Tag Archives: biomedical research

Frans de Waal’s Ethical Arguments Need Clarification

In a recent perspective, Professor Frans de Waal argues that chimpanzees deserve “special moral status.”  The statement comes on the heels of a recent report by the Institute of Medicine who proposed strict criteria on the use of chimps on biomedical research.

According to de Waal there are compelling ethical reasons to ban all invasive work on chimps, but he argues that one should “not throw out the baby with the bathwater by also curtailing non-harmful behavioral research” as well.  He defines ethically permissible research in chimps as “the sort of research I would not mind doing on human volunteers.”

While Prof. de Waal ought to be applauded for sharing his views on the use of chimps in scientific research, I think he moves too fast through weak and vague ethical reasoning to reach his main conclusion.

Opponents of animal research, for example, are likely to point out his definition of ethically permissible research should read instead “the sort of research [one] would not mind doing on human volunteers who also agree to live in captivity in the same conditions as the chimps.” 

They will also point out that human subjects that volunteer in scientific research, whether invasive or behavioral, provide their informed consent.  Moreover, human subjects retain a right to withdraw their participation at any point in time, and they are never deprived from their liberties and freedom.  Opponents of research will further argue harm comes to these animals by the mere fact they are forced to live in captivity.

It is unclear how de Waal would defend his work from the stated position in his perspective. Perhaps the “special moral status” de Waal wants to grant to chimps and other great apes is not meant to be interpreted as including the same basic rights to liberty and freedom as those enjoyed by humans.  If so, he should state this clearly.  His position is vague and confusing because in the same perspective he seems to approve some countries granting great apes legal rights.

There are other problems that emerge from de Waal ill-articulated ethical position.  He states the basis for awarding great apes special moral status is based on their high cognitive skills, as well as their capacity to display empathy and pro-social behavior. At the same time he believes the same intrinsic properties are present in varying degrees in other species — there are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.” Given such graded abilities it is not clear how de Waal would draw a line between those species that deserve such “special moral status” and those that do not.  Or if there are other morally relevant properties that he did not mention.

Finally, I think de Waal correctly points out that humans should not be allowed to blame nature to explain our history of violence, warfare, and male dominance.  The reason is that only humans are capable of reflecting on the question of how is that we should treat others, including non-human living beings.  Yes, we have a moral obligation to consider the interest of other living beings in our actions.  But, as Carl Cohen explained, we should not confuse our moral obligations to other living beings with them having basic rights. Rights entail obligations, but the reverse is not always true.

There is wide agreement (and I concur) that the interests of great apes deserve high moral consideration, more so than those of a mouse or a worm. But it is worth noting that such principle of graded moral status is already implicitly acknowledged in the NIH guidelines which require scientists to use the “lowest” possible species that can yield the information they seek.  In this regard, the IoM panel finding that there is only a minimal need to use chimps in scientific research is not a truly reflection of their inadequacy to model disease (chimps could certainly be used in many studies to answer good scientific questions), but of our existing recognition that they deserve high moral status and that they can only be used under the most  extreme circumstances.

Ignorance or Deception?

Animal rights activists may want to start cooling down their engines.

Apparently, by 2050 we can expect the complete elimination of animal use in science.

At least, this is the prediction made by Dr. Andrew Rowan, Chief Scientific Officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in a recent article that appeared in The Scientist.

The title of the piece was “Avoiding Animal Testing.  Advances in cell-culture technologies are paving the way to the complete elimination of animals from laboratories”.

The first half of the article focuses on the development and adoption of alternatives to the use of animals in toxicology.  Our public health officials and the FDA have long made the sensible decision to require any company that introduces new chemicals or drugs into the market to provide an initial experimental assessment of their potential toxicity to humans.

This use of animals for such safety screening is typically called animal testing.

Dr. Rowan correctly points out that advances in the development toxicology methods may allow us eventually to relax the regulations that require the use of animals in testing.  But he rapidly moves to insinuate such advances imply that by 2050 we could see the end of animal use in laboratories:

This overall decline in animal use can be attributed to the advent of novel technologies such as improved cell-culture systems and micro-analytic techniques; more sophisticated model systems; improved understanding of signaling and metabolic pathways; and a host of other new methods that allow scientists to answer important questions about the functioning of healthy and diseased tissues without subjecting whole animals to harmful procedures. With a 50 percent decline in animal research since 1975, we are roughly at the halfway point towards the complete elimination of animal research. Thus, we argue that, by 2050, we might finally see the last of animal use in the laboratory, particularly if all stakeholders put their minds to it.

First, the assertion that the total use of animals is systematically declining is not supported by the data.  The slide below, for example, was taken from a recent talk Dr. Rowan gave at the University of Wisconsin.  It shows the total number of animals used has been stable since the mid 80s, with the number of non-genetically modified (Non-GM, faint dashed line) animals decreasing and stabilizing in the 90s (see also data here), while the number of  genetically modified (GM) animals, which are largely mice, has been systematically increasing.

Second, even if correctly asserting that we can expect a diminished need for animals in toxicology testing, Dr. Rowan’s generalization of such trend from a such narrow field to all of biomedical research is groundless and misleading.

Let us be clear, our universities do not engage in animal testing, but in animal research.

What’s the difference?

Scientists are largely concerned with elucidating the basic mechanisms of biological processes in health and disease.  We want to study how cells in our bodies work, how they communicate, how they develop, how they age and how they die.   We want to understand how the brain, our immune system, and internal organs work and how they fail.  And so on…

Why is it critical we develop such an understanding?

Because without this knowledge there will be no hope to combat disease. Indeed, the mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes this fundamental fact in its opening statement,

NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.

Implicit in such declaration is the acknowledgment that it is basic knowledge that drives advancements in human health and well-being.  Basic knowledge of nature is what drives progress.  This point is critical —   translational or applied research would not exist without basic knowledge as the raw material.  Without knowledge there would be nothing to translate nor apply.

Those that declare an imminent end to the use of animals in science are effectively implying that they envisage all basic knowledge needed will be acquired by a certain date, or that we will have methods that would allow us to proceed with studies non-invasively in human volunteers. Dr. Rowan’s statement that “Advances in cell-culture technologies are paving the way to the complete elimination of animals from laboratories” is nothing short of utter scientific nonsense.

Is it possible for Dr. Rowan to be ignorant of the role of animals in scientific research?  Could he legitimately be confused about the difference between safety testing on one hand and the development of therapies and basic research on the other?

This seems highly unlikely giving his academic credentials and the fact that he has served on IACUCs before.  In fact, another slide from his talk, shows him delineating these different uses of animals, and illustrating that animal testing for human safety accounts for merely ~25% of total animal use.

No, Dr. Rowan is not confused at all.  He knows what he is talking about.  This is unfortunate as one can only conclude his article is simply a misguided attempt to deceive the public about the fields in which we might realistically expect science to successfully replace animals in the near future.

And I emphasized science above for a good reason.

As difficult as it is for animal advocates to understand, scientists also believe we will see a day when we can eliminate the use of animals in all animal research.  And the day will arrive because of the hard work, progress and achievements of dedicated scientists, such as this one, and not because of deception of those that want to oppose animal research at all cost.

For HSUS to suggest that all animal research could be eliminated by 2050 is  flatly wrong from a scientific point of view, and utterly irresponsible from a public health perspective.

Now the Oscar for Best Biomedical Research

A cutting edge procedure performed by Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick (star of the BBC’s new show The Bionic Vet) provided Oscar a new way to walk around, which means that he will not need to be euthanized. This video caught my attention and still is exciting to watch. I decided to look into the story behind the bionic surgery success story.

Here’s a quick timeline


Andrea Knipe

Joint Statement by Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science

In an effort to establish a dialogue between those holding different opinions on the role of animals in research, Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science held what, in our judgement and that of many of our colleagues, was an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of biomedical research using animals.

In the weeks leading to the event, a handful of animal rights activists, with the only goal of preventing this dialogue from happening, harassed UCLA investigators at their homes and ran a campaign of intimidation through websites.  Organizers and panelists on both sides of the event forcefully condemned these attempts at derailing our meeting.  We prevailed.   Dialogue prevailed.

Unfortunately, this outcome has not been universally well received.  Some appear determined to continue with their attempts at interfering with this fresh direction the debate is taking.  In a move that defies logic, these activists are now suggesting children are legitimate targets of their protests.

Nobody should tolerate these renewed attempts at silencing our voices.  Scientists and animal rights activists who are committed to an open dialogue that will allow the public to become better educated on these important issues should now stand up together, publicly condemn such actions and defend the right of everyone to express freely their opinions.

Anyone willing to participate in an honest, rational and open dialogue is welcome at the table.

Jill Ryther, Kristy Anderson, David Jentsch and Dario Ringach

Addiction Research as an Example of Translational Biomedical Research

In science, “translation” embodies the concept that data gathered in one situation is meaningful for data gathered in another. Applied biomedical research seeks to translate laboratory research into effective treatments or cures. It spans many levels of study. In oncology (the field of cancer biology), some individuals study how cancerous cells grown in a dish operate and grow and how best you can destroy them. Others study tumor growth in animal models; they do this because the behavior of cells in a dish does not always fully predict how cancer will grow in a living body. Because we want to understand how cancer occurs and progresses in humans, yet other scientists use epidemiological or imaging techniques to directly study cancer patients. Information gained at one level informs and fosters the understanding of information gathered at other levels. No single experiment or scientist answers everything – it’s the collective work of the larger group of researchers working at all levels that pushes things forwards. This is how translation is made possible.

A hotly debated question in translational research is whether data gathered in animals 1) always, 2) often, 3) rarely or 4) never is meaningful for our understanding of human biology. Though most scientists and clinical practitioners feel strongly that it is often predictive, explicit examples are required to convince the broader public.  Clear evidence of translational value is found in research on the biology of drug addictions – something that I study in my laboratory. A large number of both rats and humans find drugs of abuse (cocaine, heroin methamphetamine, nicotine, etc.), when ingested, to be incredibly rewarding and will engage in significant drug-seeking behaviors to obtain it. In that sense, the study of these drugs’ effects on rats translates well (though not perfectly) to its effects on humans. Importantly, it translates “well enough” to make the rat a useful model organism in which to explore how drugs of abuse take control of some individuals by altering their brain chemistry. We have made excellent progress in this area over the last 15 years.

Of all areas of biomedical research, the study of the brain poses the biggest challenge for translational research because it is this organ that differs most across species. There is no doubt that a mouse’s brain is dramatically different from that of a monkey which is still different from that of a human. But do those superficial differences matter? Not as much as you might think! Let’s go back to the earlier example of drug abuse. Addictive drugs are chemicals that, when ingested, make their way into the brain where they alter the activity of brain cells, consequently changing the function of circuits in the brain that mediate reward. This is why they make people experience euphoria, relaxation and a sense of well-being after they take them. Remarkably, despite obvious differences in the brain, rats also very much enjoy the effects of these drugs. When offered an opportunity, they will take them voluntarily (e.g., press a button to trigger an injection of the drug). Even more impressively, even fish find addictive drugs rewarding. So, actually, despite the superficial differences, there is a huge amount going on in the brain that is similar across model organisms. This is because the anatomical differences between rat and human brains are actually much smaller than what is shared between them: common sets of circuits with similar functions.

This point is crucial. If fish and rats can be used to predict some of the responses of humans to addictive drugs, they can be used in translational research to explore the therapeutic effects of drugs used to treat brain disorders, such as addictions, as well.

It is important, however, to distinguish between what an animal model can reveal and what it cannot. In the case of chemical addictions, animal models can help you to understand the physiological and basic behavioral processes that drugs act on to alter the body. Again, studying the effects of an addictive drug in rats can help us to understand how it alters the reward circuit and how that relates to drug seeking. Here, translation is excellent. At the same time, it does not fully recapitulate the psychosocial consequences of drug taking in people. Because the drug is available for free, rats do not have to steal to get money to buy it. Because they are not expected to show up to work on time and be productive, drug use does not cause them to get fired from their jobs. Because they do not get married, they are not at risk of divorce when their drug-taking behavior gets out of control. Because they do not share needles, they are not at risk of hepatitis C or HIV infection. So, from a biological perspective, study of addiction can be modeled well in rats, but the psychosocial consequences are not. Rat researchers have revealed the neural mechanisms by which addictive drugs act in exquisite detail, and all modern, FDA-approved treatments for drug dependence arose from basic, mechanistic studies in animals (examples include Revia for the treatment of alcohol dependence and Chantix for smoking cessation). Clinical researchers then are able to tell us whether and how these treatments affect psychosocial functions in drug users. In that sense, like our colleagues who study cancer, we integrate study from many levels together to fully understand the biology and psychosocial consequences of drug abuse and its treatment.

It is because research at many levels integrates so well that providers of clinical intervention often closely study and attend to studies conducted in animals. An international society called the College on the Problems of Drug Dependence brings together scientists, physicians and social workers who are particularly interested in solving problems relating to addiction. Here, each attendee carefully studies the results of the other researchers – with studies in humans designed based upon clinical observations, and clinical tests being spurred by rat studies.  There is little doubt in the group – whether one consults patient-oriented researchers or people that examine cells growing in a dish – that studies of living animals are a critical part to the overall translational effort to stem the impact of addictions on affected individuals. Though animal research will not solve all of the mysteries of addiction, or of any complex human disease process, it is a foundational part of most areas of biomedical research and patients, patient advocacy groups and treatment providers overwhelmingly support it.


David Jentsch

2008, a review

So as we reach the end of the year it is worth having a quick look back at what has gone on.

In Advocacy
Speaking of Research has given talks in over 10 states about the important role of positive advocacy in the defence of life-saving animal research.  We have made YouTube videos, made a FaceBook group (now over 300 members) and participated in a number of radio shows. We even managed to get a piece in Science Journal. Aside from Speaking of Research other outreach organisations have been active with Americans for Medical Progress releasing their newest DVD on the benefits of animal research.

In the Newspapers
Animal rights extremists have stepped up their campaign of violence in California over the past year with arson attacks targeting a number of University of California professors, threats to the safety of those working for UCLA, and even one case of a home invasion. However there is hope with a new bill passed which is designed to offer researchers increased protection from activists.

In Research
We have seen new drugs coming being developed to treat disease . We have seen brain implants being developed to allow paralysis patients to control robotic limbs. We have seen newer, better animal models for crippling diseases. All of these examples of medical progress have been thanks to the contributions of animals in biomedical research. Furthermore animal research has contributed to both the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. All in all we can see that vast improvements in healthcare over the next decade will come in part because of the continues use of crucially important animal research.

I spent seven months in the United States trying to make a difference in people’s attitudes towards animal research, however success will only be achieved by the public,the  scientific community,the  government, and public outreach organisations working together to explain the benefits of animal research to the people living across America. Through understanding we can embrace carefully regulated medical research and reject the misinformed and misanthropic animal rights extemism movement.

For Speaking of Research to continue to make a difference we need your help. We need people to help write for the website, to help give talks at schools and universities around the country, and to try and start local Speaking of Research groups on their campus. We need you!

Happy New Year


Americans Living Longer Thanks to Animal Research

Americans are living longer, healthier lives and we owe much of that success to biomedical research,” said Robert Palazzo, Ph.D, President of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). This comes after the CDC announcement that US life expectancy has surpassed 78 years for the first time.

Declines in death rates for heart disease, cancer and diabetes, can be attributed to leaps made in the treatment of such conditions, much of which is funded by the NIH (National Institute of Health). Palazzo continued:

It is so easy to take for granted the amazing medical advances that NIH has afforded us, but many of the terminal illnesses that haunted previous generations are now treatable, and sometimes curable, conditions. When you take a moment to reflect, the life-saving discoveries funded by NIH are truly extraordinary.