Jordana Lenon, B.S., B.A., is the outreach specialist for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this guest post Jordana talks about WNPRC research on Zika virus.
Wisconsin National Primate Research Center scientist David O’Connor is emphasizing using “as few animals as possible” to answer research questions that desperately need answers as the world watches Zika virus cause birth defects and raise fears among pregnant women and their families across the warmer Americas. These answers, O’Connor expects, will move him and his collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, in Brazil and beyond forward as they learn more each day how Zika virus may be operating inside of infected pregnant women and their newborns, and could cause potential lifelong impairments we don’t even know about yet.
Researchers at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center perform a fetal ultrasound on a pregnant rhesus macaque, in their quest to learn more about the link between the Zika virus and birth defects. (Images by Justin Bomberg, UW-Madison Communications)
Thanks to research using rhesus macaques, whose immune, reproductive and neurological systems are very similar to ours, the answers are starting to come in. Furthermore, O’Connor and his Zika Experimental Science Team, or “ZEST are sharing their raw research data through an online portal with the public – including of course and very importantly other Zika researchers. Their goal is to share data openly, to eliminate as many impediments as possible to spurring collaborative work around the globe to solve the Zika crisis.
David O’Connor, professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)
Just how severe a problem are we looking at? O’Connor gave some perspective during a public lecture on the UW-Madison campus this week. While HIV – another pandemic virus he has studied exhaustively over the past 20 years – costs society about $400,000 per patient over their life spans, Zika virus impairments in newborns could cost between $1-10 million per patient (using US dollar estimates) over their life spans. Recent studies in macaques found that the Zika virus persisted for up to 70 days in the blood of pregnant female monkeys – much longer than the 10 days it remained in either males or non-pregnant females – this increases the chance of severe birth defects being found in babies.
There are already more than 300 pregnant women in the US with laboratory evidence of Zika. This number is growing daily. Infections in the US are largely being attributed to pregnant women picking up the virus while traveling outside the country: Zika is hitting hard right now in Puerto Rico, infecting nearly 50 pregnant women per day, as Aedes aegypti mosquitos, which can transmit viruses such as dengue and Zika, spread and move northward this summer from South to Central America, to the Caribbean and into the United States. Because Zika is also sexually transmitted, its borders of infection are not limited to places where the mosquitos live and bite.
There is hope, however. A new experimental vaccine has shown to protect mice with just a single dose. Scientists from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School found two different vaccines effectively protected 100% of mice from the virus. This compares to a control group which were unprotected and all caught Zika after being exposed to the virus.
Posted onJune 9, 2016byEditor|Comments Off on USDA publishes 2015 Animal Research Statistics
Congratulations to the USDA/APHIS for getting ahead of the curve for a second time and making the US the first country to publish its 2015 animal research statistics. Overall, the number of animals (covered by the Animal Welfare Act) used in research fell 8% from 834,453 (2014) to 767,622 (2015).
These statistics do not include all animals as most mice, rats, and fish are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act – though they are still covered by other regulations that protect animal welfare. We also have not included the 136,525 animals which were kept in research facilities in 2015 but were not involved in any research studies.
The statistics show that 53% of research is on guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits, while 11% is on dogs or cats and 8% on non-human primates. In the UK, where mice, rats, fish and birds are counted in the annual statistics, over 97% of research is on rodents, birds and fish. Across the EU, which measures animal use slightly differently, 93% of research is on species not counted under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). If similar proportions were applied the US, the total number of vertebrates used in research in the US would be between 11 and 25 million, however there are no statistics to confirm this.
If we look at the changes between the 2014 and 2015 statistics we can see a drop in the number of studies in hamsters, rabbits, cats and the “all other animals” category. Notably, there was a 7.3% rise in the number of non-human primates used although this comes the year after a 9.9% fall in their numbers.
There has been a downward trend in the number of AWA-covered animals used in the last three decades, with a 64% drop in numbers between 1985 and 2015. It is also likely that, similar to the UK, a move towards using more genetically altered mice and fish has reduced the numbers of other AWA-covered species of animals used. In the UK this change in the species of animals studied has contributed to an overall increase in the numbers of animals used in research in the past 15 years.
Rises and falls in the number of animals used reflects many factors including the level of biomedical activity in a country, trending areas of research, changes to legislations at home and abroad, outsourcing research to and from other countries, and new technologies (which may either replace animal studies or create reasons for new animal experiments).
It is important to note that the number of animals cannot be tallied across years to get an accurate measure of total number of animals. This is because animals in longitudinal studies are counted each year. Thus, if the same 10 animals are in a research facility for 10 years, they would appear in the stats of each year – adding these numbers would incorrectly create the illusion of 100 animals being used.
Speaking of Research welcomes the open publication of these animal research statistics as offering the public a clear idea of what animal research goes on in their country.
Comments Off on USDA publishes 2015 Animal Research Statistics
The media regularly report impressive medical advances. However, in most cases, there is a reluctance by scientists, the universities, or research institutions they work for, and the media to mention animals used in that research, let alone non-human primates. Such omission misleads the public and works against long-term sustainability of a very important means of advancing knowledge about health and disease.
Consider the recent report by Ali Rezai and colleagues, in the journal Nature, of a patient with quadriplegia who was able to use his hands by just thinking about the action. The signals in the brain recorded by implanted electrodes were analysed and fed into the muscles of the arm to activate the hand directly.
When journalists report on such bionic devices, rarely is there mention of the decades of research using macaques that eventually made these early brain-machine interfaces a reality for human patients. The public is shielded from this fact, thereby lending false credence to claims by animal rights groups that medical breakthroughs come from human trials with animal experiments playing no part.
Development of such brain-machine interfaces requires detailed understanding of how the primate brain processes information and many experiments on macaques using different interfaces and computing algorithms. Human ethics committees will not let you try this on a patient until such animal research is done.
Image: Understanding Animal Research
These devices are still not perfect and our understanding of brain function at a neuronal level needs more sophistication. In some cases, the macaque neural circuitry one discovers may not quite match the human’s, but usually it is as close as we can get to the human scenario, needing further fine-tuning in direct human trials. However, to eliminate all animal research and try everything out on humans without much inkling of their effects is dangerous and therefore highly unethical.
The technique Dr Rezai’s team used on human patients draws heavily upon work done on monkeys by many groups. This can be seen by looking at the paper and the references it cites.
The number of monkeys used for such long-term neuroscience experiments is relatively small, with just two used in the study above. Many more are used for understanding disease processes and developing treatment methods or vaccines in the case of infectious diseases such as malaria, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and Zika.
However, if one looks at what is at stake without these experiments on non-human primates, one must acknowledge a stark reality. In many cases, the situation is similar to that which once existed with polio. Nearly 100,000 monkeys were used in the 1950s to develop the polio vaccine. Before that, millions of people worldwide, mostly children, were infected with polio every year. Around 10% died and many were left crippled.
Now, thanks to the vaccine, polio is almost eradicated.
Similarly, about 200 million people contract malaria every year, of whom 600,000 (75% being children) die, despite all efforts to control the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Development of a vaccine is our best chance, but again primates are necessary for this, as other species are not similarly susceptible to the parasitic infection.
Circumstances are similar with other devastating ailments such as Ebola, HIV and Zika. The ethical choice is often between using a few hundred monkeys or condemning thousands or more humans to suffer or die from each one of these diseases year after year.
In the popular press and in protests against primate research, there is sometimes no distinction made between great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) and monkeys such as macaques, leading to misplaced emotional reactions. To my knowledge, invasive experiments on great apes are not done anywhere, because of the recognition of their cognitive proximity to humans.
With urgent medical issues of today such as HIV, Ebola, malaria, Zika, diabetes and neurological conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease, monkeys are adequate to study the basic physiology and pathology and to develop treatment methods. There is nothing extra to be gained from studying apes.
Alternatives have limitations
Opponents of animal research often cite the impressive developments of computer modelling, in-vitro techniques and non-invasive experiments in humans as alternatives to animal experiments. These have indeed given us great insights and are frequently used also by the very same scientists who use animals.
However, there are still critical areas where animal experimentation will be required for a long time to come.
Modelling can be done only on data already obtained and therefore can only build upon the hypotheses such data supported. The modelling also needs validation by going back to the lab to know whether the model’s predictions are correct.
Real science cannot work in a virtual world. It is the synergy between computation and real experiments that advances computational research.
In-vitro studies on isolated cells from a cell line cultured in the lab or directly taken from an animal are useful alternatives. This approach is widely used in medical research. However, these cells are not the same as the complex system provided by the whole animal. Unless one delves into the physiology and pathology of various body functions and tries to understand how they relate to each other and to the environment, any insights gained from studying single cells in in-vitro systems will be limited.
Though many studies can be done non-invasively on humans and we have indeed gained much knowledge on various questions, invasive experiments on animals are necessary. In many human experiments we can study the input to the system and the output, but we are fairly limited in understanding what goes on in between. For example, interactions between diet, the microbiome, the digestive system and disease are so complex that important relationships that have to be understood to advance therapy can only be worked out in animal models.
Of course, animals are not perfect models for the human body. They can never be. Species evolve and change.
However, many parts of our bodies have remained the same over millions of years of evolution. In fact, much of our basic knowledge about how impulses are transmitted along a nerve fibre has come from studying the squid, but our understanding also gets gradually modified by more recent experiments in mammals.
Higher cognitive functions and the complex operations of the motor system have to be studied in mammals. For a small number of these studies, nothing less than a non-human primate is adequate.
The choice of species for every experiment is usually carefully considered by investigators, funding bodies and ethics committees, from both ethical and scientific viewpoints. That is why the use of non-human primates is usually a small percentage of all animals used for research. In the state of Victoria, this constitutes only 0.02%.
Medical history can vouch for the fact that the benefits from undertaking animal experiments are worth the effort in the long run and that such experimentation is sometimes the only ethical choice. Taken overall, the principle of least harm should and does prevail. There may come a day when non-invasive experiments in humans may be able to tell us almost everything that animal experiments do today, but that is probably still a long way off.
Priorities in animal use
The ethical pressure put on research seems to be in stark contrast to that on the food industry. It is hypocritical for a society to contemplate seriously restricting the use of the relatively small number of animals for research that could save lives when far more animals are allowed to be slaughtered just to satisfy the palate. This is despite meat being a health and environmental concern.
The ratio becomes even more dramatic when you consider the use of non-human primates alone. In Victoria, for every monkey used in research, more than one million animals are used for meat production. However, the monitoring of the welfare of farm animals is not in any way comparable to that which experimental animals receive.
Reduced use of livestock can greatly reduce mankind’s ecological footprint and also improve our health. This is an ethical, health and environmental imperative. Animal experiments, including some on non-human primates, are also an ethical and medical imperative.
There is sometimes confusion about how US law protects rats, mice and non-mammalian vertebrates such as birds and fish. Much of this confusion is rooted in the fact that the US Animal Welfare Act (AWA) explicitly excludes purpose-bred rodents (rats of the genus Rattus rattus, mice of the genus Mus mus), as well as birds that were specifically bred for research. Research with these purpose-bred rats and mice likely comprises the overwhelming majority of vertebrate animals in research in the US, but it is not overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Sometimes this fact is used mistakenly (or perhaps purposely?) to suggest that all species not covered by the Animal Welfare Act are not protected by any federal laws.
Claims that research with non-AWA-covered species is not subject to care standards, external oversight, and public transparency are demonstrably untrue.
This post aims to address these misconceptions by looking at when and how rats, mice, and birds in research are covered by federal laws.
Overview of animal research regulation in the US. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) states that covered species are defined as: “with certain exceptions, any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary [of Agriculture] may determine is being used, or is intended for use for research” (7 U.S.C. 2132(g) The 2002 Farm Bill amended this definition to exclude purpose-bred rats, mice, and birds from the provisions of the AWA. Note that certain types of research with animals and most animal testing are also subject to regulation and oversight by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and USDA. The USDA is charged with enforcement of the AWA. The AWA applies to research with a range of species that includes: “with certain exceptions, any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary [of Agriculture] may determine is being used, or is intended for use for research” (7 U.S.C. 2132(g), referred to here as “USDA-covered species.” Institutions that engage in research with covered species must be registered with the USDA. The AWA also applies to zoos, entertainment facilities, breeders, and other facilities that engage covered species in activities that involve public contact. All such facilities must be licensed by the USDA and research may also be conducted in facilities licensed for non-research purposes.
An amendment to the 2002 Farm Bill specifically excluded from AWA oversight rats of the genus Rattus rattus, mice of the genus Mus mus, and birds specifically bred for research. Thus, research with these rats, mice, and birds, which likely comprises the overwhelming majority of vertebrate animals in research in the US, is not overseen by the USDA.
Does that mean rats, mice, and birds are not covered by federal animal welfare laws?
It depends on the funding! In fact, many rats, mice, and birds bred for research are covered by federal law.
Why? Because, for federally-funded research, another federal regulation specifies the conditions for animal care, animal research, external oversight, and associated public transparency via a second federal agency. This includes, for example, university research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or other federal agencies.
PHS and OLAW. The Health Research Extension Act (HREA; 1985) provides the statutory authority for the PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy), which applies to all PHS-funded research with live vertebrate animals. In brief, such research must follow the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Animals in Research (The Guide) (NRC, 2011). Each institution receiving PHS funding for research with vertebrate animals is required to have an Assurance of Compliance (Assurance) with OLAW. The Assurance describes policies and procedures adopted by the institution in order to comply with PHS Policy.
The NIH website provides extensive information about PHS policy and OLAW.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Certain types of research with animals and most animal testing are also subject to oversight and regulation by the US FDA.
Part of the federal regulation governing animal research also requires that each institution engaged in research has a mechanism for ethical consideration, approval, oversight and monitoring of animal care and research. Thus, there are also oversight bodies at each institution that are charged with the approval, monitoring, and reporting of activities with animals.
What about rats, mice, and birds that are not in federally-funded research?
While privately-funded research is not subject to the AWA or PHS Policy, there are other mechanisms that are used to ensure standards of animal care and research review, such as voluntary accreditation of the institutions’ animal care program. Such research may also fall under FDA oversight and, as such, be required to follow PHS Policy.
Private accreditation. An institution may choose to seek and maintain voluntary accreditation by a private agency, AAALAC, International (AAALAC). In the US, AAALAC accreditation depends on demonstrating compliance with the The Guide; thus, institutions that are not overseen by APHIS or OLAW may choose to be accredited and adopt the same standards for the care and treatment of research animals. Private accreditation for the care of captive animals is common across different kinds of facilities that house nonhuman animals, including those in research, but also in zoos and sanctuaries, who have their own accreditation organizations (e.g., American Zoological Association, AZA; Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, GFAS). Importantly, however, unlike oversight by a federal entity, voluntary accreditation does not provide a venue for public oversight and enforcement, nor does it allow for public transparency. For example, both USDA’s APHIS and PHS’s OLAW are responsive to public requests for investigation of facilities and records relating to oversight of those facilities. Private accreditation agencies do not provide public transparency of the accreditation process and/or inspection reports.
There are many sources of federal and local protection of animals in laboratories. Any research on AWA-covered species OR research that receives federal funding will be covered by federal laws aimed at ensuring laboratory animal welfare. Those laws provide for external oversight and for public transparency of records including, for example, inspection and investigation reports.
Most research is also covered by the IACUC system, which provides for oversight and, for many public institutions, another route of public transparency via state open records. Finally, many facilities– both public and private– maintain voluntary accreditation, which also should have a positive impact on animal welfare.
Update 5/24/16: “New MOU Among NIH, USDA, and FDA. NIH, USDA, and FDA have participated under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Concerning Laboratory Animal Welfare for over 30 years. Each agency, operating under its own authority, has specific responsibilities for fostering proper animal care and welfare. This agreement sets forth a framework for reciprocal cooperation intended to enhance agency effectiveness while avoiding duplication of efforts in achieving required standards for the care and use of laboratory animals. The new MOU is available at: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/references/finalmou.htm.”
We will be clear about when, how and why we use animals in research
We will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals
We will be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals
We will report on progress annually and share our experiences
One of the clearest demands is a subsection of Commitment 2, which states (in one very long sentence):
Within one year of signing up to the Concordat we will make a policy statement about the use of animals in research avaiable via our website, to provide clear information about the nature of our own involvement with animal research and its role in the wider context of our research aims, and, and link this to a central portal, publicly available on the Understanding Animal Research (UAR) website, or provide this information to UAR for inclusion in the portal.”
Speaking of Research has the most comprehensive list of these policy statements, including institutions from ten different countries. For some countries we have only a few statements, often because language barriers have prevented us finding them – and for other countries we have many – particularly the US and UK. We have also rated these statements according to the amount of information they provide (see grading details). Nearly every UK Concodat signature has got a statement (some pharmaceuticals with research bases in the UK are classed as “International” in our lists).
Below we should a table of the ratings in different countries. In some countries like Australia and Ireland there are only a few institutions which have statements, which are generally low rated. This is likely because there is no expectation among institutions to have such statements. On the other hand the US and UK have nearly 100 institutional statements each. The UK is particularly impressive given that the 96 institutions represent (plus more in the International column) represents most of the biomedical research institutions conducting animal research in the country.
If we compare the grading of websites in the UK compared with everywhere we find the UK provides more information on average.
We can see that the UK has a higher proportion of statements ranked with 2 or more ticks. Two ticks would tend to mean a high level of website information available about an institution’s animal research.
In our eyes the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK has had two main victories. Firstly, it has encouraged nearly every animal research institution in the UK to openly explain on their websites that they do animal research – this is true of no other country. Secondly, it has helped drive better information to be provided on these websites, with increasing numbers of universities putting up case studies, images, videos and statistics.
We congratulate the Concordat on Openness on Animals Research in the UK for supporting transparent discussion on this issue, and we wish it all the best as it enters its third year.
What can cats with six toes, flies with wimpy testis, fish with hips, and mice with socks tell us about how our genes work? Turns out, they – together with a cast of characters ranging from bacteria to our own species – can tell us quite a lot.
In Herding Hemmingway’s Cats: Understanding how our genes work Dr Kat Arney takes the reader on a journey through the past and present of the science of genetics, exploring the key discoveries and concepts that are beginning to explain the complex processes through which the hereditary information in our genes constructs us “in all our wobbly, unique and mysterious glory”.
Can this cat be herded? Image: Marc Averette
It’s a somewhat daunting challenge for a book that weighs in at just over 250 pages, but Dr Arney succeeds with a book that is accessible and entertaining without ever taking its subject for granted. This is in no small way due to the structure of the book, which unfolds in a series of interviews with pioneering scientists – some of whom have Nobel prizes, others who most surely will – whose work has uncovered many different ways in which our genes end up making stuff we need when and where we need it (mostly). Amid the details of their discoveries about phenomena such as junk DNA, gene splicing, imprinting, and RNA interference there are many fascinating glimpses into their personalities, motivations, and occasionally rivalries.
For all that Herding Hemmingway’s Cats provides an insight into the tremendous progress that science has made in understanding how genes are controlled, anyone looking for a triumphalist hagiography need look elsewhere.
In the 13 years since the publication of the draft human genome science has learned a lot about the protein coding regions of our genes – the 1.5 % of our DNA whose sequence is translated into amino-acids that make up the proteins in our cells – our understanding of the function of the non-coding regions of our genes and the areas in between genes is still in its infancy. This is important because while many inherited diseases are due to errors in the protein coding regions, most of the differences we see between each of us individual human beings and between our species and others are due to differences found in this other 98.5% of our genome.
Dr Arney doesn’t shy away from these gaps in our knowledge and deficiencies in our understanding, she positively revels in them, so if you think we know nearly all there is to know about how are genes work than prepare to be surprised. With the help of her interviewees, she throws buckets of cold water over some popular (and for some profitable) ideas about how the environment can influence the activity of genes, deftly skewers a few much quoted – but unwise – statements by leading geneticists, and shows how even many standard scientific textbooks are surprisingly inaccurate when it comes to explaining the ways in which genes are organized and regulated within cells.
The interviewees – who are not all always in agreement with each other – are allowed to tell much of the story, and that’s OK, as it allows the author to show the often messy and imperfect reality of cutting-edge science. She approaches her interviews with a lot of humour and an open mind, but also a determination to get to the heart of the matter. Occasionally the author does allow her impatience with some current trends in genetic research to show, for example when discussing the work of scientists who trawl through the human genome looking for associations between small genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (a.k.a. SNPs, pronounced snips) and particular traits or diseases (in this case those linked to mental health problems) she writes:
But while this might yield a few more interesting links, I’m increasingly feeling that there are limited further gains to be made… To be fair to the snip-hunters, their discoveries do sometimes provide a useful chisel for researchers to start prising open the biological processes that underpin a disease. Not many people want to do that, though, because it’s hard. It involves doing tricky experiments, often using animal models, and taking years to unpick what’s going on. Much easier to apply for a million-pound grant and go fishing for yet more snips instead (I’ll get off my soap-box for now).
She needn’t apologize; her soap-box moment is most apt. This book is at heart a collection of stories of stories about scientists who spotted something odd in an experiment, and then, rather than shrugging their shoulders and moving on, did the tricky experiments, often using animal models, and put in the years to unpick what’s going on. In most cases they are still unpicking it, but through their failures and successes they have already transformed the way we understand how our genes work.
So who is this book for? It’s perfect for undergraduate biology students who are just starting to learn about genetics,and for those of us who have studied genetics in the past and wish to catch up with the current state of the art, but really it’s for anyone who is curious about how the information in our genes becomes us.
Herding Hemmingway’s Cats is a fascinating, funny, and at times provocative celebration of basic science, and an excellent debut by a new author whose enthusiasm for her subject we are sure will entertain and inform readers around the world.
Herding Hemmingway’s Cats: Understanding how our genes work by Dr Kat Arney is published by bloomsbury Sigma, and is available in book stores nationwide, and online on Amazon as an audio book, hardback and e-book.
In this Q&A post, we visit with Jordana Lenon, B.S., B.A., the outreach specialist for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jordana reaches her 20th anniversary working at the Primate Center this year. Here, she reveals how different her job is today from when she first began.
Speaking of Research (SR): How has your job changed in the past 20 years?
Jordana Lenon (JL): When I began in 1996, I was in charge of the newsletters and developing the center’s website. That was it. Today, face-to-face outreach events, mostly for K-12 groups, along with news media relations, is most of my job. I still edit the newsletters, but we are actually reaching more people we need to reach with our social efforts. And by that, I don’t mean social media, I mean in-person engagement. In the past five years alone, we’ve met with more than 35,000 students, teachers and community members through mostly school family science nights, science festivals, and visits both on campus and out to the schools and civic groups.
SR: How have you advertised your outreach programs?
JL: First, the UW-Madison Campus Visit Program receives most of our on-campus requests. They promote all the science and other campus venues the public can visit on the university’s website. Second, the UW Madison Science Alliance outreach team has an awesome family science night Google docs sign-up sheet that teachers, parent volunteers and we campus presenters can access, which helps immensely with planning and logistics. Third, the power of good old word of mouth and referrals, from teacher to teacher, or from one civic organization chapter to another, cannot be underestimated.
SR: Are there any challenges to orchestrating so much outreach?
JL: Yes. This is the first year that I’ve had to postpone scheduling more than a few visits to the Primate Center Learning Lobby or Stem Cell Learning Lab. Demand is so high, with daily requests right now, that even with volunteers we just can’t meet it. I suppose that is a good problem to have! I would love it if more people would schedule visits in the Fall, because spring, especially April, fills up so fast.
SR: What is the most rewarding thing about your outreach efforts?
JL: Two things, actually. One is that more and more UW scientists and students have volunteered to help each year. This means a great deal to me, because I know how busy they are, how many different directions they are already being pulled in. When I see their faces, their looks of satisfaction, and hear from them how much fun it was afterwards, how great the students’ questions were, how smart the students were, and that they really “get” how important it is to share what they do and what the Primate Center or Stem Cell Center does, that is just an indescribable feeling. Another cool thing I’ve noticed over the past 20 years is that, when I began presenting, people didn’t know much about the Primate Center, where it was or what we did. They didn’t know about our research programs and how we take care of our animals, how dedicated our scientists, students, vets, animal caretakers and other employees are. There was always someone in just about every group who expressed strong feelings against research with animals. Today, it’s more like, “Yes, we’ve visited the Primate Center before and we wanted to come back again with another school group… what you do is so amazing… we support what you do… we know it’s not easy… my friend has Parkinson’s… my son has diabetes… I have MS… I just read you are working on Zika virus… I didn’t know stem cell research really took off here… I have a friend who worked at the Primate Center… I had no idea what you did before this visit… thank you…”
Jordana Lenon takes a tour of the new Madison Science Museum with Ellen Bechtol, museum staff member. Behind them is one of the Why Files Cool Science Image Contest winners, of marmoset embryonic stem cells forming neurons, submitted by Primate Center scientists and students in 2015. http://whyfiles.org/category/cool-science-images/
SR: Are all the audiences so supportive?
JL: Most, but not all. And that’s okay. I want to know what people are thinking, what they know, what they don’t know. I want to answer questions, or find out the answers if I don’t know them. I learn a great deal from my audiences. Most of the complaints and concerns I get these days are from people expressing to me that it is taking too long for more stem cell research “breakthroughs” to get into the clinic. Rarely do I get someone in my groups anymore who tells me that they are an animal rights supporter (versus animal welfare). This may be because activists of all beliefs are using social media more to express their views. I am definitely seeing that our audiences have many more informed questions than when I first began. I think science education, blogs, shows, pro-science websites and social media are also helping, especially with the younger generation. More people are understanding the connections between the medicines and vaccines they take, and that it all began at some critical step along the way with biomedical research and humane animal care. Also, that the research benefits animals as well as people.
The hardest thing to tell people is why the research takes so much time. People are being wooed by these “miracle stem cell cures” on line, for example. So a large part of my job is explaining how research works, how to search clinicaltrials.gov, and what patients should be asking their doctors. But now that I’ve been here 20 years, myself, I can cite research that was ongoing when I began and that is now in clinical trials or even FDA-approved medical treatments and is saving millions of lives.
I am living proof, myself: UW-Madison scientists and physicians used several animal models, including our Primate Center monkeys, to develop new therapies for systemic lupus erythematosus in the 1980s through the early 2000’s. This research is why I am alive and healthy today. Twenty years ago, most patients with SLE were not expected to live a normal lifespan. Even surviving from year to year with this autoimmune disease usually meant forgetting about work or any real quality of life. People are still dying from lupus, but prognoses are getting better every year.
SR: Anything you’d like to add, plans for more outreach development?
JL: Well… I would like to do more social media… but I’m too busy being social to do it!
SR: Thanks for your stories. Thanks for sharing the important work that you do!
JL: You’re welcome. We had 10 outreach events last week alone, so this week, I have a little more time to write and catch up on email… and get off my feet for a while!