This post, signed by over 90 scientists, is in response to an article published 09/04/16 in the New York Times titled: “Second thoughts of an animal researcher.”
The ethics and value of responsible animal research
Last week we learned that in the first decade since its introduction the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine has cut the rate of cervical cancer by half. Experts estimate that the vaccine could eradicate cancer caused by the virus within the next 40 years. This is indeed good news, as today cervical cancer kills about 250,000 women every year.
Such breakthroughs are the result of decades of research that typically begin with the study of basic mechanisms of cancer in-vitro, the development of disease models and therapies in animals, and their translation to humans. In the particular case of the HPV vaccine rabbits, mice, cattle and human volunteers were used in the research dating back to the 1930s, when Richard Shope first isolated viral particles from wart-like tumors in the Eastern cottontail rabbit.
Medical history is replete with such stories and their contribution to human health is undeniable. A couple of generations ago a visit to a physician might have resulted in a recommendation to induce vomiting, diarrhea or, more commonly, bleeding. Diphtheria, mumps, measles and polio were common and untreatable. Treatment for mental health disorders included malarial shock therapy, lobotomy, lifelong institutionalization, and worse. Life expectancy in the U.S. was less than 50 years; it is now close to 80 years.
Animal research was instrumental in most of these past achievements, and the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the use of animals in research is critical to make progress in many areas of biomedical and behavioral research. However, some members of the public and a few scientists express doubt about the moral justification for the work.
Such is the case with Professor John Gluck, a former primate researcher who conducted lab research decades ago, in the 1960s-1980s, during a time with different standards and regulations compared to contemporary practice. Gluck writes about his own ethical unease which eventually led him to abandon his work with animals and to argue that the existing system for reviewing and conducting animal research should be revised. Gluck appears to think that if others have not arrived at his same conclusion it must be because of their failure to engage in moral reasoning.
Studies in rhesus macaques first indicated that Tenofovir could block HIV infection. Photo: Understanding Animal Research
The fact is that most scientists and the public have wrestled with moral questions about the use of animals in research for over 100 years. The results of this ongoing, thoughtful reflection are personal and professional codes of ethics, laws and regulations in the US and other countries, and widespread societal changes in our views and treatment of other animals. Society as a whole considers as morally permissible the regulated and justified use of animals to advance medical knowledge, to improve the well-being of human and nonhuman animals alike, and to understand the health of the environment.
Had animal research leading to the HPV vaccine been banned, cervical cancer today would continue to kill women at a constant rate. Many of us believe that there is a moral imperative to use scientific knowledge and research skills to improve the lives of these women by means of well-regulated, responsible animal research. Opponents may argue that such research should be banned because all nonhuman animals deserve equal moral concern to what we offer human beings.
Image of mice courtesy of Understanding Animal Research
As a society we must grapple with and debate these questions and arrive at a democratic decision to such moral disputes. It is unfortunate that meaningful debate is impeded when critics attack the work by falsely claiming that animal research has no value for human health. They incorrectly assert that scientists can do as they please in their laboratories or, worse, that scientists, veterinarians and technicians do not truly care about the well-being of their animal subjects. And they mislead the public by claiming that alternatives exist (such as computer simulations, cell culture, human testing) that can fully substitute the goals of animal research. Indeed, Professor Gluck attempted to reinforce such falsehoods about animal research and animal researchers in his op-ed piece.
The truth is that the care and treatment of animal subjects is protected not only by carefully specified standards, but also by a well-developed federal oversight system that is transparent to the public. Alternatives are used when they exist and when it is possible. Scientists themselves have worked effectively to produce many of the alternative methods and to continue to refine practices to improve animal welfare. The weighing of scientific objectives with consideration of animal welfare is required by law before the approval of any experimental protocol.
Gluck argues that the US government should convene a national commission to consider the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals in medical research. However, he must recognize that animals in research studies are just a small fraction of all animals used by humans for a wide range of purposes that include food, entertainment, labor, clothing, and companionship.
The comparison is particularly true with respect to the number of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, and fish that are eaten. But even restricting the discussion to nonhuman primates (the topic of Gluck’s essay) it is also the case that nonhuman primates are a small, but important, fraction- generally less than 1%- of captive animals involved in research. Furthermore, in the US, there are just over 1,000 facilities that house nonhuman primates and that are licensed or registered with the USDA. Of those, fewer than 20% are research-registered facilities. The gross majority are licensed zoos, or various entertainment venues for the public.
Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West
Dr. Gluck and others have called on NIH to review its ethical practices when, in fact, following their logic, they should be asking the FDA for a moral justification for the production and consumption of filet mignon. Eating a steak has never saved a life; vaccines and therapies developed with the use of animals in research do so every single day. When such inversion of priorities is made evident, one must conclude that it is not those seeking to advance knowledge and human health via carefully regulated work who are at fault in their moral reasoning.
Moral decisions about the use of animals in research require consideration of the fact that science does not provide a recipe that will lead us directly to a cure for an illness. Instead, it provides a recipe to understand incrementally the physical and biological processes in nature, which we can then apply to make this a better world by reducing suffering for humans and for other animals.
Scientists, students, veterinarians, and staff who engage in biomedical and behavioral research with animals do it not because they have failed to consider the moral issues. They do it precisely because they have thought about them carefully and arrived at the conclusion that failing to do the research would prevent us from developing new cures, such as the HPV vaccine that now stands to eradicate cervical cancer, or being prepared to face new threats, such as confronting the Zika virus.
As the National Institutes of Health convenes this week to examine the science and ethics of research with nonhuman primates, one must remember the important contributions the work has made to the study of child health and development, diabetes and obesity, mental health, transplant tolerance, vaccines, HIV/AIDS, deep brain stimulation (DBS) and the development of brain-machine interfaces, among many other areas. Evidence for the contributions of animal research to such advances is widely available, including most recently, in a white paper. It is this evidence that provides the foundation for why animal research — occurring within an ethical and regulatory framework that requires consideration of both scientific objectives and animal welfare — is endorsed by a wide range of scientific and medical organizations.
Dario L. Ringach, PhD, Departments of Neurobiology & Psychology, University of California Los Angeles
Allyson J. Bennett, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Megan R. Gunnar, PhD, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota
Mark A. Krause, PhD, Department of Psychology, Southern Oregon University
Mary Dozier, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Delaware
Aaron Batista, PhD, Department of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh
Bijan Pesaran, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University
Brittany R. Howell, PhD, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota
Greg Horwitz, PhD, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Washington
John P. Capitanio, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis
Jose Carmena, PhD, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California, Berkeley
Robert A. Shapiro PhD, Department of Neuroscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Koen Van Rompay, DVM, PhD, California National Primate Research Center
David Jentsch, PhD, Department of Psychology, Binghamton University
George F. Michel, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina-Greensboro
Chana Akins, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky
Ian Nauhaus, PhD, Center for Perceptual Systems, University of Texas at Austin
Kimberley A. Phillips, PhD, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Program, Trinity University
Drake Morgan, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, University of Florida
Michael Shadlen, MD/PhD, The Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Columbia University
Ed Callaway, PhD, The Salk Institute for Biological Sciences
Eliza Bliss-Moreau, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis
Mehrdad Jazayeri, PhD, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT
Wayne E. Pratt, PhD, Department of Psychology, Wake Forest University
Ken Miller, PhD, Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, Columbia University
Kristina Nielsen, PhD, The Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University
Mary E. Cain, PhD, Department of Psychological Sciences, Kansas State University
Mar Sanchez, PhD, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Emory University
Anthony Movshon, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University
Michael E. Goldberg, MD, Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Columbia University
Michele Basso, PhD, Brain Research Institute, University of California Los Angeles
Andreas Tolias, PhD, Baylor College of Medicine
Margaret Livingstone, PhD, Harvard Medical School
Doris Tsao, PhD, Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology
Dora Angelaki, PhD, Baylor College of Medicine
Jeff Weiner, PhD, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Wake Forest School of Medicine
Elizabeth Simpson, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Miami
Robert Wurtz. PhD, Scientist Emeritus, NIH
Christian R. Abee, DVM, DACLAM, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Jon Levine, PhD, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison
John H. Morrison, PhD, California National Primate Research Center, University of California Davis
Paul Johnson, MD, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University
Nancy L Haigwood, PhD, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Oregon Health & Science University
Michael Mustari, PhD, Washington National Primate Research Center, University of Washington
Andrew A. Lackner, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, Tulane National Primate Research Center, Tulane University Health Sciences Center
Alessandra Angelucci, PhD, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Utah
Brenda McCowan, PhD, Population Health & Reproduction School of Veterinary Medicine, UC-Davis
Alan Brady DVM, ACLAM, Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Lisa Savage, PhD, Department of Psychology, Binghamton University
Steven J. Schapiro, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Nicolle Matthews-Carr, PhD, BCBA-D
Stephen I Helms Tillery, PhD, School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University
Regina Gazes, PhD, Department of Psychology, Bucknell University
Nim Tottenham, PhD, Department of Psychology, Columbia University
Michael J. Beran, PhD, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University
Doug Wallace, PhD, Psychology Department, Northern Illinois University
Gary Greenberg PhD, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, Wichita State University
Richard Born, MD, Harvard Medical School
Lee E. Miller, PhD, Departments of Physiology & Biomedical Engineering, Northwestern University
Paul M Plotsky, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Emory University
John J. Sakon, PhD, Center for Neural Science, New York University
Rick A. Finch, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Charles R. Menzel, PhD, Language Research Center, Georgia State University
Farran Briggs, PhD, Department of Physiology and Neurobiology, Dartmouth University
Alan M. Daniel, PhD, Department of Social Science, Glenville State College
Corrina Ross, PhD, Department of Biology, Texas A&M University
Cynthia Anne Crawford, PhD, Department of Psychology, California State University
William D. Hopkins, PhD, Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University
Klaus A. Miczek, PhD, Department of Psychology, Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences, Tufts University
Jeffrey Schall, PhD, Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University
David A. Washburn, PhD, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University
Gene P. Sackett, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology and National Primate Research Center, University of Washington
Jerrold S. Meyer, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts
Lynn Fairbanks, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA
Moshe Syzf, PhD, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, McGill University
Mark Seagraves, PhD, Department of Neurobiology, Northwestern University
Thomas Albright, PhD, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Peter J. Pierre, PhD, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, UW-Madison
Jack Bergman, PhD, Department of Behavioral Biology, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School
Michael A. Taffe, PhD, The Scripps Research Institute
Kim Wallen, PhD, Department of Psychology and Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University
John A. Vanchiere, MD, PhD, Department of Pediatrics, LSU Health Sciences Center – Shreveport
Anita A Disney, PhD, Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University
Limin Chen, MD, PhD, Department of Radiology & Radiological Sciences, Vanderbilt University
Stanton B. Gray, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, Department of Veterinary Sciences, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
David Abbott, PhD, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ramnarayan Ramachandran, PhD, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Dorothy M. Fragaszy, PhD, Behavioral and Brain Sciences Program, Psychology Department, University of Georgia
Joe H. Simmons, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Kathleen A. Grant, PhD, Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health Sciences University
Gary Dunbar, PhD, Department of Psychology, Central Michigan University
Paul Glimcher, PhD, Professor of Neural Science, Psychology and Economics, New York University
Larry Williams, PhD, Department of Veterinary Sciences, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center
Julie M. Worlein, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Washington
Nathan Fox, PhD, Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland
Mary Dallman, PhD, Emerita, Department of
Physiology, University of California, San Francisco
W. Thomas Boyce, MD, Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco
Philip H. Knight Chair, PhD, PSI Center for Translational Neuroscience, University of Oregon
The signatories here are expressing their personal views which do not necessarily reflect those of their institutions.