Tag Archives: animal

Laying the foundations of medical research

For the past couple of weeks a debate has been raging on the Opposing Views website between Speaking of Research’s Dario Ringach and the anti-vivisectionist Ray Greek. It has been a debate shaped by Dr. Greek’s attempts to persuade readers to agree with his very narrow concept of what prediction means in biology and his frankly impoverished view on the role of basic research in advancing medical science, and to oblige those debating them to accept a playing field rigged to set them at a disadvantage.  Judging by Dario’s most recent opinion piece and an article written a couple of days ago on the role of basic research Dr. Greek failed in this attempt.

British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2001.

Among all the discussion was one comment that directed readers to an excellent example of the value of basic research and the how study of animal models made many key discoveries possible. Earlier this week the BBC aired a program in their Beautiful Minds series featuring Sir Tim Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his research on how the cell cycle – through which cells grow and divide – is controlled.  Sir Tim’s work focused on the role of a family of proteins known as cyclins and as the Beautiful Minds program explains the initial breakthrough came from studies of the fluctuations in the pattern of protein expression during the cell cycle in sea urchin eggs.  This discovery was followed swiftly by the demonstration that cyclins were also present in yeast, clams and frogs, allowing Sir Tim and his colleagues to predict that they would have a role in regulating the cell cycle in many species,  including humans, a prediction that was soon confirmed to be true (1).

This program is a reminder that while discussion of animal research tends to focus on animals such as mice, rats and monkeys a lot is being learned about the fundamentals of our physiology through research on more humble model organisms, a diverse collection that includes not just sea urchins and clams but also nematode worms and flies .  These animals, along with other model organisms such as yeast and bacteria, enable us to study how living things work at a very fundamental level, laying the theoretical foundations for future applied and translational research that yields innovative treatments for disease and injury. At the same time, researchers studying other aspects of physiology often require higher mammals. The study of complex brain functions, including vision, hearing, memory, attention and motor planning, as well as how these functions fail in diseases of the central nervous system, is a prime example of this.

If you haven’t watched the Beautiful Minds series yet I strongly urge you to do so, the programs provide a fascinating (if not always flattering) insight into how science works.  And don’t delay: they are only available to view on the BBC iPlayer for another 7 days!

Paul Browne

1)      Pines J.  and Hunter T. “Isolation of a human cyclin cDNA: evidence for cyclin mRNA and protein regulation in the cell cycle and for interaction with p34cdc2.” Cell Volume 58(5), Pages 833-846 (1989)  PubMed: 2570636

A Curious Tale: Researchers and their Animals

Below is an account of how one researcher (Scicurious from the Neurotopia blog) views her animals, and the lengths she goes to ensure their welfare. Although such relationships vary from researcher to researcher, this account is almost certainly one which many researchers and animal care technicians will sympathise with. Scicurious (blogging pseudonym) is currently a grad student working towards a PhD in Physiology. This piece was originally posted as a post within a post on Neurotopia, and has been reprinted with full permission from the author.

Every day, at the lab, I head up to the animal colony. It’s my responsibility, and even though it’s work that, as a grad student, I probably shouldn’t be doing (I should be concentrating on other stuff and leaving this to the techs), I enjoy it. I have to sacrifice animals in my line of work, and taking care of the breeding colony, bringing new animals into the world, helps me feel a little bit better about it.

It’s more than kindness that makes me want to treat them well. Sick, uncared-for animals do not produce good data. It pays to have an animal caretaker that works well with their animals, as scared animals also do not produce good data. They benefit, and I benefit.

And the world benefits. Many people do not understand the value of animal research in neuroscience, the important things that can be learned from animals and applied to humans. Animal tests for anxiety, depression, addiction, or OCD may not be perfectly analogous, but they can tell you a great deal about how these diseases work. We can develop new treatments and cures. Progress is slow, but it’s essential. Once you have seen some of the people suffering with anxiety, depression, or addiction, looking entirely normal and yet completely unable to live their lives, you cannot just turn away. You want to help. These issues are not just problems of willpower, or problems of just needing to cheer up or relax. These problems originate in the brain, and in order to come to an understanding and a cure, we need to do research. And research into neurotransmitters, protein and gene expression levels, transporters, and signaling from one area to another is something that can still only be done in animals.

I work with animals. I am there for them rain or shine. I hike in to work to care for them when the roads are impassable with snow. I race in to work to make sure they have heat or cooling when the power goes out. During one paradigm, I did not get a day off for almost six months, because I had to care for them every day and no one else could replace me. Some people have it worse. I have heard heroic stories of vet techs remaining during a mandatory hurricane evacuation, stringing battery powered Christmas lights up in the rooms, and feeding and watering the animals every day, sometimes with water they had to beg from the Red Cross. I have heard stories of students, post-docs, and techs staying up all night to care for a sick or injured animal, working insane hours to preserve something as small as a mouse. And I have seen some of these same people near tears when an animal is put down. Even when the animal is put down for research reasons, it doesn’t stop us from caring.

I work with animals and I care for them a lot. As far as they can, they care for me as well. They don’t bite unless they have good reason. They cuddle in my arms, snuffling into my armpits where it’s warm. When they have injuries, they let me help them to the extent that I can. The species I work with doesn’t have a reputation for being very friendly, but we work well together.

Birth and death, I am there at every single moment in the life of my animals. I help sometimes to bring them into the world. I help to raise them, especially if their parents cannot do it very well (due to genetic issues or temperament). I feed them, I clean their living spaces. When they are young, I play with them. When they are adults, I do my experiments, treating them as gently as possible, and never forgetting that they are living beings worthy of respect and care. When they are older, I care for them, and make their lives easier. And when it’s time for them to go, I am there for them, too, to make it as painless and quick as possible. Can everyone say the same of their pet hamster or the burger they ate?

Many of the students, techs, and PIs that I work with have expressed similar feelings toward the animals they use. We respect them for what they can teach us, and we treat them well. But other people do not understand. And sometimes, they may understand, and they don’t agree. And that’s ok. I took my qualifying exams while people protested outside my building. But there’s disagreement, and then there’s…something else.

The other day I got something like this in my inbox:

“I hope what you do to animals is inflicted on your children”.

Just looking at that sentence makes my heart rate speed up, and my mind almost reels. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For several nights after that I dreamed that people were threatening me, entering my house, hurting my pets. The last dream I had involved an activist holding a gun to my head. Nights like those you don’t get a lot of sleep. I started checking my locks three times or more.

And this is nothing compared to what the bigger fish at my MRU get. I have heard of death threats, threats involving their children and noting where they go to school. At other institutions, people’s cars get burned, their houses get torched or flooded (or something their neighbors do by mistake), and fake or real bombs are dropped on their doorsteps. We are scared to communicate what we do to anyone outside of science. People ask and I say I’m a chemist. We fear the hatred and the accusations.

We are not monsters. We are the people trying to find the cures. Most people who go into biomedical science do it partly out of interest and partly out of a sense of duty. We see problems and we want to solve them. We want to help people. Many of us go into certain disciplines due to personal experience (could be very personal, friends, or family) with the problems involved: alcoholism, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, depression.

We are trying to help. That makes these threats hurt even more. The very people we are trying to help sometimes hate us for what we are doing. Sometimes, this makes us angry and cynical. Right now, it just makes me sad. And always, it makes us afraid. These people could destroy our lives, and the lives of our families, they could destroy our work, and they could hurt our animals.

And this is why its so important to speak out about our research. We need to tell people what we do and why we do it. We need to make it something that is understood, not feared, and understood to be necessary. The more the public knows and understands what we do and why we do it, the more they will help us. They will see the threats that some people are making as the actions of those too blinded by their views to keep to an open, legal protest. If we can get the public on our side, we may not feel like we have to hide our professions. We may feel that we can work without fear. ‘Til then, I’ll keep getting emails. And keep having nightmares. And keep on going. My work, and the animals I care for, are more important than fear.


Neurotopia Blog

Peta and HSUS fight for the legacy of the ‘Queen of Mean’

Peta (People for the Ethical Treatmet of Animals) and HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) are both trying to lay claim to the estate of the late Leona Helmsley, once dubbed the Queen of Mean. Helmsley’s fortune is estimated at $5-8 billion (around 3 times the combined incomes of everyone living in Zimbabwe).  Helmsley ammassed her fortune through shrwed real estate investing and a chain of hotels (apparently taking the Monopoly rulebook as a life guide).  She earned her reputation as a tyrannical employer, once quotes as saying “Only the little people pay taxes.” Upon her death she left $12 million to her dog, Trouble, more than to any of her four grandchildren (two were left out the will completely). She put the lion’s share of her fortune in a trust fund for the care and welfare of dogs – this could provide around $400 million per year for various efforts to improve animal welfare.

So should the money go to Peta? An organisation which killed more than 90% of the adoptable animals that entered its shelters in Virginia? Or perhaps to HSUS, which spent less than 8% (approx $6.5million) of its $91 million donations (2006 Budget on website), to support animal shelters, choosing rather to spend the money fighting for animal rights on the hill.

Hopefully Leona Helmsley’s fortune will instead be divided up between much smaller animal shelters which directly contribute to animal welfare. HSUS have long played the trick of gaining donations by associating their effots with their local animal shelters – in truth HSUS absorb many of the resources that would do much to improve animal welfare in individual animal shelters, and use it to fight for animal rights on the hill.