methods and technologies used in this study have been rigorously validated and commonly used in studies of substance use disorders, including research that is funded by other federal agencies, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).”

Speaking of Research shares the APA, ACNP and CPDD’s concerns. We hope the FDA will be forthcoming with an explanation of the suspension of the research project in question. We also hope that they will be taking the evidence of experts over the opinions of prominent celebrity scientists and animal rights groups.

Speaking of Research

Jane Goodall and White Coat Waste are wrong about nicotine addiction research

This open letter is from scientists and leaders in the addiction research community.  If you’d like to join the signatories listed below, please do in comments at the bottom of this article. Please also share with others with an interest in research on addiction.

Smoking – and nicotine addiction – are sometimes easy targets for criticism by many people. For others, addiction is a mental health issue of deep concern, affecting one in seven Americans during their lifetime, often resulting in immeasurable suffering and even death.  There are many reasons that addiction can be an easy target and perennial candidate for ridicule. One is that some believe addiction is “simply a matter of weak willpower,” evidence of a “moral failing,” or some other character flaw. In this, we see parallels to medieval beliefs that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression were due to witchcraft, demonic possession, wandering uteruses, and weak moral character.

Addiction is a brain disorder

Through decades of scientific study of the brain, behavior, genetics, and physiology, we now know that addiction is a complex disorder affected by neural function, genes, and the environment. We also know – at a specific level – about the brain chemistry and circuits that increase the risk for and play a role in addiction—including smoking. Unfortunately, there is still a lot we do not know, including questions such as: Why are some individuals vulnerable to addiction and others not? Why does relapse after any kind of treatment occur at such phenomenally high rates? Why do drug abusers persist in seeking and taking substances that so clearly will lead to incarceration, poverty, even death?

It is these gaps in knowledge – along with empathy for those suffering because of addiction—that lead the nation’s health research agencies to actively support addiction research. Yet, there are others who seek to end this lifesaving research. For example, a months-long campaign by the anti-animal research advocacy group White Coat Waste Project targeting nicotine addiction research recently got a boost from Jane Goodall, the celebrity primatologist known for research on chimpanzee behavior. This marks yet another high profile pairing of Goodall and groups fundamentally opposed to all nonhuman animal research. Here, Goodall wrote to the head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about research on nicotine addiction in monkeys conducted at the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR).

Addiction costs the US billions each year

What Goodall claims is that the research is a misuse of taxpayer’s money because of her belief that ‘the results of smoking are well-known in humans’, and that the same research can be done in humans. Both statements are shocking, no less so because they come from a prominent scientist whose very profession is based on reporting facts.

Even a cursory glance at the state of tobacco use in the US gives some clues as to why statements like this are irresponsible: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), tobacco use kills approximately 440,000 Americans each year. Given the White Coat Waste Project’s interest in saving the taxpayer’s money, the estimated economic impact of tobacco use, including everything from healthcare costs to cigarette-related fires, is almost $200 billion per year (see NIDA Research Report Series online, 2012). So, clearly nicotine addiction remains a significant public health problem and it is quite evident that we do not understand this disorder well enough to eradicate it—current treatments basically have just slowed it down. There is much work to do.

Outright wrong: the FDA nicotine research Goodall targets is not taxpayer funded

There is another blatant inaccuracy in Goodall’s letter to the FDA, namely, the very idea that this is a fraudulent waste of taxpayer’s money. In fact, the funding source for NCTR nicotine research is the Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), which was established to oversee implementation of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

What is important here is that CTP funding comes from “tobacco user fees” charged to manufacturers of tobacco products. In other words, no taxpayer’s money is funding this research. How can the public trust any claim by Goodall and White Coat Waste if even this basic fact was ignored?

Why research with humans cannot answer the full range of questions

What is lost in the simple formulation that Goodall uses is the fact that research with humans cannot answer fundamentally important questions that are basic to progress in understanding, preventing, and treating addiction. Species other than humans take drugs. The fact that monkeys and rodents “self-administer” drugs in a manner similar to humans provides scientists with an extremely valuable model of drug addiction. The discovery of the “reward center” in the brain, the role of the chemical dopamine, even the basic principles of many behavioral therapies for addiction—all of these basic findings come from studies with monkeys and/or rodents self-administering drugs. In fact, the discovery that nicotine is the primary ingredient of tobacco products that contributes to their addictive properties, as well as the designation of nicotine as a drug of abuse, relied on self-administration studies. And yet, we are just at the beginning of understanding addiction as a brain disorder (rather than a simple moral failure or a series of bad decisions).

Instead of using monkeys in nicotine addiction research, Goodall suggests that ‘smoking habits’ can be studied ‘directly’ in humans. These two scenarios are entirely different—you don’t study ‘smoking habits’ in monkeys (who generally don’t go to the local gas station for some smokes). Smoking habits are an incredibly important part of nicotine addiction, but studying nicotine self-administration has entirely different goals. For example, the NCTR researchers are interested in brain changes following nicotine taking in adults and adolescents. What the monkey experiments allow them to do is isolate just nicotine (burning tobacco creates approximately 7000 chemicals)

and study its effects in a highly controlled environment. This approach allows the researchers to draw much firmer conclusions about effects on brain function than could ever be obtained in people smoking cigarettes. To treat nicotine addiction, we have to know precisely what nicotine does to the brain, and we need to do this in a systematic, carefully controlled manner.  We also need to know, however, what all the other chemicals are doing in order to understand the “real life” situation.  Studying nicotine alone provides a platform for going about doing those types of studies, eventually recreating the real life experiences of the tobacco abuser.

Absolutism is different from consideration of animal welfare

Research in laboratories with animals is conducted humanely, ethically, and under careful oversight guided by federal and state laws, regulations, guidelines, and by institutional policy.  Importantly, it is unclear what evidence Goodall and White Coat Waste have for any serious violations of regulations at the FDA facility. It may be the case that Jane Goodall and White Coat Waste are opposed to animal research that is conducted in order to benefit human health. That is a different argument, however, than saying that addiction research is unnecessary, that human studies are all that is needed, or that the animals are abused. We in the scientific community wholeheartedly support ethical, humanely-conducted research on addiction to nicotine and other drugs of abuse, which is in the public’s interest. At the same time, we condemn this irresponsible and factually-challenged assault on research at the NCTR.

Conclusion

We, the undersigned, support the careful, considered and regulated use of primates in addiction research. While respecting Dr. Jane Goodall as an eminent primatologist—known for her knowledge of chimpanzee behavior in the wild—we do not believe she has the necessary expertise to intervene into the scientific questions of addiction research and neuroscience. Addiction is a major public health issue worldwide, and requires and deserves close scientific scrutiny, some of which will require the use of animals.

James K. Rowlett, Ph.D., Professor and Vice Chair for Research, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Jack E. Henningfield, Ph.D., Vice President, Research, Health Policy, and Abuse Liability, Pinney Associates, Inc. and Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center, of Neuroscience and of Pharmacology, Deputy Chair for Basic Science Research, Dept. of Psychiatry, Deputy Director, Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Yale University

Travis Thompson, Ph.D., L.P., Professor, University of Minnesota; Past President of American Psychological Association Division of Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse; Past Member, College on Problems of Drug Dependence Executive Committee

Charles P. France, Ph.D., Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry, Professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry, University of Texas Health Science Center- San Antonio

Michael A. Nader, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology, Pharmacology, and Radiology and Director, Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction Treatment; Co-Director, Center for Research on Substance Use and Addiction, Wake Forest School of Medicine

Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (Health Program) and
Director, Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, Virginia Commonwealth University

Nancy A. Ator, Ph.D., Professor of Behavioral Biology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Roger D. Spealman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychobiology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Kathleen A. Grant, Ph.D., Chief and Senior Scientist, Division of Neuroscience, Professor, Dept. Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon National Primate Research Center

Alan J. Budney, Ph.D., President, College on Problems of Drug Dependence, Past President, Division of Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse (28) and the Division on Addictions (50) – American Psychological Association, Professor, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

Peter W. Kalivas, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Neuroscience, Medical University of South Carolina

Marilyn E. Carroll, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Department of Psychiatry, University of Minnesota

Craig A. Stockmeier, Ph.D., Professor, Dept Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Janet Neisewander, Ph.D., Professor, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

Mary E Cain, PhD, Professor of Psychological Sciences, Past President for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology, Kansas State University

Wei-Dong Yao, PhD, Professor, SUNY Upstate Medical University

Lance R. McMahon, PhD, Chair and Professor of Pharmacodynamics, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida

Michael N. Lehman, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences, Chairman of the Board, UMMC Neuro Institute, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Donna M. Platt, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Michael A. Taffe, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The Scripps Research Institute

Linda J. Porrino, PhD, Professor and Chair, Wake Forest School of Medicine

Kevin B. Freeman, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Mei-Chuan Ko, Ph.D., Professor, Wake Forest School of Medicine

Sally L. Huskinson, Ph.D., Instructor, Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Mark Smith, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Davidson College

Daniel C. Williams, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Director, Division of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Eric J. Vallender, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Matthew Banks, PharmD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Virginia Commonwealth University

Paul May, Ph.D., Department of Neurobiology & Anatomical Sciences, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, UCLA, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System

Catherine M. Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor, Division of Behavioral Biology, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Klaus A. Miczek, Ph.D., Moses Hunt Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, Pharmacology, & Neuroscience, Tufts University, Department of Psychology

Wendy J. Lynch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia

Michael T. Bardo, Professor of Psychology, Director, Center for Drug Abuse Research Translation (CDART), University of Kentucky

Xiu Liu, MD, PhD, Professor, Department of Pathology, Associate Director, Graduate Program in Pathology, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Katherine Serafine, PhD, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Psychology

Robert L. Balster, PhD,  Butler Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, former CoDirector of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA

David Jentsch, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Binghamton University

William W. Stoops, Ph.D., Professor, University of Kentucky College of Medicine

Jack Bergman, Ph.D., McLean Hospital / Harvard Medical School

Barry Setlow, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Florida College of Medicine

Doris J. Doudet, PhD, Professor, Dept. Medicine/Neurology, University of British Columbia

Leonard L. Howell, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University

S. Stevens Negus, PhD, Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Virginia Commonwealth University

Carrie K. Jones, Ph.D., Director, In Vivo and Translational Pharmacology, Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, Vanderbilt University

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem With Jane Goodall’s “Expert” Opinion

On September 7, 2017, Dr. Jane Goodall wrote a scathing letter to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) denouncing what she called the “cruel and unnecessary nicotine addiction experiments on monkeys” occurring there. The letter, which relies on the repeated use of opinion versus fact-based arguments by Goodall, is not just problematic, it’s downright dangerous.

This is not Goodall’s first time lending her name to various efforts by animal rights activists opposed to federally-supported biomedical and behavioral research, despite her lack of expertise or relevant credentials. Goodall has often partnered with animal rights groups to attack life-saving science. In March 2016, she supported a campaign by the Animal Justice Project to stop preclinical trials of a new malaria vaccine. In September 2016, Goodall joined Cruelty Free International (CFI) to co-author a letter attacking the use of animals in neuroscience research (to which a counter-letter, signed by 400 prominent experts in the field, was published). In February 2017, Goodall worked with For Life on Earth to call out Prof. Roger Lemon, a notable Professor of Neurophysiology, to criticize his comparative work with both humans and non-human primates.

Squirrel monkey. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As detailed here, her most recent letter to the FDA, in partnership with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research, relies on the repeated use of opinion rather than empirical observations or rigorous study to arrive at sweeping – and dangerous – conclusions.  

The problems

We’ll tackle this letter in particular, though past letters signed by Goodall and other notable figures like David Attenborough, are similarly flawed and should be similarly scrutinized.

  • No relevant credentials or expertise: This one bears repeating. Although this should be obvious, to many it is not. Though she possesses a PhD and is described as an expert on chimpanzees, Goodall’s “expertise” ends there. She does not possess an advanced degree pertinent to the field of addiction research, and moreover she has never conducted research in a biomedical research facility. Thus, her first-hand knowledge of the methodology and oversight in these types of studies is questionable at best. Would you consult a cardiologist for questions about your car’s transmission?  Or, conversely, consult an auto mechanic about your open heart surgery? In fact, Dr. Goodall appears to recognize this. For example, in her video targeting Prof. Roger Lemon, midway through the video Goodall notes: “I don’t have the scientific medical knowledge to take issue with Professor Lemon” before going on to demand he debate pseudoscientist, Dr. Ray Greek. The problem here is that the weight given to Goodall’s opinion is directly related to impressions of her expertise and credentials. This issue of ethics of expertise is an important one. Goodall herself may not be directly claiming to be a neuroscientist, or an addiction researcher, but one of the reasons that her opinion may be thought valuable in these campaigns is because she is a scientist. As as scientist, it is worth considering whether Goodall should be upfront about her lack of expertise in the topic at hand. In fact, Goodall’s conclusion that the research is “unnecessary” and that “the results of smoking are well-known in humans” are opinions, rather than statements based in evidence and expert analysis.

    “I don’t have the scientific
    medical knowledge…”
    – Jane Goodall

  • “I have been told that…”: This should immediately set off alarm bells to anyone reading Goodall’s letter. Forget what comes after that – who has told her what she describes? As we have noted in the past, it’s crucial to know the starting assumptions of those engaging in a conversation, and the assumptions must be spelled out. In this case, it is no secret that Goodall has worked with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research (this starting position itself is dangerous, as described below). The WCW’s site itself states, “On the heels of WCW’s new lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)…Dr. Jane Goodall has joined WCW’s campaign to expose and end this wasteful project.” Put simply: Goodall appears to rely only on information provided to her by animal rights groups to make the case in her letter.
  • Factual inaccuracies: Probably because she appears to rely on the distorted information from WCW, Goodall’s letter is full of multiple inaccurate statements. One example is when she writes, “Not only is it extremely cruel to restrain the monkeys.”  In reality, empirical evidence—that is data – show that restraint devices used in such studies do not cause severe stress to the animals, because they are slowly trained to be familiar with and calmly enter and remain in the restraint devices. Despite her scientific background—which should result in knowing that evidence and citations matter—Goodall cites no evidence for her claim that restraint is “extremely cruel.”
  • Sweeping assumptions: At least two glaring assumptions stand out in Goodall’s brief letter.
    1) Goodall writes, “To continue performing nicotine experiments on monkeys when the results of smoking are well-known in humans – whose smoking habits can still be studied directly – is shameful.” There are several problems with this statement. The first is that Goodall assumes that the monkey studies examining the neurobiology and physiology of nicotine addiction is the same thing as studying smoking habits in humans. Someone with expertise in this field should know these are false equivalencies. The only other plausible explanation is that she is choosing to ignore the fact that these two are not the same thing. The FDA describes on its webpage that nicotine research will inform about the toxicity of tobacco products as they continue to change by manufacturers, about how changes in tobacco product characteristics (e.g., aerosolized chemicals, often including nicotine, found in e-cigarettes) impact addiction, and about the changes in cell function/physiology after tobacco exposure. These types of findings are not readily available from studying humans’ smoking habits. 2) Near the end of her letter, Goodall writes, “I’m sure that most Americans would be horrified to learn that their tax dollars are paying for this abuse.” Again, Goodall makes major assumptions without citing any sources of data. We can just as confidently say that we’re sure most Americans would be glad to know their tax dollars are being used in highly-regulated research studies that address the health of current and future generations.

The dangers

  • Calls for de-funding life-saving research: The most recent nicotine delivery methods, e-cigarettes, have not yet been well studied for their health effects, yet they represent a major public health concern. We do not yet know all the ways in which nicotine in e-cigarettes affects the brain. Studies such as those conducted by the FDA in animals, including monkeys, will teach us how these new delivery methods affect the brain and body, which will in turn lead to recommendations for regulation of these products and potential treatments for addiction. Despite these life-saving benefits, Goodall and WCW call for an end to this line of research in their letter. This explicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen concerned about public health. But this is not the first time animal research opponents have called for an end to beneficial research. Just a week ago, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Dr. David Shulkin, had to make a plea to the United States Senate to not end life-saving canine research after a campaign by – you guessed it – WCW called for an end to this line of work. Think about that. The VA Secretary had to lobby the U.S. Senate to save a life-saving research program for veterans.

  • Threats to the advancement of scientific knowledge: As if threats to life-saving research weren’t enough, animal rights campaigns that rely on “experts” like Goodall are also threatening to end – or have already ended – scientific programs geared toward broadening and enhancing society’s basic knowledge of the way the world works, from the toxic effects of vapors in e-cigarettes to the safety of new vaccines to the communication between neurons to mechanisms of stress resilience to…the list goes on. This type of basic knowledge is crucial before life-saving treatments can be developed. This implicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen, period.

The Fact Check: PETA vs. Christine Lattin

A systematic evaluation of PETA’s claims about Dr. Christine Lattin’s research highlights a lack of context, misrepresentation of her work, and – in some cases – statements that are just not factually accurate. Again, PETA demonstrates to the world why we should not take such claims at face value.

PETA’s campaign against Dr. Christine Lattin, an early career researcher at Yale University, began in May 2017. At first blush, this seemed like the usual nonsense that PETA often gets up to: sensational claims and some selective reporting about the issue at hand – usually in an effort to get the maximum emotive response regardless of the truth or of the consequences (see for e.g., here, here, here, here).

A quick search (see Dr. Lattin’s website and Twitter) reveals a researcher that is open and transparent about her research, critical about the limits of interpreting her research, and one willing to stand up to these allegations without fear – a sign of true conviction about one’s work. Recently, PETA upped the ante and posted a long diatribe claiming that Dr. Lattin, who was defending herself and her research via Twitter, was presenting an alternate version of the facts.

We decided to evaluate PETA’s claims against Dr. Lattin in order to provide a public view of the facts and context that are relevant to considering PETA’s statements. We are not claiming an absence of potential bias, nor should others. PETA also has a particular interest in the topic, as they clearly state their view opposing all use of animals by humans (for research, but also food, clothing, and entertainment). As well, many of us that are affiliated with Speaking of Research study animals in our own research, and therefore have a vested interest in this topic. With these starting assumptions in mind let’s jump in.

Sub-topics:

VALUE OF THE WORK IN TERMS OF APPLICABILITY TO OTHER SPECIES?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “[I]f my research wasn’t [sic] applicable to humans or any other species, it wouldn’t get approved, funded or published.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Applicability to humans or other species is not a condition for approval, funding, or publication of research. Indeed, the results of many of the most abusive experiments using animals are not relevant to humans and are driven only by curiosity. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a series of infamous stress experiments [by Harry Harlow, emphasis added] in which infant monkeys were stuffed into tiny cages and then terrorized with loud noises. A horrific variation on this involved drugging mother monkeys, taping over their nipples, and then observing how their frightened babies frantically tried to wake them up. The experimenter responsible for this cruelty admitted publicly that his results were not relevant to human mental illness. Yet NIH saw fit to fund these experiments for more than 30 years with a total of more than $35 million.

Applicability to humans or other species is not a condition for approval, funding, or publication of research. That is a strength of science – a feature, not a bug, because the foundation of scientific discoveries and advances depend on basic research. It would be disingenuous to stop there though. Where research can potentially cause harm or distress there generally needs to be a clear justification of applicability, for example, either to the species being studied or to other animals, in order for such work to be conducted. Some of Dr. Lattin’s research involves a degree of stress, and will therefore have been subject to an analysis that weighs risks to the animals with consideration of scientific objectives and potential benefits from the research.

Indeed, if one were to read Dr. Lattin’s publications, which are posted freely on her website, one would see that her research is not driven by simple curiosity but clearly states the applicability of her research to other species of passerine birds. And, as an example of selective reporting, PETA fails to post/address the very next comment that Dr. Lattin’s posts on her Twitter feed where she provides an example of the applicability of her work to other species.

We have previously addressed the one sided argument against the NIH funded research of Harry Harlow. We also note that Harlow died over 35 years ago. Harlow’s work, and that of his contemporary colleagues, is one used in arguments by those opposed to animal research.  As we state in a previous article:

“Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.”

We, and others – including NIH and leading scientific organizations have addressed and supported the contemporary research to which PETA refers (e.g., NIH statement, APA statement, ASP statement).

IS RESEARCH WITH WILD BIRDS REGULATED IN THE USA? YES.

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Also: there is a TON of oversight on all animal research (mine included). It’s not illicit or secret.” (Twitter, August 3, 2017)

PETA response: Lots of paperwork does not equal protection for animals. The systems of oversight in laboratories are weighted in favor of the experimenters and often fail the animals they are designed to protect. The only law that offers any sort of protection for animals in laboratories deals primarily with housekeeping issues and excludes birds, mice, rats, reptiles, amphibians, and animals used in agricultural experiments. No experiment is illegal.

Experimenters can deliberately inflict psychological suffering and pain with the flimsiest of justifications and still receive approval by oversight committees. As a result, many experiments that are wasteful and irrelevant and cause significant suffering are approved. Just two of many recent examples include experiments on dogs with canine muscular dystrophy that have failed to lead to any effective treatments and others in which hamsters were given cocaine and forced to fight.

PETA lumps a lot of little things together (a gish gallop tactic), perhaps in the hope that by doing so, the perception of similarity/applicability is achieved. The first criticism states that the Animal Welfare Act in the USA does not cover rats, mice, and non-mammalian vertebrates. However, this does not mean that these animals are not without protection or consideration, as we have previously explained. In fact, these animals receive oversight in numerous ways. Among them, federal law mandates compliance with standards, provides external oversight and mechanisms for public transparency of federally-funded research with rats, mice, and birds.  Further, accreditation by AAALAC requires compliance with standards. Finally, the research is subject to IACUC approval and oversight.

Moreover, the wild birds that Lattin studies are covered under the Animal Welfare Act, as explained by Ellen Paul, executive director of the Ornithological Council. Additionally, some of Dr. Lattin’s work actually informs standards for the keeping of wild birds in captivity and for example, include the consequences of captivity across time on the behavior and physiology of wild birds.

“The Animal Welfare Act covers all warm-blooded animals. In the past, the regulations excluded rats, mice, and birds. After litigation, the USDA agreed to include these taxa but a Farm Bill amendment excluded “purpose-bred” rats, mice, and birds.”

As Dr. Lattin’s birds are wild caught, and not purpose bred, they remain covered by the Animal Welfare Act.

The second criticism – that research can involve significant suffering and pain on a whim is not supported by the available evidence. Only approximately 3% of all approved experiments are rated as severe, and cause significant suffering (inferred from the severity ratings of countries that provide them and categorized in the USA as “E”). Moreover, and as mentioned previously, the risk benefit analysis in the USA, and the Harm-Benefit analysis in Europe and Switzerland, all require that any harms experienced by the animals are weighed with respect to the scientific objectives, the potential benefit of performing the experiment, or both. So, once again, PETA’s statements are demonstrably false.

Dr. Christine Lattin checks the tag on a bird to be released as part of her research.

WHAT DOES THE FACT-CHECK OF PETA’S SELECTIVE EVALUATION OF DR. LATTIN’S RESEARCH REVEAL?

PETA continues: Like these, Lattin’s studies have not led to any useful real-world applications, hinge on the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering, and require the death of the birds used. Here’s a sampling of what birds have endured in her experiments with “oversight”:

  1. Experimenters subjected birds to terrifying stressors, including rattling their cages, rolling them on a cart so that they could not perch, and physically restraining them, for 30 minutes four times per day at random intervals.[1]

What are these procedures that PETA calls “terrifying stressors?” They are part of a well-established approach to studying stress, called chronic mild stress, in biomedical research. Paul Willner, was the first to describe and subsequently validate this approach, and in a recent open access methodological review highlights the translational value of this model.

“Now 30 years old, the chronic mild stress (CMS) model of depression has been used in >1300 published studies, with a year-on-year increase rising to >200 papers in 2015. Data from a survey of users show that while a variety of names are in use (chronic mild/unpredictable/varied stress), these describe essentially the same procedure. This paper provides an update on the validity and reliability of the CMS model, and reviews recent data on the neurobiological basis of CMS effects and the mechanisms of antidepressant action: the volume of this research may be unique in providing a comprehensive account of antidepressant action within a single model. Also discussed is the use of CMS in drug discovery, with particular reference to hippocampal and extra-hippocampal targets. The high translational potential of the CMS model means that the neurobiological mechanisms described may be of particular relevance to human depression and mechanisms of clinical antidepressant action.

Dr. Lattin also addresses this in her paper but this rationale, justification, and context are not fully evident in PETA’s consideration. For example, in the paper that PETA references, Dr. Lattin first points out why studying chronic stress is important, and in particular, relevant to our understanding of the bird itself.

“…diagnosing chronic stress is not simple – the effects of presumed cases of chronic stress vary by species, stress paradigm, life history stage and other factors…”

“…knowing whether animals are successfully coping with stressors or suffering deleterious effects from an overactive HPA axis can be crucial for diagnosing the health of an individual animal.”

Dr. Lattin then highlights why she used these particular mild stressors.

The stressors usedhave all been shown individually to significantly increase CORT titers…” [note CORT refers to the stress hormone cortisol]

Yet, none of these considerations are highlighted by PETA, even though they are clearly and logically presented in Dr. Lattin’s publication.

  1. PETA: “One bird died during the administration of anesthesia prior to euthanasia.[2]

This is factually incorrect: “One male from the chronic stress recovery group died prematurely under anesthesia during perfusions” NOT during anesthesia – meaning that the animal was successfully rendered unconscious. Because Dr. Lattin’s wild caught birds are a heterogeneous population, i.e., they may vary in age, body status, immune composition etc., there will be individual differences in the way they respond to the anesthetic and sometimes, may do so in an unpredictable way — even when the recommended dosing is followed. Moreover it highlights why we need more research on wild caught birds – so that we may better understand why these individual differences exist and to accommodate such predictions into existing anesthesia protocols. Finally, because this bird was rendered unconscious at the time of death – it experienced no pain at its time of death.

  1. PETA: “Twenty-six feathers at a time were plucked from birds without pain management.[3] Plucking large numbers of feathers can cause bleeding, skin irritation, discomfort, and difficulty with thermoregulation.

In this paper, Dr. Lattin plucks feather from these birds to induce molting. Here, she was interested in validating a less invasive and integrated measure of a birds’ stress response. Note that this is first line of text in the paper.

“The newly described technique of extracting corticosterone (CORT) from bird feathers may serve as a less invasive, more integrated measure of a bird’s stress response.”

In the paper, Dr. Lattin states that she followed the method of Strochlic and colleagues. Of relevance here is that this procedure is performed under anesthesia – meaning that the animal was unconscious during the procedure.

“Starlings were briefly anesthetized with halothane, an inhalable anesthetic, administered in a nose cone and feathers were plucked by hand…”

It is not standard veterinary practice to administer analgesics following this procedure as it is not considered to be painful after the initial plucking; again note that this procedure was performed under general anesthesia. It is unlikely that this procedure causes bleeding, or the administration of analgesia, topical or otherwise would have been prescribed. Moreover, it is standard procedure to maintain birds at temperatures that may cause thermoregulatory distress.

These arguments presented by PETA therefore seem to be strawmen, meant to evoke an emotive response but once again are not supported by the available facts.

  1. PETA: “Capsules were surgically implanted under birds’ skin to administer drugs and then removed without pain medication.[4]

In the paper, Dr. Lattin again states that she followed the method of Strochlic and colleagues. Of relevance here is that this procedure is, again, performed under anesthesia – meaning that the animal was unconscious during the procedure. Please see the preceding the point for further discussion about the necessity of analgesia.

“All birds were anesthetized with metafane and implants were inserted subcutaneously between the shoulder blades. Silk sutures closed the incisions.”

  1. PETA: “Birds were used for multiple experiments and in some cases kept in captivity for several months before being killed.[5], [6], [7]

The same animals were studied as part of a single research program that addresses multiple questions. Studying the fewest animals possible often means the same animals are used within multiple studies. Re-using animals for experiments is consistent with the 3R principle of reduction, and minimizes the overall stress experienced by removing the need to capture more wild birds. Again, Dr. Lattin is transparent about this in her publication.

“As part of another study published previously (Lattin et al., 2014), we took body mass measurements and blood samples from all birds immediately before the onset of feeding and 2 and 4 weeks into the feeding experiment. The results of this sampling have been described in detail elsewhere (Lattin et al., 2014).”

  1. PETA: “Two birds died of “unknown causes” after two weeks of captivity.[8]

This is transparently stated in the paper. One should not confuse the use of the term “unknown causes” with the implication of wrongdoing.

  1. PETA: “Birds lost 8 percent of their bodyweight and heart mass, and their muscle density decreased during the stress of captivity and repeated experimentation.[9]

This is precisely some of the information Dr. Lattin seeks to discover. In this research, Dr. Lattin investigates the long-term effects of captivity on wild birds by measuring behavior and physiology. From this research she determines, “From a conservation perspective, this study … suggests that time in captivity should be minimized when birds will be reintroduced back to the wild.” Therefore, the loss of 8 percent bodyweight etc., is evidence for future researchers to reduce the time birds spend in captivity before being reintroduced back into the wild. It is not evidence to justify not doing the research in the first place; it is evidence that such research needs to be refined – which is exactly how refinements in animal care progresses and is reflected in the 3R perspective of refinement.

  1. PETA: “Birds exhibited behavior that indicated stress and anxiety, such as beak wiping and feather ruffling.[10]

Another glaring example of where context matters. Dr. Lattin investigates in this paper whether “experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone [i.e., stress hormones, emphasis added] may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes”. And, indeed, she does find a decrease in beak wiping but not feather ruffling in animals treated with a drug to reduce stress. So contrary to PETA’s claims, Dr. Lattin shows that one of the detrimental consequences of captivity, increased beak-wiping, can be reduced in birds brought to the laboratory for various purposes, including conservation – a further case of refinement.

  1. PETA: “Wounds were inflicted on birds’ legs without pain medication.[11]

In Dr. Lattin’s paper it clearly states, “Prior to wounding we anesthetized birds using isoflurane.” What that means is that the birds are unconscious during the procedure and therefore were not able to perceive pain. The Ornithological Council’s guide states:

“An anesthetic is an agent that produces analgesia (loss of pain sensation) and, in the case of general anesthetics, immobilization and loss of consciousness so that the individual is unresponsive to stimulation. Anesthesia ideally minimizes stress and eliminates pain during a research procedure.”

  1. PETA: “Some birds were so distressed that they lost 11 percent of their bodyweight within five days of capture.[12]

Dr. Lattin has previously shown that decreased body weight is a consequence of captivity and in the present paper she uses captivity as a model for chronic mild stress (see point 1 and 7). She also notes in her paper, “After 5 days of captivity, house sparrows lost 11% of initial body mass, although birds lost more weight during molt and early winter”. This indicates, that the weight loss is within the normal range for these animals; although she also finds “the simultaneous demands of molting and chronic stress resulting from captivity may be part of the reason that molting birds lost significantly more weight than sparrows at other times of year.” Now the question can be asked, why did Dr. Lattin do this and what are the implications of her work? She is quite open about this, and together with her work which shows changes in behavior and body weight as a consequence of captivity, it also highlights for the benefit for future birds, “…it may be desirable to avoid bringing birds into captivity during particularly vulnerable stages (such as during molt in birds) for purposes such as translocation

DOES UNDERSTANDING OF BIRDS HAVE IMPLICATIONS FOR HUMANS?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Because the hormone and neurotransmitter systems I study are very similar across vertebrates, my work also has important implications for human health.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: Lattin’s experiments lack applicability to humans. Her studies of chronic stress focus on the effects of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, or axis, but there are significant anatomical and physiological differences between human and birds. The HPA axis regulates the secretion and release of steroid hormones and plays an important role in stress responses for both humans and animals. Birds’ adrenal glands produce steroid hormones that are different from those produced by human adrenal glands—the main adrenal hormone produced in birds is corticosterone, while in humans and other mammals it is cortisol. Unlike humans, most birds produce very low levels of aldosterone,[13] and their adrenal glands lack the distinct outer cortex and inner medulla that is characteristic of human adrenal glands. Some male birds possess an appendix epididymis that extends into the adrenal gland, while others have adrenal tissue in the epididymis, a feature that does not exist in human males.[14] With such anatomical and functional differences, the physiological response to chronic stress in birds cannot be extrapolated with any reliability to other species, including humans.

Here PETA throws up a superficial argument at best. The argument may be read as a lack of awareness, or even a deliberate ignorance about whether and how the comparative study of similarities and differences between species such as human and other non-human animals have led to major advances in our understanding of behavior, physiology, and the treatments of disease. We have covered this issue in many posts previously, including here. But even without acknowledging the benefit of the comparative approach to humans, PETA appears to be very selectively reporting. Dr. Lattin also states on her website “One of the major areas of my research is the stress response…..understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species…stress is also a major risk factor for depression, heart disease, drug abuse, and suicide in humans. Understanding more about the physiology of stress could help lead to the development of new medicines and procedures to reduce stress in humans and animals.

IS REMOVAL OF INVASIVE SPECIES FROM AN ECOLOGICAL NICHE BENEFICIAL?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “[B]ecause they are an invasive species in North America that competes directly with native bird species for nest sites and other resources, there is no negative [conservation] impact, and potentially, even a mild beneficial impact, of removing them from the wild.”[15]

PETA response: Even if some groups designate certain species as “invasive,” this does not justify capturing, confining, and tormenting them. Lattin isn’t killing these birds in the interests of conservation—she’s holding them captive and deliberately inflicting frightening and painful procedures on them for weeks and sometimes months before finally ending their lives. This has nothing to do with conservation or protecting native species.

Again, it appears that PETA has selectively reported and paraphrased Dr. Lattin’s paper. Dr. Lattin provides four reasons for the use of this species of bird; yet PETA presents none of these other explanations. Dr. Lattin justifies quite comprehensively why she studied what she studied, and in what species; but you can decide.

House sparrows are excellent subjects for these kinds of toxicological studies for several reasons. First, they are easy to catch and do well in captivity, unlike many avian taxa, such as shorebirds. Second, because they are an invasive species in North America that competes directly with native bird species for nest sites and other resources, there is no negative impact, and potentially, even a mild beneficial impact, of removing them from the wild. Third, as a passerine species, they are taxonomically similar to many birds living in coastal and riparian areas contaminated by oil, such as seaside sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Finally, the extensive validation data necessary for receptor binding studies are missing for most avian species, but are available for house sparrows.”

DOES SYSTEMATIC DOSING ALLOW US TO DRAW GENERAL CONCLUSIONS ABOUT CONSUMPTION IN THE WILD?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA):  [regarding experiments in which she fed crude oil to sparrows]: “Doing this research in a lab environment allowed me to control a lot of things that might vary in the wild and make it hard to draw clear conclusions about cause and effect. What I found was that oil specifically impacted birds’ adrenal glands, preventing them from secreting normal amounts of stress hormones.” She cites this as being among “some important discoveries.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: In these experiments, Lattin fed a uniform dose of crude oil to birds until it achieved her desired effect and she was able to see measurable results, failing to take into account the wide variability in the level of exposure that would occur in a natural setting. When she compared two groups of birds, one of which was fed oil, both groups were under so much stress that they experienced the same rate of weight loss, and one bird died of undisclosed causes.[16] Additionally, there is little correlation between sparrows and aquatic birds, the species generally affected by oil spills. Studies of penguins and ducks, some of which were conducted decades ago, have produced widely varying results, including, respectively, an increase in corticosterone caused by oil exposure, a decrease, and no difference at all.[17], [18], [19] Not only are oil-feeding studies in sparrows irrelevant—as the sparrow is a nonaquatic species and therefore unlikely to be exposed to oil spills—they also fail to yield any results that can be extrapolated to other species of birds. They cannot mimic realistic situations and, as such, lack real-world applicability to conservation problems.

Dr. Lattin’s justification for her work was covered in the preceding point evaluation; however Dr. Lattin has also discussed this quite clearly in her paper. Additionally, and in response to PETA’s claim about a lack of applicability, this research is already being used by other researchers to show health problems and deaths observed in wild dolphins and sea turtles after Deepwater Horizon were due to oil exposure.

DOES UNDERSTANDING STRESS IN BIRDS HELP US TO UNDERSTAND RESPONSE TO ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGE?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “Understanding how hormones and the brain affect stress resilience will allow us to predict what kinds of individuals will be the winners and losers in the face of current and future environmental challenges.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: It stretches credulity to equate the extreme stress of capture and the subsequent terror that Lattin deliberately inflicts on birds to the pressures brought on by, for example, climate change. In its 2015 “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report,”[20] the National Audubon Society stated, “The persistence of many North American birds will depend on their ability to colonize climatically suitable areas outside of current ranges and management actions that target climate change adaptation.” So for instance, a species’ chance of surviving a warming world increases if nearby higher elevations offer a more suitable habitat and the birds are not blocked from moving into those areas. Nowhere does the report mention that the ability to withstand being rattled in a cage, rolled on a cart, and physically restrained is indicative of a bird’s resilience in the face of climate change.

It is quite likely that PETA finds incredulous Dr. Lattin’s statement that understanding how hormones and the brain affect stress resilience is highly applicable to the survival of different species in response to environmental challenge. It is possible that this is simply be because PETA and its representatives do not understand how science works (at best, e.g., here). Or perhaps it is a case of deliberate ignorance (at worst). But one does not need to look far to understand the relationship between Dr. Lattin’s work and the environmental challenges that are well appreciated and of deep concern. In PETA’s own paraphrasing of Dr. Lattin, it is first obvious that she does not talk about climate change, but environmental challenges. This may include climate change, but could also include factors such as food scarcity and increased predation. Here, PETA uses the buzz word, climate change, perhaps because it is easily relatable, but it is used out of context to Dr. Lattin’s own statement.

IS SYSTEMATIC LAB BASED RESEARCH RELEVANT TO WILD ANIMALS?

Lattin claim (paraphrased by PETA): “My current research focuses on one type of stressor that has direct implications for the conservation of endangered and threatened species—bringing birds into captivity. The transition from the wild to captivity is a strong psychological stressor, even if birds have unlimited food and water and large clean cages.” (www.christinelattin.com)

PETA response: Here, Lattin claims that her experiments will somehow provide insight into the best way to mitigate the effects of captivity on endangered birds taken from their natural habitats. In a 2017 paper,[21] she purports that in order to do so, it is important to know whether these effects are caused by the release of the hormone corticosterone or other physiological effects. To test this theory, she treated one group of birds with mitotane, a drug that limits the production of corticosterone by the adrenal glands.

Both the mitotane and non-mitotane groups experienced an increase in beak wiping—a sign of distress—the longer they were kept in captivity. While the mitotane-treated group experienced a smaller increase in this behavior, the effect was slight. Moreover, this group still lost the same amount of weight and demonstrated other stress-related types of behavior, such as increased feeding and feather ruffling, to the same degree as the control group.

Despite this underwhelming result, Lattin draws the sweeping conclusion that “experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes.” She seems to be making the absurd suggestion that captive birds should be subjected to the stress of an injection every other day in order to very slightly reduce one stress-related form of behavior.

When researchers or wildlife officials take the extreme step of capturing endangered birds to treat injuries, translocate them, or include them in breeding programs, they aim to lessen the stress experienced during capture and captivity. The birds might initially be hooded, kept in a quiet room, and provided with appropriate perching material. If Lattin truly wanted to design an experiment that aimed to explore what these unfortunate captives experience, she would have tried to reduce their stress instead of cruelly compounding it.

PETA again appears to be deliberately disingenuous here, selectively reporting. The first issue worth pointing out is that Dr. Lattin does not make a sweeping conclusion, but clearly states,

Lattin: “…our data suggest that experimentally reducing stress-induced corticosterone may mitigate some captivity-induced behavioral changes.”

We might ask whether PETA understands the distinction between conditional statements and sweeping conclusions (may mitigate versus will mitigate). PETA also fails to acknowledge the great lengths that Dr. Lattin went to avoid pain and unnecessary distress in the administration of the drug mitotane:

We also wished to avoid muscle damage that can be caused by intramuscular administration. Therefore, we injected mitotane subcutaneously over the breast muscle every other day, which can reduce circulating CORT in house sparrows to the low physiological range …”

Finally, it is now unsurprising given all of the misrepresentation of facts that no consideration beyond PETA’s own agenda is given to Dr. Lattin’s clear statement of applicability in this paper:

“Broadly, our results emphasize that researchers should take behavioral and physiological differences between free-living animals and captives into consideration when designing studies and interpreting results. Further, time in captivity should be minimized when birds will be reintroduced back to the wild.

SUMMARY

What can conclude from this (very lengthy) analysis?  In part, that simple lies are easier to convey than are complicated truths. Readers here already know that and have seen any number of similar campaigns in which research is misrepresented. Campaigns against animal research continue despite the fact that the facts, context, and accurate information about the rationale, conduct, and care for animals appears in scientific papers, in scientists’ public presentations, in a range of venues, websites, books, and papers.

It is also true though that it takes a great deal of time to address each of the claims so easily made and publicized by groups like PETA.  And so often, the claims remain unaddressed. Groups like PETA may well bank on the fact that most scientists and institutions do not have – or will not take – the time to rebut claims. And they would be correct, as we’ve often seen.

In this case though, Dr. Lattin has engaged in rebuttal. It falls to the rest of the scientific community to join her. Not only in defense of her work, but in defense of public interests in making informed decisions on the basis of facts, context, and serious consideration.

CONTRIBUTIONS OF DR. LATTIN’S WORK TO SCIENCE, BASIC RESEARCH, CONSERVATION AND THE 3RS

  • Her research has been cited hundreds of times by other scientists doing research on stress, conservation, and health, including scientists working on many other bird species (including endangered species like the Florida Scrub Jay and Egyptian vultures), and dozens of other species of animals, including fish, newts, frogs, snakes, sea turtles, lizards, dolphins, whales, mice, rats, voles, ground squirrels, hamsters, cheetahs, tigers, and monkeys.
  • She has pioneered new techniques in house sparrows that allow for less invasive ways of studying stress – for example, her work validating the technique of extracting hormones from feathers, and her current research using PET and CT imaging techniques to study the brain and body.
  • Her studies on sparrows have clear and direct conservation applications. For example, her research showing that birds caught right before and during molt dramatically altered their normal physiology in response to captivity stress suggests that conservation efforts using translocation and reintroductions of birds should avoid capturing birds at these times.
  • Her research showing rapid changes in body composition in captive wild birds demonstrates that the amount of time in captivity should be minimized for wild birds that need to be released.
  • Her research showing that oil-exposed animals cannot mount a normal hormonal response to an injection of adrenocorticotropin hormone (a minimally invasive technique that does not require euthanizing animals) shows that this technique could be used to compare animals in a population where oil effects are suspected to animals in a reference, unimpacted population.
  • Many of her studies also make major contributions to understanding fundamental biological processes that are similar across all groups of vertebrate animals. For example, her research demonstrates that animals are capable of regulating hormone levels somewhat independently from receptor levels in different tissues, and that gene expression and protein expression appear to be regulated separately for stress hormone receptors in the brain. This work helps us understand how the body regulates and responds to hormonal signals.

Speaking of Research

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Say NO to the harassment of Christine Lattin by PETA activists

Please leave a comment of support at the bottom of this article for Christine, and please share with your colleagues to raise awareness of the vile and irresponsible tactics of PETA in their targeting of a young researcher at Yale University.

What would someone need to do to deserve threats online, protests at their place of work, and the publication of their image and home address? According to PETA, they would just need to be a researcher that works on animals.

PETA activists protesting outside the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology in Long Beach, California, in June 2017

Christine Lattin is a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University who studies birds in order to better understand the impact of stress on animals and humans. In her own words:

The focus of my research is to understand how different neurotransmitters and hormones help animals successfully choose mates, raise young, escape from predators, and survive harsh winters and other challenging conditions. One of the major areas of my research is the stress response. While stress helps animals and humans survive and cope with challenges, too much stress is bad and leads to health problems. Understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species.

Christine believes in openness and transparency, which is why she runs a website where she explains more about her research – this can help educate the public on the importance of the work she does. It is well worth a read: www.christinelattin.com. All of Dr Lattin’s work has been approved by the Yale Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and all of it must comply with the Ornithological Council’s ‘Guidelines to the use of wild birds in research’.

PETA do not like animal research, and PETA do not like Christine Lattin. Why did they choose to focus on her? Who knows. Is it because she is young? Female? Not yet tenured? While avian research is not a common target for animal rights groups, the fact she studies stress would fit the typical choice of target.

In May, PETA set up an alert to allow individuals to send emails to administrators at Yale University, demanding that the institution “put an immediate end to Lattin’s experiments on birds”. Her research is presented as cruel, curiosity-driven torture. These misleading claims are put next to images of Christine for any activist to see.

Let us briefly examine some of the claims made by PETA:

“Some birds were fed crude oil, and others’ legs were wounded without any pain relief. After weeks and sometimes months of repeated abuse, they’re then killed. Not only are the experiments extremely cruel, they’re also wasteful because important physiological differences between species make the results inapplicable to humans or other birds.”

The oil research provides an example of how Christine’s research is misrepresented. Context is crucial. The study involved putting small amounts of oil into the food (equal to 1% of food weight) of captured wild sparrows. While there were no obvious outward signs this had any effect, and many potential biomarkers of oil exposure in the blood were also normal, blood sampling revealed that birds were not able to secrete normal concentrations of stress hormones after exposure to a standardized stressor (a brief period of restraint in a clean, breathable cloth bag) and an injection of adrenocorticotropic hormone. Contrary to the PETA claim that such research was not applicable to other species, Christine explicitly states the relevance of her research to other birds in her publication: “as a passerine species, they are taxonomically similar to many birds living in coastal and riparian areas contaminated by oil, such as seaside sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).” Furthermore, this research is already being used by other researchers to show health problems and deaths observed in wild dolphins and sea turtles after Deepwater Horizon were due to oil exposure. On the claim that birds’ “legs were wounded without any pain relief”, this is categorically false. A brief glimpse at the original paper shows that the birds were anesthetised (using isoflurane, the general anesthetic recommended by the Ornithological Council because of its safety in birds):

“[W]e administered a small superficial wound to either the left or right thigh of birds using a 4 mm biopsy punch […] Prior to wounding we anesthetized birds using isoflurane.”

The PETA alert began a string of abuse on Twitter:

PETA activist tweets against Christine Lattin

Click to Enlarge

From the merely aggressive “All you do is torture and slaughter birds for USELESS research” to the outright threatening “She should be put out of her misery” and “I am the bump in the night for you Christine Lattin unless you resign”. One hopes that PETA will be policing these comments and reporting them to Twitter, though I sadly doubt it.

It is worth taking a moment to thank the many people who came to Christine’s aid on Twitter (and there were many people). One user noted:

Another noted the hypocrisy of PETA, noting a recent incident where PETA had to pay $49,000 to settle a lawsuit after they stole and put down a young girl’s pet chihuahua.

As some might expect, the comments have not been limited to Twitter. As a result of the PETA campaign, Christine has received numerous hateful and threatening emails. No researcher, particularly one still taking their first steps in research, should have to deal with this sort of harassment.

In the latest stunt, PETA activist (note the PETA email address), has organised a protest outside Christine’s home.

A screenshot from a home protest set up by PETA activist to be outside the home of Christine Lattin. Her address has been blotted out, and we have highlighted certain details in red.

There are four things to note from this event:

  1. A protest is planned outside Christine’s home (where her husband and child also live)
  2. Inflammatory language and false claims are made in the text.
  3. It is set up by an official PETA campaigner, Katerina Davidovich. The fact she is an official PETA campaigner is evidenced by her PETA email address.
  4. She/PETA will be providing all materials for the protest.

PETA are irresponsible in their decision to put the home address of Christine and her family in the public domain, next to false claims. We roundly condemn PETA for their actions and hope they not only remove all details of their upcoming home protest but also issue a prominent apology to Christine for the harassment she has received.

Please join us in condemning this campaign of harassment by PETA. We hope many scientists will leave a message of support for Christine alongside their name, role, and institution.

Speaking of Research

While we encourage constructive dialogue and discussion in our comments, the comment section on this particular post is only for messages of support for Dr Lattin and all other comments will be removed.

Research with dogs develops an artificial pancreas to treat diabetes

White Coat Waste is a conservative animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research. Its first target is biomedical research conducted using dogs at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Unfortunately, this campaign is gaining traction. While White Coat Waste is supported mainly by Republicans, some Democrat representatives like Dina Titus (Nevada) and Ted Lieu (California) have expressed their support. In view of that, it is important to highlight the remarkable achievements of dog research at the VA and the tremendous loss that its cancellation would be for Veterans and the general public. 

Diabetes is a nasty disease that affects millions of people worldwide and continues to increase. It is a metabolic disorder in which the body becomes incapable of controlling the blood levels of glucose, either because the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin (type 1) or because cells in the body fail to respond to insulin (type 2). Untreated, diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease, neuropathic pain, gangrene of the extremities, amputations, blindness, and death. In 2014, 422 million people had diabetes worldwide (8.5% of the population). These numbers have more than tripled since 1980 (108 million; 4.7% of the population) and continue to increase due to poor dietary habits and lack of exercise. The annual number of deaths worldwide was estimated at 4.9 million in 2014. The incidence of diabetes is particularly high in the USA and other developed countries, but it is increasing fast in Asia and Africa. In the USA, diabetes has a high impact in Veterans: one in four patients receiving care at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has diabetes. This makes it a high priority for medical research at the VA.

People with serious cases of diabetes need multiple daily injections of insulin. Failure to administer the insulin appropriately can lead to kidney failure, amputations, blindness, coma, and even death. However, the dose of insulin has to be tuned to the needs of the body. To do this, patients measure the glucose level in their blood by drawing blood from their fingers using needle sticks. This has to be done several times a day in order to calculate and inject insulin according to the blood glucose levels. An artificial pancreas has been developed at the VA to help improve the outcomes for diabetic patients. This device measures glucose in the blood in real time and automatically administers the right dose of insulin. This technology will dramatically improve the patient’s quality of life and reduce life-threatening complications. It would also tremendously reduce diabetes-related healthcare costs.

The artificial pancreas uses a reconfigured smart phone as part of its system. Image by UVA

This research project was initiated decades ago by Dr. Seymour Levin, a VA endocrinologist who specialized in diabetes and was horrified by the large number of VA patients who needed amputations because of problems with properly administering insulin to treat their diabetes. He obtained funds from the Mann Foundation. In the early 1980s, the Mann Foundation created a company called MiniMed Technologies to design an insulin pump that patients could wear throughout the day. MiniMed Technologies used dogs at the VA diabetes laboratory to test prototypes of this pump. In the early 2000s the company was acquired by Medtronic, which has been fully supporting this research project ever since. No taxpayer money has been used for it, a detail that seems to be important for White Coat Waste.

Taking advantage of new computer technology, the device being developed incorporates not only an insulin pump but also a glucose sensor and software to calculate the amount of insulin to be injected into the blood according to the glucose level. This makes it a true artificial pancreas. Working with dogs allows researchers to do the pre-clinical testing of the artificial pancreas required for approval by the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the same time that the hardware and the software are refined and improved.

Why use dogs for this research project? Animals like mice, rats or guinea pigs are too small for the devices being tested and their blood volume is not large enough to allow for frequent blood sampling without causing them harm. On the other hand, dogs have been an important model for metabolic studies and can replicate human diabetes quite well (much early research into diabetes and insulin relied on research in dogs). They can also be used for long-term studies lasting years, which are not possible in rodents. The sensors and catheters implanted in the dogs are the same ones to be used in humans, and the dogs adapt very well to wearing them. Dogs also like interacting with humans and can be trained to go along with these painless procedures without needing to be anesthetized or restrained. Other large animals like pigs and sheep were tried and were found to be far less suitable than dogs for this work.

The standard procedure consists of having the dog rest on a soft bed, unrestrained. Glucose sensors are inserted under the skin and an insulin pump is attached via a subcutaneous catheter (similar to a human patient using these devices). The procedures are painless and the dog soon becomes habituated to them. The dog is given a small amount of glucose solution to raise its blood-glucose level in order to see how the experimental sensor, software, and pump respond. Blood samples are then tested on a large and expensive glucose analyzer to see how well the sensor is working.

The dogs in the VA diabetes research project are very well cared for, and the diabetic ones are maintained on insulin pumps. Pet dogs sometimes develop diabetes as they age. Just like humans, they develop cataracts, kidney problems and all the other complications of diabetes. Even when they are given insulin injections under a veterinarian’s care, they all die within 1-2 years. In contrast, the diabetic dogs in this research program are maintained free of symptoms by the insulin pumps and live at least a decade with no cataracts or other diabetes complications. Non-diabetic dogs are adopted out at the end of the study period whenever feasible.

dog, animal testing, animal experiment

Beagle in research

On September 28, 2016, the FDA approved the first artificial pancreas, the Medtronic’s MiniMed 670G System, intended to automatically monitor blood-glucose levels and adjust basal insulin doses in people with type 1 diabetes. The pre-clinical testing of this device was all done on dogs at the VA diabetes research laboratory. However, the research project is ongoing and much work remains to be done. If it is canceled due to political pressure from White Coat Waste, it would be a huge loss for Veterans and the millions of people worldwide who need more reliable ways to treat their diabetes.

Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.

References:

  1. Grosman B, Voskanyan G, Loutseiko M, Roy A, Mehta A, Kurtz N, Parikh N, Kaufman FR, Mastrototaro JJ, Keenan B. Model-based sensor-augmented pump therapy. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2013 Mar 1;7(2):465-77.
  2. Loutseiko M, Voskanyan G, Keenan DB, Steil GM. Closed-loop insulin delivery utilizing pole placement to compensate for delays in subcutaneous insulin delivery. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2011 Nov 1;5(6):1342-51.
  3. Panteleon AE, Loutseiko M, Steil GM, Rebrin K. Evaluation of the effect of gain on the meal response of an automated closed-loop insulin delivery system. Diabetes. 2006 Jul;55(7):1995-2000.

Animal Testing and Human Trials: Alternatives or Complements?

The Animal Justice Project, a British-based animal rights group, is no stranger to misinformation. Previously we have debunked their factual errors regarding malaria studies in Sweden and eye injury studies. There was also the time they produced a press release which suggested 52oC (125oF) was the same as boiling water (which admittedly might be true if you tried to make a cup of tea in the lower stratosphere).

Recently on their website, a blog by Judith Snaith has been put up. The blog is a mash up of animal rights myths and misinformation, but one line was of particular interest.

More than 100,000 humans are killed yearly by prescription drugs that passed animal testing. Animal research is not the final phase, 90 per cent of drugs that pass the animal tests fail in human trials. So if we have to test on humans to be accurate, can we not skip out the middle monkey?

Let’s break this down bit by bit. The figure of 100,000 is an American one (Lazarou et al, 1998) with the figures for the UK approximated at around 10,000 (Pirmohamed et al, 2000) using a similar methodology. We have mentioned the flaws in these figures in our “Animal Rights Pseudoscience” page:

The statistic of 100,000 deaths in a year is taken from a 1998 meta-analysis by Lazarou and colleagues that examined rates of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) observed in 39 studies undertaken between 1966 and 1996 (Lazarou et al, 1998). The methods used in this meta-analysis were subsequently criticised for failing to adequately take into account differences between the 39 studies examined, a failing which may have lead to an over estimation of the number of deaths due to ADRs (Kvasz et al, 2000).

Between 2001 and 2002 Pirmohamed and colleagues analysed admissions to two hospitals in Merseyside, in order to determine if the cause of admission was an adverse drug reaction (Pirmohamed et al, 2000). Their results indicated that ADRs accounted for 6.5% of hospital admissions, and that ADRs may be responsible for up to 10,000 deaths a year in the United Kingdom. The study also found that:

  • 95% of ADRs were predictable from the known pharmacology of the drugs (i.e. from animal testing and human clinical data).

  • A large majority of ADRs were caused by older drugs.

  • About 70% of ADRs were either possibly or definitely avoidable.

So a large amount of these deaths come down to human error as the adverse drug reactions were both predictable and avoidable.

Judith mentions that these 100,000 deaths came from drugs which had passed animal tests. What she chooses not to mention is that these 100,000 deaths came from drugs which had also passed clinical trials in humans. There is no logical reason to put these deaths at the feet of animal tests – particularly as the animal tests do not check for the common causes of drug deaths – accidental overdose, negative drug-drug interactions from secondary medications, incorrectly prescribed medication etc.

Judith then goes on to mention that 90% of drugs that pass animal tests go on to fail in humans:

Animal research is not the final phase, 90 per cent of drugs that pass the animal tests fail in human trials

We’ve definitely seen and debunked this statistic before. The inference is that animal tests are not effective as many drugs fail later on. Prof Lovell-Badge explains some of the many flaws in this argument. Firstly, there is a similarly high failure rate in the human trials:

Consider that of all the drugs which pass Phase 1 clinical trials in humans, 86% will fail in later stage human trials. Yet, we do not hear activists suggesting that humans are an entirely inappropriate model for drug development (though we should note that one human is not a perfect model for another).

Furthermore, this whole argument is premised on a misunderstanding of the different role of animal and human trials:

The role of preclinical animal tests is to check if the drug offers any potential therapeutic value and, importantly, if it is safe enough to move to Phase 1 trials in humans. This does not even mean free of all side effects, but to learn whether a drug can safely be given to humans and at what approximate dosage.

Put another way, every stage of drug testing acts as a safety barrier for dangerous drugs being sold. Pre-clinical in vitro tests, pre-clinical animal tests, Phase I clinical trials, and Phase II-III clinical trials all work successively to remove potentially dangerous compounds from reaching the market. These are not their only functions, animal tests may help assess appropriate therapeutic doses, which can be later refined during clinical trials. These tests (animals and humans) may also help discover potential side effects (this does not mean the drug will be rejected – it depends on the seriousness of the condition it is intended to treat).

Judith Snaith goes on to combine her two assertions to claim that we don’t need to do the animal tests – we can just move straight to humans.

So if we have to test on humans to be accurate, can we not skip out the middle monkey?

This ignores the huge number of dangerous compounds which are removed from the drug development process because they show toxic effects in animals. To skip this step would be to allow these compounds to be trialled in humans. Furthermore, when one safety check doesn’t guarantee safety, that doesn’t mean removing the check makes anyone safer.

Animal testing is not an alternative to human trials, it complements it. Medieval castles had high walls and soldiers in them – both protect the defenceless people in the keep. Sometimes high walls and soldiers were not sufficient, and the castle was sacked, but no one would conclude that high walls were pointless and that everyone would be safer if there were just the soldiers. In reality, doing away with the castle would mean more soldiers would die, just as doing away with animal tests would likely lead to more deaths in Phase I and II clinical trials; the consequence of this would be that fewer people would volunteer for clinical trials (just as fewer soldiers would wish to defend a low-walled castle).

We use a variety of methods in biomedical science – computer simulations, tissue studies, animal models, clinical trials, epidemiology etc. Different methods can teach us different things and the results are often used in combination to build our knowledge and understanding of physiology and disease. The same is true in safety testing – all methods of screening drugs have advantages and drawbacks, but if we use them effectively, in combination, we can see that safe and effective drugs make it to market.

Would the French soldiers have taunted King Arthur if they didn’t have high walls? (Monty Python’s Holy Grail)

Speaking of Research