Lack of sense about sentience and statistics

Two recent events have inspired a slew of bad reporting in the UK about animal research. The first was a vote in Parliament rejecting a call to describe animals as sentient into British law. The second was the publication of the Northern Irish statistics.

On 15th November, Parliament voted down an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that stated “Obligations and rights contained within the EU Protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty shall be recognised and available in domestic law on and after exit day, and shall be enforced and followed accordingly.” While there is no clear scientific definition of sentience, it has, in crude terms, been taken to mean the capacity to feel pain and/or emotion. The relevant part of the Lisbon Treaty (which Britain will withdraw from upon Brexit) reads:

In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.

The amendment was rejected 313 votes to 295 (roughly down party lines). A few days later a number of articles began reflecting on this. A well-shared article in The Independent by Yas Necati claimed that the Government had voted “that all animals (apart from humans, of course) have no emotions or feelings, including the ability to feel pain.”

What seems to have been ignored is that the protection of sentient animals is already embodied in British law. Most animal use is governed by the Animal Welfare Act, 2006, which protects any animals where an: “appropriate national authority is satisfied, on the basis of scientific evidence, that animals of the kind concerned are capable of experiencing pain or suffering”. The act also includes provisions to be extended to invertebrates if they seem to be able to suffer or feel pain. Essentially the Animal Welfare Act is an entire piece of UK domestic law dedicated to protecting sentient animals.

For animals in laboratories, the relevant legislation is not the Animal Welfare Act, but the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986 (better known as ASPA). This act protects all vertebrate species, and invertebrates considered potentially able to suffer or feel pain (currently only cephalapods). The act covers all “regulated procedures” defined as those “which may have the effect of causing that animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm”.

Importantly, both of these acts are in domestic UK law, and so will not be affected by any future withdrawal from the European Unioin. So it seems odd that someone would claim the Government dos not believe that animals can feel pain.

It also seems odd that Necati would then claim that:

Under EU law it is illegal to test on animals for cosmetics like body wash and nail varnish. But this could easily be scrapped just like the recognition of animals as sentient beings has been.

We are looking at a very grim future for animals, where hunting is reintroduced, labs are free to test on animals with as much cruelty as they wish (and no pain relief) and farms are less and less regulated.

Necati may wish to note that the UK had already banned the use of animals to test cosmetics or their ingredients in 1998 – a full fifteen years before the EU laws came into effect. So it is unclear why this domestic ban would change upon leaving the EU. Similarly ASPA came into law in 1986 – 27 years before the EU Directive 2010/63 covering animals in research across the EU. Importantly, ASPA, 1986 was updated in 2013 to transpose aditional laws brought about by the EU Directive – this means that the EU Directive is effectively within UK law and will remain unaffected by Brexit.

The media frenzy whipped up over this issue has been such that many politicians have had to clarify the Government position, with the Prime Minister, Theresa May, also referring to it in her weekly Prime Ministers Questions:

We also recognise and respect the fact that animals are sentient beings and should be treated accordingly. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides protection for all animals capable of experiencing pain or suffering which are under the control of man. But I reaffirm to her that we will be ensuring that we maintain and enhance our animal welfare standards when we leave the EU.

Yas Necati was not the only one to be mistaken on this issue. Cruelty Free International (CFI) sent out a press release to Northern Irish press that combined a discussion of the annual statistical release with the parliamentary activities. As usual, there was a lot wrong with the CFI press release – not least that they managed to get the overall number of procedures in Northern Ireland wrong by mixing up the 2015 and 2016 statistics (this is literally the main number in the whole release). We decided to fully debunk the nonsense of the press release in a picture:

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This is not the first time CFI have misused the severity statistics by neglecting to include experiments involving breeding and maintaining GA animals. See the table below for the full statistics (CFI only looked at the column marked “total experimental procedures” despite clearly referring to all procedures in their press release (see first blue section).

CC-BY: www.speakingofresearch.com

Speaking of Research will continue to call out nonsense and misinformation wherever we see it.

Spain, Estonia and Northern Ireland release 2016 animal statistics

Speaking of Research try to keep on top of the latest statistics coming from governments around the world. This post will look at the 2016 statistical releases in Estonia, Northern Ireland and Spain.

Estonia

According to figures released by the Ministry of Rural Affairs, Estonia conducted 3,726 procedures on animals in 2016, a 10% fall from 2015.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

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CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

The number of all species used, with the exception of mice, dropped. The biggest was the change from 566 experiments on cattle in 2015 down to 0 in 2016. There was also a big reversal in last year’s rise in fish use. No dogs, cats or primates were used. While mice, rats, birds and fish are the most common species in most countries, it is surprising to find a country where these species account for 100% of animals used.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

Severity is slightly higher across the board than in previous years, however, given the small numbers involved these numbers are likely to vary more from year to year. All 403 severe studies were conducted in mice.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

Trend over time in animals used in research in Estonia. Click to Enlarge.

There is a downward trend in Estonian animal studies, however, given the small numbers and limited data it is hard to draw any conclusions. At 3,726 procedures, a large university in the UK or US might conduct 50X more experiments than the whole of Estonia.

Other information:

  • 93% was basic research of which: 50% of studies were into oncology, 18% for Nervous system studies, 16% into endocrine systems
  • 963 procedures (26%) involved genetically altered animals, and 2,763 procedures did not (74%)

Source of Estonian Statistics: https://www.agri.ee/et/loomkatse-korraldamine

See previous years’ reports:

Mice were the most common species used in Estonia, Northern Ireland, and Spain.
Image Credit: Jane Hurst, University of Liverpool.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland reports its animal experiments separately from the rest of the UK. While the UK Home Office regulates  (and compiles statistics for) animal research in Great Britain, the Department of Heath of Northern Ireland regulates for Northern Ireland. On 20th November they reported that 22,214 procedures were conducted on animals in 2016, this was down 1.3% from 2015. This accounts for approximately 0.6% of all animal research in the UK.

CC-BY: www.speakingofresearch.com

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A 7% rise in mice is offset by falls in farm animals and birds. Among other mammals, there were 155 procedures on cats, and 73 procedures on dogs, though all these studies were either for translational/applied research into “animal diseases and disorders” or regulatory quality testing of veterinary medicines. There were no studies on primates. Overall the most common species used were mice (82.3%) followed by farm animals (10.5%), and rats (2.6%).CC-BY: www.speakingofresearch.com

The combined severity statistics show around 57% is subthreshold, non-recovery or mild, 40% is moderate and 3.4% is severe. This gives a higher proportion of moderate or severe studies than in the rest of the UK. Nearly all severe experiments were on mice.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

Trend over time in animals used in research in Northern Ireland. Click to Enlarge.

Animal experiments have risen around 20% over the last decade, from about 18 thousand to a little over 22 thousand. In 2009 there was a one-off rise as a result of 3o,000 procedures on birds to address animal health concerns.

Other points to note:

  • The most common uses of animals were Basic Research (56.4%), Creation and Breeding of GA animals not used in experimental procedures (22.9%), and Translation/Applied research (17.3%). The low levels of regulatory research (1.4%) in N. Ireland is primarily because these studies are done elsewhere in the UK [Table 1]
  • 97% of animals were bred in the UK, with the remaining 3% being bred elsewhere in the EU [Table 2]
  • The number of animals used for the first time was 21,247. The remaining 67 procedures were from animals re-used after previous studies [Table 1a]
  • 36.5% of studies involved genetically altered animals, 63.5% did not [Table 4]

Source of Nothern Ireland Statistics: https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/publications/statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-northern-ireland

See previous years’ reports:

Spain

The Ministerio De Agricultura Y Pesca has published statistics showing Spain conducted 917,986 procedures on animals in 2016, up 7% from 2015.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

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There were moderate rises in mice (up 10%) and fish (up 28%), with drops in birds (down 11%) and rabbits (down 10%). After a large rise in the use of Cephalalopoda (e.g. Octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) in 2015, the number has dropped back to its 2014 levels.

 

 

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

 

Overall, 93% of procedures were conducted on mice, rats, birds or fish – about average in Europe. Dogs, cats, and primates together accounted for less than 0.2% of research in Spain.

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

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According to the retrospective assessment of animal suffering (mandated by the EU Directive), we can see 58% of experiments were mild or non-recovery (where the animal is anaesthetised before surgery and not woken up).

CC-BY: speakingofresearch.com

Trend over time in animals used in research in Spain. Click to Enlarge.

The number of procedures in Spain has crept up since 2014, but is still over 40% below it’s historical highs in the late 2000s.

Other information of note:

  • Most studies were for Basic research (48%), followed by applied/translational research (29%), and regulatory research (17% – the “animal testing” bit).
  • The 917,896 procedures were made up of 909,475 procedures on animals used for the first time, and 8,511 procedures on animals that were reused.
  • 99.8% of animals were bred within the EU

Source of Nothern Ireland Statistics: http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/ganaderia/temas/produccion-y-mercados-ganaderos/bienestanimal/en-la-investigacion/Informes_y_publicaciones.aspx

See previous years’ reports:

Research Roundup: Studying deadly cancers in dogs, low calorie diet and type 2 diabetes and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • “Researchers are turning to the family dog to find clues in hopes to find a cure for one of the deadliest forms of cancer.” Glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, killed over 15,000 people in 2015 and also affects dogs.  Researchers say that microscopic evaluation of the cancers in dogs and humans are very similar.  Roel Verhaak, a biologist and professor at Jackson Labs, says the goal of this research is to find anything, “..to prolong life expectancy and ultimately a cure.”  He and his team hope to find specific areas in the cells of the donated cancer tumors from dogs that are abnormal and compare them to abnormalities in the human form of the cancer.  Once this is clear, focus on faster ways to diagnose the cancer and more effective treatments can be developed.

Example of a short nosed dog.

  • Are all laboratory mice the same? Lab mice are commonly inbred through brother-sister mating. This practice of inbreeding allows researchers to study mice that are virtually genetically identical, thereby standardizing genes within and between experiments. However, between every 10 to 30 generations, new mutations pop up due to genetic drift — thus, not all mice are identical across generations despite inbreeding. To understand the degree of this problem, researchers at JAX “reset” the genetic mutations in 2005 by only selling C57BL/6 (B6) mice from an ancestral Adam and Eve. They then froze hundreds of embryos of the duo’s grandchildren to maintain genetically identical mice for 25-30 years, thereby bypassing issues of genetic drift. In a presentation at the American Society for Human Genetics’ Meeting, JAX scientists reported that their ancestral B6 mice have different genomes than B6 mice used by other breeding centers (e.g. Charles River) and the reference B6 genome all scientists use from 2002. The research will not be published until early 2018, so we will have to wait until then to learn how much genetic drift may be affecting experiments.

The C57BL/6 mouse.

  • The link between gut bacteria, high salt diet, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Consuming a high salt diet is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and hypertension. In the present study researchers investigated whether consuming a high salt diet affects the gut microbiome and whether this would be linked to subsequent detrimental health effects. In mice and humans, they found that a high salt diet let to a decrease in Lactobacillus bacteria in the gut and increased blood pressure. When given a probiotic, they found that that the bacteria and blood pressure levels remained unchanged. Professor Alm, the lead author on this research states ““We hope that our findings, along with future studies, will help to shed more light on the mechanism by which a high-salt diet influences disease.” This research was published in the journal Nature.
  • Low calorie diet reverses type 2 diabetes through multiple pathways. It is known that a low calorie diet can reverse type 2 diabetes — but the mechanism via which a low calorie diet exerts these effects is poorly understood. Using rats, researchers found that after only three days of being provided a very low calorie diet, specific metabolic processes in the liver were altered and which corresponded to the lowering of blood glucose concentrations. Professor Schulman stated: “These results, if confirmed in humans, will provide us with novel drug targets to more effectively treat patients with type 2 diabetes.”  This research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

 

How to explain animal research on your institution’s website

Exactly three years ago, Speaking of Research published a page listing around 100 animal research statements of research institutions, universities, medical research charities, pharmaceuticals, scientific societies and more. After a year of building up this list, we introduced a rating system that let organizations know how good their statement was. We gave them marks according to how informative the core statement was, whether there was further, extensive information, whether they included case studies, and whether there were images or videos on the website. Ten institutions managed top marks in November 2015. Now, two years on, we have 350 statements of which 29 have scored full marks.

Not only have the number of statements increased over the years, but also the number of organizations which track them. This includes Americans for Medical Progress, Foundation for Biomedical Research, and the Concordat on Openness website (to sign the Concordat, organizations must first have a clear statement on their website). What makes the Speaking of Research list special is both its breadth (we are the only one covering multiple countries) and its rating system.

So what do we look for in an organization’s animal research pages? Let’s take an example from an institution that recently revamped its website into one that achieved full marks:

The Babraham Institute is a UK Government research institution run by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC; who also have a great website) with a stated goal of undertaking “world-leading research into understanding the biology of how our body works”. The animal research web pages are easy to find and  clearly marked in the web address:

https://www.babraham.ac.uk/our-research/animal-research

As a result, if you search on the website for “animal research” or “animal testing” the webpage comes up. Similarly googling the organization name and “animal research/testing” brings up the website in the first link.

The opening statement is short but gives a clear indication of why animals are used. This statement also ensures the website appears on our statement list.

Babraham Institute scientists study fundamental processes in our cells: how they develop, survive, function, age and die. This basic biology underpins future medical advances, just as past research led to the treatments we receive today. The benefits will be felt in our children’s and grandchildren’s generations but without today’s basic science there will be no foundation for tomorrow’s medical research.

Mammals differ widely in size and shape but their cells and genes are broadly similar. Because of this, information from studies of mice or rats can be relevant to other mammals including humans, pets and farm animals.

Between this and the policy page, there is enough of a clear explanation of why the organization conducts animal research to grant it the first ✓ mark for “More information”.

There are many ways to get the second ✓ mark for “Extensive information”. Babraham manage it by providing additional information on their ethical review policies, implementation of the 3Rs (each R has its own detailed page including case studies), and a FAQs section which provides information not just on the use, but also the limits, of animal research.

The Examples page provides six case studies of how animal studies have helped research at the Babraham Institute. Further case studies of the 3Rs can also be found in the relevant section. This grants the website the “Case Studies” ✓ mark.

Finally, the website shows high-resolution images of animals in the facility. This allows them to get a ✓ mark for “Images / Videos”, though in the future we would love to see some videos showing how and why animals are used.

Image Credit: The Babraham Institute

So there we have it – a handful of ideas for improving your website. To provide a summary.

  1. >Make sure your organization has a clear online statement online explaining why animal research is conducted. (✓)
  2. Put the statement on an easy-to-find page on the website, preferably with the phrase “animal-research” in the URL. Try to avoid putting the statement in a PDF file.
  3. Make sure the statement can be found when people search your website or a search engine for it. Remember, some people will search “animal experiments” or “animal testing”, as well as “animal research”.
  4. Provide additional information about how the research is conducted and how it is regulated. This could be in FAQs, or on pages on regulation, ethics, statistics, animal welfare or research areas. (✓)
  5. Provide clear case studies that explain why animals were needed to solve a research question, and what happened to the animal. If possible provide information about how animal welfare was maintained. (✓)
  6. Put images and videos on your website to give readers an understanding of the high levels of care you have for your animals. Make sure these images are large, clear pictures of animals in your facility – not just small animal pictures. (✓)
  7. Add a link to the Speaking of Research website – this helps readers of your website find more information on animal research, and helps our Google ranking so we can continue to educate the public. Perhaps something like:
    For more information about the role of animals in research, we recommend checking out the Speaking of Research website.  
  8. Make sure your website appears on our list. If not, contact us on the form below.

We are also happy to provide free advice and recommendations for how to improve your animal research pages. So please feel free to contact us on the form below. It helps our overall goal of providing accurate information about the role of animals in medical, veterinary and scientific research.

We hope this resource helps

Speaking of Research

2017 SFN Attendees: Does your research depend on animal models?

If it does, consider adding this session to your conference plan:

What: SFN Animals in Research Panel. How to Effectively Communicate Your Animal Research:  Elevator Speech, Social Media, and Best Practices.  When & Where:  Monday November 13. Noon-2pm. Room 103A

Why? (as in, SFN is busy enough, why add a “non-new-science-discoveries-session” to your already packed science agenda?)

Reason 1) Did you answer “Yes, my research depends on animal models?” If so, communicating about your work via media and other public avenues can involve some challenges if you plan on accurately conveying your work.  

Sharing the findings, value, and excitement about research is something that scientists do through peer-reviewed publications, but also popular and public media. Communicating well—in an accessible and engaging way—about new discoveries can be a challenge in of itself. Good science communicators within university and institutional press offices can provide enormously valuable help. For those whose work depends on animal models, there are often unique challenges to public communication about the research. That may range from concern and fear about attracting the attention of opponents of animal research to uncertainly about how to talk about animal research to suppression by institutions who do prefer to remain low profile about their animal research programs.

The SFN panel addresses these challenges and can add to your tool-kit to assist you in broader dissemination of your work. The panel will be led by experts with extensive experience in public communication about animal research.  Together, the interactive panel will provide a basic understanding of, and show attendees strategies to engage with, various audiences on the importance and benefits of animal research.

The panelists include:

Amanda M. Dettmer, a senior editor for Speaking of Research, an international advocacy group that provides accurate information about the importance of animal research in biomedical science. Amanda obtained her PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for over 15 years has been studying nonhuman primate models of human development and disease. She is currently working in Washington, DC, as the American Psychological Association’s 2017-18 Executive Branch Science Policy Fellow.

Paula Clifford, MA Executive Director, Americans for Medical Progress. Paula Clifford is the Executive Director for Americans for Medical Progress where she is leading national advocacy efforts. She creates and implements several innovative programs designed to provide information to the public about biomedical research and the role of animals in advancing medicine and science. Previously, she was the Executive Director for the PA Society for Biomedical Research (PSBR) where she led efforts to provide educational programs about biomedical research for K-12 classrooms.

Chris Barncard, Research Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chris writes about science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describing new insights on the world around us in a way that the uninitiated can understand. Alongside coverage of psychology, engineering and energy research, he helps researchers talk to journalists and the public about their work with animals. His work can be found at the UW-Madison animal research website where a dynamic news section is updated regularly with stories about the university’s research. Chris has also worked as a newspaper reporter, winning awards for coverage of elections, gambling and suicide.

Another reason to make time in your SFN schedule:  Did you answer “Yes, my research depends on animal models?” If so, your work also depends on public knowledge about animal research.  

Why? Because animal research may only be conducted if the public, through its elected representatives, continues to support legislation and regulation that allows for nonhuman animals to be involved in humane, well-regulated, and ethical research.

While you may know that such studies are only permitted in the US under a host of conditions mandated by federal law, it is safe to assume that there is a wide swath of the public—including voters, students, journalists, and policy-makers—who do not know.  You may know that:

  • Animal research is highly-regulated, with standards to protect animal welfare and oversight by institutional and federal agencies
  • Federally-funded research must balance scientific objectives with consideration of animal welfare
  • Laws require that animal research may only be conducted when there is no appropriate alternative to reach the scientific objective
  • Basic research is the foundation of discoveries that provide for new understanding of behavior, brain, biology and health
  • In turn, basic research – much of it with nonhuman animals – is critical to developing new prevention, treatment, and intervention to benefit human and animal health, society, and the environment

None of that may matter much though if the larger public is left in the dark.  Over the past decades, SFN has grown in size and new discoveries in neuroscience have proliferated to substantially advance understanding of the brain and health. At the same time, public opinion polls show a continuing decline in public approval for animal research. The gap between scientists and the public is large. In a recent PEW poll, for example, nearly 90% of AAAS sciences favored the continued use of animals in research, while less than 50% of the general public felt the same.

Opinion differences between the general public and AAAS scientists (adapted from Pew, 2015).

Is this what the scientific community thinks:  Not our job, not our problem?

The gap between opinions of scientists and those of the public is likely caused by many factors. Among them is the probability of differences in knowledge about why animal research is needed, what it has accomplished, when it is necessary, and how it is conducted—including how studies are evaluated, how animals are cared for, and how it is overseen.  Scientists can play an important role in engaging in public dialogue and informing the public about each of these topics.

Scientists have many responsibilities and demands on their time. After all, they are charged with doing science, writing papers and sharing science; with teaching and training students and next generation scientists; with service work that includes reviewing papers and grant proposals; and with generating new ideas, new avenues of discovery and obtaining funding to make the work happen.

None of that leaves a lot of time for public engagement and education about the big picture – why animal research is needed. In some cases, scientists believe that the job of public engagement and communication is one best left to others. Indeed, there are full-time organizations whose mission is entirely public outreach, education, and advocacy.  There are also full-time science communicators, public information officers, and others within our universities and research institutions whose job it is to engage with the public and share news about science.

Scientists themselves play a key role in communicating the science accurately and fully to the public. The SFN panel aims to provide scientists with tools for doing so and with information to carry back and facilitate efforts at their own institutions.

Want to do more?  Tweet, blog, and share!

If you’re planning to be at the SFN panel, please consider live-tweeting the session with hashtags #animalresearch #sfn17.  We will storify the tweets to provide a view for those who cannot attend (and to share with university and institutional communications offices).

Better yet, if you’d like to write a guest post summarizing the panel and your own take-away messages, please contact us or leave a comment below. We would love to provide space for SFN guest bloggers who would like to share why their research matters and why it depends on animal models.

Speaking of Research

 

Research Roundup: Human brain organoids, universal flu vaccine and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • Nighttime injuries heal slower than daytime ones. When animals are wounded, their body recruits different healing cells to help heal the wound. According to research this week, one of those healing cells — fibroblasts — travels at different speeds depending on the time of day. When a wound occurs, fibroblasts travel up through the skin to the surface and begin synthesizing and building structural support for the new skin. While traveling up through the layers of skin, fibroblasts come into contact with actin, which changes its structure throughout the day; long filaments during the day and globular at night. When actin is in a globular state, it is more difficult for the fibroblasts to reach the wound compared to when actin is in the long filament state. This finding was first discovered in skin-cells growing in a petri dish and then in the skin of mice. Medical records of humans recovering from burns show the same daytime-nighttime effect, but they have yet to study whether it is related to fibroblasts and actin. This research was published in Science Translational Medicine.
  • Ethical concerns on implanting human brain organoids in rodents. Almost 4 years ago scientists discovered how to turn human stem cells into human brain tissue (organoids). Since this discovery, scientists have been growing lentil-sized human brain tissue in test-tubes — until now. This weekend two research groups will report implanting human brain organoids into the brains of mice and rats, at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in Washington D.C. The research reports that same of the implanted brain organoids became vascularized over the course of 2 months and the organoid began sending out axons to different parts of the host mouse brain. Bioethicists do not believe these procedures will make human-brained mice, but it may make them “human-ish.” This research is still in early stages and has not yet undergone rigorous peer-review, but the ethical concerns remain. Scientists may soon call for a commission to determine whether limits should be placed on how large the human brain organoids can grow, for example. Nonetheless, this research is exciting and may lead to many new animal models from Alzheimer’s to Zika. This research was published in an abstract for this weekend’s meeting.
  • Mother’s BPA exposure may influence offspring health. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine system disrupting chemical. Previous animal studies have shown that exposure to BPA is associated with cancer, behavior disorders, and reproductive issues. A new study conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University tested the effects of BPA on the offspring of female rabbits exposed during gestation. Rabbits were used in the study because they have a longer gestational period compared to rats and mice. The researchers found that BPA given to a pregnant female caused inflammation in the colon and liver of its offspring. Gut bacteria in the offspring exposed to BPA were also much less diversified, and offspring also had reduced beneficial bacterial metabolites and increased gut permeability (“leaky gut”). These three markers are hallmarks for inflammation induced chronic disease.  Using human colon cells, the researchers were able to reduce the gut permeability phenomenon by adding in the bacterial metabolites to BPA-treated cells. The researchers hypothesize that giving back bacterial metabolites lost through chemical exposure may reduce the risk of chronic diseases later in life. This research was published in mSystems.
  • Near-universal flu vaccine created. Influenza is a ubiquitous disease, with approximately 3-5 million cases yearly, and 250,000-500,000 deaths. Every year, a seasonal flu vaccine is created, that protects against either three or four of the more common predicted strains of influenza virus for the upcoming flu season. Sometimes, these predictions match and sometime they don’t. Now, scientists have created a new vaccine which could provide lifelong inoculation for most strains of the influenza virus. They accomplished this by identifying key set of ancestral genes in the older versions of different influenza strains and engineering a new vaccine. Mice inoculated by this new vaccine survived lethal doses of 7 out of 9 tested strains of the influenza virus. While there is still a way to go before this makes it to clinical trials – such as evaluation of lifelong immunity – this is a promising step. This research was published in the journal Scientific Reports

  • Breakthrough could lead to more effective treatments for diseases of the gut. The process where cells are broken down and elements recycled is called autophagy. This process helps to keep our bodies healthy, but when dysfunctional can cause tissue inflammation – particularly in the gut. In a new study, using fruit flies, researchers have identified that a protein called Kenny, accumulates and cause the inflammation when the process of authophay is dysfunctional. Understanding how autophagy process goes dysfunctional may lend insight into the development of effective treatments of diseases to the gut. This research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers Rally to Help Puerto Rico’s Monkey Island

A guest post by Lisa Howard of UCDavis explains the efforts by the National Primate Research Centers to help rebuild Cayo Santiago, better known as ‘Monkey Island’ rebuild after Hurricane Maria.

Primate researchers are rallying to help Puerto Rico’s “Monkey Island,” Cayo Santiago, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria in September. About a thousand rhesus macaques roam free on the 38-acre island, which is run by the Caribbean Primate Research Center and the University of Puerto Rico.

Although all the animals apparently survived, the island’s infrastructure and equipment – piers, buildings, rainwater collection systems, even the cages where researchers could eat lunch without it being stolen by monkeys – was destroyed. On the main island of Puerto Rico, the town of Punto Santiago, where the research center’s headquarters is located and where many staff live, was devastated, losing water, electricity and communications.

Directors of the seven U.S. National Primate Research Centers decided they needed to help Cayo Santiago rebuild. Professor John Morrison, director of the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis noted:

We view CPRC as one of our sister centers, and fortunately, we were able to mobilize our response and deliver material in a very timely fashion. We are in constant communication with CPRC and stand ready to help in any way we can going forward,”

Each of the U.S. centers is contributing $5,000 to a fund to help Cayo Santiago. Darcy Hannibal, a project scientist at the CNPRC and colleagues worked to fill a shipping container with desperately needed supplies for both the field station’s staff and the research facility, including water, canned food, diapers, baby formula, tarps, water purification tablets and filters, chain saws and other equipment.

The researchers also prepared an emergency National Science Foundation grant application for Cayo Santiago to replace equipment.

Cayo Santiago, the oldest free-ranging research colony in the world for primates, took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. The island’s infrastructure was obliterated. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Brent, University of Exeter)

Hannibal did her doctoral work at Cayo Santiago in 2004-5, observing feeding behavior in the monkeys. She and her colleagues at UC Davis hope they can get the word out about the importance of this unique research facility and get help for its people and animals.

All of the macaques on the island are descended from 409 monkeys brought to the island in 1938. All the animals are identified and their pedigrees are known, making it an invaluable resource for scientists who study primates. Researchers from universities in the United States and Europe use the island for a wide variety of primate behavior studies.

“There’s no other population that has so much long-term history,” said Hannibal. “It’s a remarkable resource for studying primates.”

In addition to supplies, Hannibal and other supporters are trying to raise cash for the facility. Two GoFundMe pages have been created, one for the staff, Relief for Cayo Santiago Employees, and one for the animals, Cayo Santiago Monkeys: Maria Relief. There is also a Facebook page, Friends of Cayo Santiago, where people can get updates about the damage and recovery efforts. Hannibal can be reached directly at dlhannibal@ucdavis.edu.

Lisa Howard