Tag Archives: Francis Collins

NIH Director reaffirms importance of animal experiments

Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, was interviewed by the Washington Examiner earlier this week. One question asked what he thought about animal research, to which Collins provided a thoughtful and considered answer.

Washington Examiner: PETA came out this year supporting budget cuts to the NIH, saying that cutting testing on animals would achieve significant savings. What can you tell us about where animal testing stands?

Collins: I think NIH is very focused on making sure that animal studies are done in the most ethical way possible, but also very convinced there are things we can learn from animal studies that will help people with terrible diseases that we otherwise can’t quite learn. We are certainly moving a lot of the kind of research that we used to do in animals into other systems, particularly with human cells that can be grown in a laboratory in a fashion that causes no pain to anybody and doesn’t result in such a great need for animals. But animals are still crucial to our understanding of how biology works. Anybody who has looked at the kind of oversight that applies to that I think will be impressed by how much attention goes toward any protocol that we fund that is going to involve animals for research. It has to have veterinarians and members of the public looking constantly at the conditions under which the animals are cared for and how we do everything possible to avoid the creation of unnecessary pain.

No doubt Collins is tired of PETA’s nonsense – in 2015 they wrote letters to all his neighbors in an effort to pressure him to stop the work of an individual researcher. We applaud Collins for defending animal research to the Washington Examiner and hope he continues to protect vital research in the future.

Dangerous and Irresponsible: PETA attempts to intimidate NIH Director Francis Collins

PETA campaigns are rarely benign, from misrepresenting science to glorifying violence against women and scientists. Their latest campaign, reported yesterday by Science Insider, is no different. PETA have sent hundreds of letters to the neighbors of both NIH Director, Francis Collins, and world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, as part of a long running campaign against Dr Suomi’s NIH-funded research into the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates.


These letters, condemning Dr Suomi’s research, are full of inaccuracies. His work has been defended by several large scientific organisations. When PETA first launched their campaign against Dr Suomi earlier this year the American Psychological Association wrote:

We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

The American Society of Primatologists statement noted:

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

While the NIH’s own very robust statement, which it issued this January following a review of Dr Suomi’s research programme sparked by PETA’s complaint, concluded that it:

has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.

Yet the letters are more than just another incident of misrepresented research. They are irresponsible and dangerous. By posting Dr Collins’ and Dr Suomi’s addresses, alongside a misleading picture of the NIH research, they have potentially given animal rights extremists the necessary information to carry out extremist actions. We have seen similar address releases in past result in terrifying home demonstrations as well as acts of vandalism and worse.

PETA have been involved in animal rights activism for decades and should be well aware of the potential risks – this whole strategy comes down to the harassment of scientists and their families to scare them from conducting important biomedical research. Indeed, a statement by PETA’s Alka Chandna to Science Insider that “If I had a neighbor who was doing this, I would want to know about it…It’s similar to having a sexual predator in your neighborhood.” suggests that harassment and intimidation is exactly what PETA have in mind. It becomes all the more sinister when you remember PETA’s record in glorifying and encouraging violence, and supporting violent animal rights extremists.

As Speaking of Research member Prof. David Jentsch noted in his comments to Science Insider:

PETA’s arguments about the value of the science fails on its merits, so they resort to these deeply personal attacks. We’re seeing more of these types of tactics across the animal rights movement. They’re essentially saying to scientists, ‘We know where you live.’

Is this what PETA want?

Is this what PETA want?

So will PETA’s approach succeed? The fact is that very few of the scientists targeted by PETA or other animal rights extremists have ever given up their research, and for some – and David Jentsch himself is a good example – being targeted has prompted them to become vocal advocates for animal research, which one suspects is not the result the animal rights groups intended.

It’s also worth noting that on previous occasions where animal rights extremists have targeted the neighbors of scientists on this way, they have responded with displays of support for the scientist and their family. We expect that this time will be no different (especially as PETA are hardly the most trusted of organizations).

It seems unlikely that Collins will be cowed by PETA’s tactics, after all as a researcher who has spoken up in favour of human embryonic stem cell research when it was under threat, and who as NIH Director frequently has to deal the demands of wilfully ignorant and frequently obnoxious politicians, he has probably developed quite a thick skin.

Indeed, during a discussion of the NIH’s flagship BRAIN Initiative at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last month Collins was asked directly about non-human primate research, and responded by acknowledging the need for non-human primate research in the BRAIN Initiative and the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Some commentators have suggested a connection between the PETA campaign and yesterday’s announcement by the NIH that it has decided to retire all its remaining research chimpanzees. While some may be tempted to think this, it seems unlikely to be the case. As several researchers noted in the Nature News article reporting the NIH decision, there are still some question marks over the NIH’s decision. In particular how the NIH will ensure that the conditions in which the chimps are retired to meet the high welfare standards of current NIH facilities, and how it will affect valuable non-invasive neurocognitive, genomic, and behavioural research that most sanctuaries do not have the facilities to support, is still far from clear.

However, it is also readily apparent that this decision was driven by the fast decreasing use of chimps in biomedical research over the past 5 years, and in particular the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to give research chimps endangered species protection, which prevents any invasive biomedical research that doesn’t benefit wild chimpanzee populations, a ruling that arguably made supporting even a small research chimp colony unviable for the NIH. PETA’s most recent harassment campaign is unlikely to have had much – if any – affect on the NIH’s decision making.

Francis Collins

The situation is very different for other non-human primate species, which continue to play a crucial role in many areas of NIH-funded research. Francis Collins himself noted this  in the official statement on the decision to no longer support chimpanzee research, when he concluded by writing:

These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH.

Speaking of Research applauds Francis Collins’ continued support for non-human primate research, and his refusal to concede to PETA’s attempts to bully him into a decision that would do serious damage to the NIH’s status a world leader in biomedical research, and indeed to progress against a wide range of devastating diseases.

Speaking of Research condemns the efforts of PETA to stand in the way of medical research that can change lives. Almost 20% of the US suffered from mental health illnesses in the past year. The research community is morally obligated to do what it can to help understand and treat these devastating conditions. We also condemn a PETA tactic that risks exposing researchers to acts of violent extremism that PETA claim not to support.

We hope Francis Collins and the NIH will not bow to pressure, but will continue to stand up in defense of the research community and the importance of biomedical research.

Speaking of Research

Guest Post. How to Engage with the Public About Animal Research: Society for Neuroscience Panelists Offer Strategies to Scientists During Annual Meeting

Today’s guest post is from Amanda Dettmer, Ph.D.,  a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Dr. Dettmer is a developmental psychobiologist whose research examines the early life organization of sociocognitive development in nonhuman primates. She received her PhD in Neuroscience & Behavior from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. You can follow her on Twitter.
Dr. Amanda Dettmer

Dr. Amanda Dettmer


During their annual meeting in Chicago, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) yesterday held a 2-hour lunchtime session dedicated to public outreach concerning animals in research. The panelists were international experts on communicating the importance of animal research to the public, and they offered invaluable advice to the hundreds of scientists in attendance.

While it’s clear that scientists – and the institutions that employ them – must be more proactive in communicating the importance of their research and the animal models they use, the panelists offered several tangible pieces of advice on how to achieve this goal. The strategies offered cater to researchers working with various animal models and, more importantly, with varying degrees of comfort in engaging the public in their research.

The session opened with remarks by the chair of the SFN’s Animals in Research Committee, Dr. Michael Goldberg, who stated, “We’ve been staying under the radar to avoid animals rights activists, and this strategy is not working,” particularly with respect to nonhuman primates in research. Earlier this year, Goldberg and the President of SFN, Dr. Steve Hyman, submitted a letter to Science in response to an article published there, “Embattled Max Planck neuroscientist quits primate research.”

AM15_Logo_CMYK_Horizontal_SavedForWebThe first panelist, Dr. Rolf Zeller, is the founding president of the Basel Declaration Society (BDS) and a founding signatory of the Basel Declaration, by which researchers recognize the necessity of animal research in biomedical research, and endorse the highest standards of ethically responsible animal research. Stating that researchers will “never convince PETA, but we can convince the public,” Zeller stressed the importance of engaging the public and offered the BDS’ most effective strategies for communication in Europe: regular media training sessions for trainees and established scientists, persistent use of social media, and open access publications on scientific communication. Zeller offered his “Golden Rules” for public outreach, which included:

  • 1) Receive good training in science communication,
  • 2) Be proactive and honest about your research,
  • 3) Discuss your animal research with colleagues, especially any who might be skeptical, so that they understand why it is important,
  • 4) Make it clear you care about animals,
  • 5) Explain why animal research is essential for patients, and
  • 6) Join the BSD and sign the Declaration to be part of a proactive community.
Pro-Test Italia

Pro-Test Italia

Dario Padovan, President of Pro-TEST Italia, a non-profit that “aims to promote and disseminate to the public correct knowledge on scientific research,” followed with an emboldening presentation on how the group increased positive public perception of animal research in Italy with regular strategies easily and equally employable in the US: 1) active, daily activity on social media (the group responds to every incorrect/negative Facebook comment on their page, 2) engaging young scientific experts to reach their contemporaries (saying “most users of social media are 18-34 years”), 3) regularly producing YouTube videos that show detailed primate research in a humane and responsible way (which receive tens of thousands of views and >90% net “thumbs up” ratings), 4) fighting fire with fire by creating satirical anti-animal rights propaganda, and 5) getting patients who benefit from animal research involved in public outreach.

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Dr. Michael Mustari, Director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, then highlighted the outstanding care that nonhuman primates at his, and all of the other six, National Primate Research Centers in the US, receive, as well as the significant contributions primates have made in the advances of such diseases as HIV/AIDS, polio, ebola, and Parkinson’s disease.

Mustari said, “People who argue against nonhuman primate work do not pay attention to reality.” He drove home the need to engage with the public by showing the type of video that the public needs to see regularly to understand the value of primates in research, like this one showing a quadriplegic serving himself a beer for the first time in 13 years, thanks to advances made possible by primate research. Mustari ended by discussing the inspiring global outreach the WaNPRC performs under the directorship of Dr. Randy Kyes, Head of the Division of Global Programs at the WaNPRC.

Jason Goldman

Jason Goldman

Dr. Jason Goldman, an animal-researcher-turned-science-writer, rounded out the session by sharing lessons he’s learned from animals in communicating to a variety of audiences. Using brown-headed cowbirds and betta fish as examples of animals that change their messages based on who’s listening, Goldman said, “Animals have learned what I tell scientists over and over: Different messages are required for different audiences.” Goldman offered tangible pieces of advice for burgeoning (and established) science communicators, including 1) tell personal stories whenever possible and evoke emotion (using Cecil the lion as an example), 2) use simple visuals and avoid complex graphics (even popular infographics can be hard to digest), use memegenerator.net to make your own memes to communicate science on social media (this is perhaps the easiest tip to pick up, as I was able to create my own – and first! – meme in about 30 seconds during his presentation), and 4) be relatable and make the public feel smart, not stupid.

The session concluded with a Q &A session from the participants seeking additional advice on best ways to communicate the importance of animal research to the public when you feel like your institution is resistant to the idea, how to deal with the internal struggle of loving animals while conducting research with them, and more. Given that the session went 20 minutes over its scheduled time, it was clear the audience found it an invaluable resource.

Later in the afternoon, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, gave a Special Presentation to SFN attendees in which he discussed recent advances in neuroscience with a particular emphasis on the BRAIN initiative. Though he rarely mentioned animal models in his talk, he did field anonymous questions from the audience afterward, one of which asked 1) what his personal opinion was on the role of animals, especially nonhuman primates, in the BRAIN Initiative, and 2) what concrete steps the NIH Directorship was taking to engage the public in the importance of animal research.

Collins stated that although the NIH worked with the Institute of Medicine to end chimpanzee research in the US, this “should not be seen as a reflection of how we feel about other nonhuman primates in research.”  He concluded by acknowledging the need for primates in some of the more invasive studies for the BRAIN Initiative that cannot be conducted in humans, and by underscoring the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Amanda Dettmer

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.

Treating Progeria; How GM mice give hope to some very special children

Something big is going on right now in the world of research.

Something very specific for some very special children with a very rare disease. It may not be widely known by name but I am sure you have seen these children. The disease is called Progeria. From the Progeria Research Foundation’s website, we learn:

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome “Progeria” or “HGPS” is a rare, fatal genetic condition characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging in children*.  Its name is derived from Greek and means “prematurely old.”  While there are different forms of Progeria, the classic type is Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, which was named after the doctors who first described it in England: in 1886 by Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, and in 1897 by Dr. Hastings Gilford.

Progeria affects approximately 1 in 4 – 8 million newborns.  There are an estimated 200-250 children living with Progeria worldwide at any one time.  It affects both sexes equally and all races.  Since The Progeria Research Foundation was created in 1999, we have discovered children with Progeria living in over 40 countries.”

Most of us will have come across a picture of one of these children in the papers, on TV, or on the internet. We remember them because they look different from other kids their age. If you ever get the privilege to chat with them, you will find that are some of the wisest people you will ever meet. To speak with them is truly inspiring because of their personalities and outlook on life. It is also heart wrenching because we know most will never reach their twenties.

About eight years ago I was working as a veterinary technician in a research facility. During that time a new investigator moved his lab into our facility, and we received his colony of mice a few weeks before he arrived. After we had cared for the mice for a few days, we started to see some very strange things. The weanlings were sometimes very small, and occasionally they were also thin. It was strange to see mice that were so young but  looked like such old men. The reason was simple, these mice had been genetically modified to carry the same defective Lamin A gene that is responsible for Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome in children. The ‘sick’ mice we saw were actually mice with Progeria!”

GM mice aided the development of a therapy for Progeria

GM mice aided the development of a therapy for Progeria

Several years later Dr. Stephen G. Young and colleagues at UCLA published a study that detailed what they found within this small population of mice (1). Once a GM model of mice had been developed, cells from these mice were studied (2). When a farnesyltransferase inhibitor  was used in vitro on these cells, it showed this drug was a possible treatment for this terrible disease. Once this was learned, they went on to the next step which was to test farnesyltransferase inhibitor in vitro on cells from actual Progeria patients (3). When these studies looked very promising, confirming that the process occurring in the mouse and human cells were very similar, the GM mice were once again indispensable for the first in vivo study to determine if farnesyltransferase inhibitors could improve the health of mice with Progeria (1). This is the part that cannot be replicated by any calculations, test tube chemicals or computer programs. Without in vivo studies, it is impossible to know what a treatment will do in a living creature. The mice that were born with Progeria were given a farnesyltransferase inhibitor. Would they get better or would they stay the same? Once the study was complete, all results were compared and this therapy looked very promising indeed!

Professor Young gave a talk on his progeria research to the Congressional Medical Research Caucus in 2009, in which he discusses his group’s GM mouse studies in much more detail, and you can watch the video here.

From there, a drug needed to be developed that could be evaluated in children with Progeria. This is a process that can often take many years, but fortunately some farnesyltransferase inhibitors designed as cancer treatments looked promising (see more about it here). lonafarnib was selected for clinical trials in progeria because it had already been assessed in pediatric cancer clinical trials where it had a demonstrated an acceptable safety profile. This is how decades of drug development happened in less than 10 years.

Researchers were able to move many steps ahead, much closer to the Progeria clinical trials that were needed. Remember, the one thing these children do not have is time. They grow old and die, sometimes as young as seven, and very rarely live past twenty. Most die in their teens. If a completely new drug had been needed, nearly every child alive with the disease that day would have passed away by the time it was ready for a clinical trial.

I think it is very important to explain briefly genetic disease and the role GM play in finding treatments and cures. Francis Collins is a well known and oft cited geneticist and physician, and currently Director of the National Institutes of Health, who gave a TED talk in April 2012 about this very topic.  Dr. Collins has long been interested in Progeria, he led the team that first identified defects in the Lamin A gene as a cause of Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome in 2003, and later in 2008 published a study that examine the effect of farnesyltransferase inhibitors on cardiac defects in a mouse model of Progeria (cardiac defects are the most common cause of death in children with Progeria).

At the most basic, a genetic disease is caused when there is a faulty gene somewhere in the genetic code. While the *reason* the gene is broken may be a mystery, there are roughly 4,000 genetic diseases that scientists at least know what gene is causing the problem, which is the case for Progeria. Scientists know what is causing the problem, but how do you fix it? Dr. Collins has a vision of accelerating the transition from the bench to the bedside, and the example of progeria shows that one of best tools for finding the treatments and cures is Genetically Modified mice. Our GM mice.

In the case with Progeria, researchers were able to create the same disease in mice that was found in humans, effectively mirroring the disease. By doing this, they are able to study not just the disease itself, but study treatments on a live organism with the disease. With GM mice, researchers are able to find treatments and cures at an unprecedented pace. As Dr. Mark Kieran, who led the first clinical trial of  lonafarnib to treat progeria (4), said:

PRF (Progeria Research Foundation)provides a model for disease research organizations, and is a good example of successful translational research, moving from gene discovery to clinical treatment at an unprecedented pace,”

There are over 4,000 genetic diseases known to us right now, yet only 250 of them have treatments. If we can find help for these people so quickly, why are there so few cures? One reason is that in many cases there are still no mouse model available to study. In our case of Progeria, a mouse model of the disease was developed which sped up research by years or even decades. Without GM mice, this treatment would not be available now. Progeria clinical trials moved very quickly compared to most treatments and it was announced in September of 2012. Finally, these children had a treatment! While this is not a cure, it is a huge step forward. With early diagnosis and treatment, these children have a much better chance at a normal life!

Because of the extremely rare occurrence of this disease, these children can be hard to find, especially in less developed countries where they may have never seen this disease before. In 2009, the Progeria Research Foundation  (PRF)launched the “Find the Other 150” campaign. As of September 2012, they were aware of 96 of the estimated 200-250 children living with Progeria. If you are aware of any of these children, please visit www.FindTheOther150.org to find information on how to participate in future studies.

I have spent nearly a decade in this field now. I will always remember those mice and those children. To see a treatment developed and to even have played a small part it helping it happen is humbling. Will I make headlines? No. Will my name ever be in a published paper? Probably not. Will I make millions off any of the discoveries I participate it? Never. I went into this field knowing full well I will never get rich or retire early and wealthy. That is not why I am here.  I choose to do what I do because of people out there like these Progeria kids. I do this for them, and all the millions of cancer patients out there like my late husband. I do this so we can find a cure.

And to know I had even a tiny part in making that cure happen, that, is priceless.

Pamela Bass

1)  Yang SH, Meta M, Qiao X, Frost D, Bauch J, Coffinier C, Majumdar S, Bergo MO, Young SG, Fong LG.”A farnesyltransferase inhibitor improves disease phenotypes in mice with a Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome mutation.” J Clin Invest. 2006 Aug;116(8):2115-21

2)  Yang SH, Bergo MO, Toth JI, Qiao X, Hu Y, Sandoval S, Meta M, Bendale P, Gelb MH, Young SG, Fong LG.”Blocking protein farnesyltransferase improves nuclear blebbing in mouse fibroblasts with a targeted Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome mutation.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Jul 19;102(29):10291-6. Epub 2005 Jul 12.

3) Toth JI, Yang SH, Qiao X, Beigneux AP, Gelb MH, Moulson CL, Miner JH, Young SG, Fong LG. “Blocking protein farnesyltransferase improves nuclear shape in fibroblasts from humans with progeroid syndromes.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Sep 6;102(36):12873-8. Epub 2005 Aug 29.

4) Gordon LB, Kleinman ME, Miller DT, Neuberg DS, Giobbie-Hurder A, Gerhard-Herman M, Smoot LB, Gordon CM, Cleveland R, Snyder BD, Fligor B, Bishop WR, Statkevich P, Regen A, Sonis A, Riley S, Ploski C, Correia A, Quinn N, Ullrich NJ, Nazarian A, Liang MG, Huh SY, Schwartzman A, Kieran MW. “Clinical trial of a farnesyltransferase inhibitor in children with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 9;109(41):16666-71. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1202529109. Epub 2012 Sep 24.