Tag Archives: scientists

PETA’s Mixed Martial Assault on Scientists

Video games have had their fair share of controversies over the past few decades. Games like Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 have all caused some measure of public outrage for their depictions of violence. However all three games had two things in common – they do not suggest they are anything but pure fiction, and the violence means the games have a mature rating, suitable only to those 17 or more years old,

Peta’s new video game “Cage Fight” involves the player taking the role of a famous Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter as he travels through a university lab, military installment and pharmaceutical lab, assaulting scientists and freeing animals. While the game is not as visceral as those previously mentioned, it is no less disturbing. It also breaks the two important strands common to the previously mentioned games. Below the game window it notes:

Animals abused in laboratories in real life need your help. Complete this action to unlock the next. Complete them all to earn a special Cage Fight cheat code.

Essentially gamers are tempted to carry out PETA’s actions in order to improve the game regardless of whether they support (or understand) the implications of these activities. The first of these activities is to send a letter to the NIH to oppose sound-localization experiments carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which have already been improving our understanding of brain mechanisms for spatial hearing. Essentially, PETA is trying to connect, to the players mind, the ridiculous representation of torture labs (see below) with the ethically conducted research carried out at universities like UW-Madison.

The second strand common to games like Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto is that they are intended only for mature audiences who can understand what they see – with clear differentiation of fact and fiction. PETA is marketing this as a game for children of all ages. It promotes violence against researchers with only the barest of disclaimers:

PETA Mixed Martial Arts Game Disclaimer

Note that PETA does not say we should not assault researchers because it would be wrong, but only because it is illegal. The phrase “it is still illegal to punch animal experimenters” [My emphasis] suggests not only a degree of disappointment in not being able to attack animal researchers, but also suggests that it may not be illegal in the future. Disturbing indeed.

The game opens with the player’s MMA character of choice travelling to a university animal research laboratory:

PETA MMA Game attacks Scientists

Now, PETA, please tell me the name of any laboratory in the US where blood is spattered across the wall and floors, scientists walk around with machetes, and cats are kept in cages less than 4 cubic feet in size (less than half the size recommended by the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals).

Here is what Justin McNulty, Research Compliance Oversight Administrator at the University of Texas at Austin said about the image:

Those who work with animals in a laboratory setting must adhere to strict guidelines to ensure animals are provided an environment that allows them to grow, mature, and reproduce normally while providing for their health and well-being. This cartoon is not representative of any laboratory that adheres to the Guide. For example, animals must be provided enclosures that allow normal posture and movement, unlike the small cage depicted in the cartoon. The cartoon does not show that the animal is provided any food or water, which, researchers MUST provide (why would a researcher want an unhealthy animal)? Finally, laboratories must remain clean – not covered in blood as depicted in the cartoon. Federal regulations require a level of cleanliness at par with a food service kitchen.

Later in the game the “hero” (if you can call someone who beats up scientists that) travels to a pharmaceutical company (another blood spattered affair, this time with dead mouse pictures and an incinerator to boot). Before unleashing hell on the scientists within (and a few military personnel who are inexplicably wandering around there), he converses with Igor, who says:

Clip from PETA's MMA GamePETA MMA Game

PETA are making misleading accusations about the law. As Justin McNulty goes on to explain:

While the Animal Welfare Act and Regulations may exclude laboratory mice and rats, these animals are protected by other policies and guidelines. For example, for Federally funded research with laboratory mice and rats, researchers must follow the provisions of the Guide, which requires the same level, if not more, protections than the Animal Welfare Act. This cartoon is not even close to portraying what a laboratory would look like – incinerators in a laboratory? Blood-covered walls and floors? Unsanitary conditions in laboratories are not allowed and violate numerous laws, regulations, and guidelines. In addition, the government has established pain and distress management policies – anything that would cause pain in a person is assumed to cause pain in an animal and therefore pain management drugs must be provided. Finally, there are no laws that allow a researcher to poison a monkey. Perhaps PETA’s game makers needed to see images of a real lab before they embark on their next game.

So let’s look at some footage from inside a real lab and see how similar it is to the picture:

You’ll notice the lack of blood stains, evil scientists and tortured animals in the video.

The game then finishes with the player’s MMA character beating up researchers, soldiers and scientists in an MMA ring. Having completed this final level the gamer is rewarded with a gish gallop of images from labs (not all in the US and certainly not recent), mashed together without context or even enough time to think about each image. Examples of clever imagery used include the misleading clip of a monkey clutching its leg

This game allows PETA to pump its false-advertising into children and game-maker “This is Pop” should be ashamed of their needless promotion of violence against researchers.  Games like this trivialise the violence which has affected many researchers who have had their cars burned, their houses flooded and their families threatened. The game also fails to make any reference as to why animals are used in laboratories. Children playing could be forgiven for thinking that researchers experiment on animals for their own sadistic pleasure – rather than to conduct important medical research that saves lives in a strictly regulated environment. Games such as these go some way to explaining why support for medical research on animals has dropped almost 20 percentage points to 47% over the last 12 years.

PETA has continued its mission to discover new lows to climb down to.


Read our follow up post showing how PETA has been heavily hypocritical in the manner in which it promotes and defends this game on Twitter

Are scientists sadists?

Scientists working with animals are often accused by animal rights activists of being ‘monsters’, ‘murderers’, ‘sadists’ and worse.  On the other side, animal rights leaders see themselves standing on a moral pedestal above the rest of the population, while simultaneously inciting to violence against fellow human beings they have never met.  The contradiction is lost on them.

Their appalling allegations don’t deserve a reply.  And yet I was asked recently by a colleague to answer the recurring claim that, somehow, scientists must enjoy harming animals in their research.

The brief answer is… of course not.

Scientists don’t enjoy harming animals. To enjoy means, literally, to take pleasure in, to get a thrill out of, to be entertained by, to relish, to savor or to delight in. I never felt any of these emotions during an experiment nor I have ever met anyone who has. In fact, the opposite is the norm. Typical emotions reported cover the range from sadness, anxiousness, nervousness, uncertainty, to uneasiness. All involved,  the scientists, the students, the veterinarians and animal technicians, acknowledge that there is a personal, emotional toll that results from this work. Those that are directly involved in the daily care of animals explain that their primary motivation is their love of animals and their wish to see them treated as well as possible.

One reason for these mixed feelings comes from the recognition that harm is done to the animals, despite doing everything possible to minimize their pain and suffering. A second reason is due to the inherent uncertainty in scientific work. Put simply, there is no guarantee that the harm caused in any one individual experiment will lead to palpable advancements. In science, one cannot determine ahead of time which lines of research are necessarily going to lead to medical breakthroughs. Decisions to approve and fund an experiment are based on expert opinion based on what studies show most promise, based on well-defined hypotheses and preliminary data, but there are no guarantees.

At the same time there is no denying that animal research has produced tremendous benefits. There is universal consensus among scientists that failure to do this type of work will bring many areas of medical research to a complete halt.  Importantly, and relevant to the ethical debate, there is a shared conviction that halting such research, as requested by animal rights activists and organizations like PeTA and HSUS, would result in much harm to human and non-human animals alike.

It is a failure of animal rights activists to persistently ignore this part of the ethical equation that that works against any meaningful conversation. Instead, they prefer to stick to the tenet that “do no harm” is an absolute moral principle that admits no exceptions. They find comfort living in an utopian black/white moral universe devoid of moral dilemmas, where “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”.

The refusal of animal rights activists to acknowledge the benefits of past work, and their failure to recognize the tremendous harm one would inflict by stopping the use of animals in medical research, leads one to ask — Who exactly is being cruel?

Dario Ringach

Understanding migraines: The blind leading the…err…rats

Chances are that you have either suffered from migraine yourself or have a family member or close friend who have, after all about 1 in 8 of us will suffer from migraine at some stage in our lifetime, and some sufferers experience repeated debilitating episodes over many years . While headache on one side of the brain is typical other symptoms such as nausea are very common, indeed in some migraine victims nausea is the primary symptom of the disorder.  Through a combination of studies in animals and clinical research using techniques such as fMRI and PET scans scientists have learned a lot in recent years about what happens before and during migraine episodes but we do not yet fully understand what ultimately causes the attacks, and debate rages over the relative importance of some mechanisms originating deep in brain regions such as the hypothalamus and others that start in membranes that surround the brain, (1,2).  Current treatments can help prevent migraine, reduce suffering and hasten recovery they do not work for all patients, and a better understanding of what exactly is happening before and during a migraine attack will aid the development of really effective treatments and preventative measures.  A study published in Nature Neuroscience combines clinical research with studies of rats to provide clues about a key characteristic of migraines that has until now remained unexplained, the exacerbation of the pain experienced by sufferers by light (3).

The team, lead by Rami Burnstein of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston, decided to concentrate of the role of a particular subset of nerve cells in the retina known as intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) which they knew from previous mouse research to be involved in eye functions that are not image forming, such as setting the biological clock to the day night cycle.  The ipRGCs are stimulated by light both indirectly via the rods and cones and directly through a pigment called melanopsin that they themselves contain.  In order to discover if the ipRCGs are important to light sensitivity in migraine they performed a very neat clinical study involving 20 blind patients who also suffered from migraine. Six of these patients lacked any light perception due to removal of their eyes or damage to the optic nerve, while in the remaining 14 the damage to the eyes was less total, affecting the rods and cones but not ipRGCs, so that while they were unable to see images they could detect light. The results were clear, blue and grey light made the headaches of those who retained light sensitivity worse, while having no effect on the six blind individuals who lacked light perception.

Determining that the ipRGCs are involved in the exacerbation of migraine headaches by light is of course only part of the story, and Professor Burnstein’s team next turned to tracing the nerve pathways that are responsible for the increased pain, knowledge that might help to develop new treatments.  This they could not do in human subjects because the available imaging techniques do not have the precision to determine the connections between individual neurons.  In a series of studies they injected labels including Green Fluorescent Protein into particular areas of the eyes and brain, and in some cases even individual nerve cells, of anesthetized rats with and followed the path of the neurons.  They were also able to use tiny electrodes to record the effect of light on the firing of individual nerves in the brain, something that cannot yet be done in human subjects. An exciting observation was that the ipRCGs connected to cells in a region of the brain known as the posterior thalamus, itself part of the trigeminovascular pathway that is strongly implicated in migraine headache through transmission of nerve signals from the irritated outer brain membranes to the deep brain. When they examined the electrical activity of these cells they discovered that the majority of the cells within the posterior thalamus that are involved in mediating migraine pain are also light sensitive.  Finally they demonstrated that the light-sensitive pain-mediating neurons of the posterior hypothalamus connect to nerve cells in several regions of the somatosensory region of the cortex, an intriguing discovery since abnormalities in this region have previously been seen in migraine patients. This discovery is likely to encourage scientists to study the role of the somatosensory cortex in migraine in more detail.

So how important is this study? Well it’s unlikely that this discovery will lead to any treatment breakthrough in the immediate future, though the discovery that grey light can exacerbate migraine headache is new and may help patients to avoid it.  Despite a perhaps natural tendency for the news media to look for “breakthroughs” the majority of scientific papers published are like this one, providing valuable new insights into biology that contribute to our overall understanding of how biological systems work and happens when they go awry but not indicating an easy fix.  I’ve no doubt that this and many similar basic science studies will contribute to better treatments for migraine in the future, but perhaps not tomorrow!


Paul Browne

1)      Olesen J. et al “Origin of pain in migraine:evidence for peripheral sensitization” The Lancet Neurology Volume 8, Issue 7, Pages 679-690 (2009) doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(09)70090-0

2)      Alstadhaug K.B.  “Migraine and the hypothalamus” Cephalalgia Volume 29, Issue 8, Pages 809-817 doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2982.2008.01814.x

3)      Noseda R. et al. “A neural mechanism for exacerbation of headache by light” Nature neuroscience Advance Publication Online 10 January 2010 doi: 10.1038/nn.2475

Who’s Afraid to Talk about Animal Research?

Part 1:  Outreach and Education Programs by the Nonhuman Primate Research Community

One of the misleading claims often made about members of the community of scientists and others engaged in, or supportive of, animal research is that they don’t talk with the public about their work. To the many scientists and others actively involved in a broad array of both formal and informal education, outreach, and community engagement efforts it is obvious that there is, in fact, a great deal of talking about animal research. At the same time, as with any other aspect of science or area of public interest, there is always a need for more outreach and more public engagement.

Speaking of Research encourages new outreach efforts and increased participation in dialogue about the responsible use of animals in humanely-conducted and ethical research. For those seeking to become more involved in speaking out about animal research there are many sources of information and existing programs that provide good ideas, models, and assistance in setting up new efforts.

This post will begin a series that highlights different approaches to science outreach and education, particularly those focused on research with nonhuman animals.  We begin with community outreach and education programs at primate research centers.  Many primate centers have active outreach programs built around educational objectives and service to local schools, including programs that provide opportunities for K-12 students to learn about research, internships for college students, and tours of their facilities.  The focus on educational outreach and opportunities for students is in keeping with the role of scientists as educators.

The California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) is one with a long-standing educational program.  Initiated in 2003, “the Education Outreach Program (EOP) was developed as a free, public-service program to introduce K-6 students to nonhuman primates, general health science concepts, animals in research, and biomedical research programs and careers. It supports the California Science Content Standards. This program has been a huge success with the classes visited since it began in June 2003. Comments we have received indicate that the children, as well as the adults, have a greater understanding of primates and health sciences, and the positive benefits that the primate center has on their lives.”  The CNPRC website includes links to the curriculum for their outreach program as well as many resources for teachers.

The Oregon National Primate Research Center also has an active outreach program, with its mission described as:  “Scientists have a responsibility to communicate their research findings to the public, and ONPRC scientists and administration take this responsibility seriously. The Office of Education Outreach hosts tours for over 3,000 visitors to the Center each year.”  As well, “ONPRC scientists speak to Center visitors, serve as mentors for teachers and students, and visit area classrooms. In addition, they participate in various programs through OHSU’s Science Education Opportunities Office (SOAR), and collaborate with several local and regional institutions, including Saturday Academy, OMSI, and the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR).”

Rhesus Monkeys at ONPRC

Outreach programs at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Tulane National Primate Research Center also support interactions between local schools and scientists engaged in primate research.  At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, a description of outreach programs illustrates an approach that, like others, includes many different audiences:  “The Department of Veterinary Sciences plays a vital role in helping to develop an appreciation for and an understanding of biomedical research by offering teachers, regional youth and the public a unique avenue to actively participate in the research process. Our formal education programs provide opportunities for individuals to dramatically increase their content knowledge in the sciences; access to scientists, veterinarians and other career role models in the sciences to both educators and students; practical hands-on student activities that coordinate with national science standards and curricular frameworks; and professional development for employees.”

At the Wake Forest University Primate Center the community outreach and education program “serves the community by providing children in grades K-12 and their teachers with opportunities to visit the WFUPC and learn about biomedical research. These tours are designed to give visitors educational information about nonhuman primates and the unique role that they play in translational research, to highlight the wide range of human health disorders that are addressed by the Translational Science Institute and the WFUPC, and to educate children about careers in science.”

Among the sources for educational and outreach materials about nonhuman primates are those provided by the American Society of Primatologists (ASP). ASP has a long history of encouraging and supporting “the development of educational programs in primatology” and “promoting improved instruction regarding primates.”  Their website includes helpful links and materials for teachers and others “looking for ideas on incorporating nonhuman primates into their lesson plans and anyone interested in learning more about nonhuman primates.”

Finally, the Primate Info Net (PIN), begun in 1995, provides many resources, links, and helpful educational material to those interested in primates, primate research, and outreach activities.  The PIN is maintained by Lawrence Jacobsen Library at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC), University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Primate Info Net is designed to cover the broad field of primatology, providing original content and links to resources about nonhuman primates in research, education and conservation. Through email lists and other resources, PIN also supports an informal ‘primate information network’ comprised of thousands of individuals around the world working with nonhuman primates in a variety of roles.”

There are many other ongoing outreach, education, and community engagement efforts. Those highlighted here provide just a few examples of the types of programs that encourage interaction.  Speaking of Research encourages scientists and others supportive of animal research to get involved in public outreach activities through the broad range of existing programs such as those highlighted above, but also by developing new initiatives.  Members of the Speaking of Research Committee work actively in many different types of public outreach and education and are available to share advice and experience with others.  We encourage you to use the comments section or to write posts to share your own experiences and programs and, by doing so, help to continue to build networks for supporting and increasing these efforts.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

Basic science is fundamental science

I continue my series on some of the misconceptions of biomedical science (previously looking at the limits of fMRI and computer simulations) with a look at what basic science is.

Some scientists devote their entire lives to understanding and describing key experimental phenomena in their fields of study: that is, they engage in “basic science”.  Physicists may want to understand how matter and forces interact and to describe the fundamental laws that govern their interactions.  Biologists and medical scientists may want to understand how cells develop to form entire organisms, how they communicate and defend themselves.

It is the answers to these questions constitutes our understanding of Nature, and the organization of these answers into theories and models is what provides the driving force behind all technological and medical advances.  In other words, “basic science” is really “fundamental science” — it is the science at the heart of human knowledge.

Applied or translational science, on the other hand, refers to our ability to take this basic knowledge and apply it to real-world problems, such as designing an airplane,  developing a vaccine, surgical techniques, or a treatment for a specific disease.

Some animal right activists have criticized the work of basic medical scientists because their work is “not curing anything”.   Instead, they suggest that our efforts should concentrate exclusively in finding cures for human ailments.  This position demonstrates an extremely poor understanding of how science operates.

First, it must be obvious that without an understanding of how something works, it is rather difficult to fix it when it fails.   This applies to your cell phone as well as to the human body.  That does not mean that we should not try at all.  In fact, many of the treatments available today have been developed by trial and error: screening drugs that appear effective and trying them out in human clinical trials.  In the case of cell phones, people have thrown them into the oven after getting it wet.

However, such trial and error (even when driven by educated guesses based on past experience or new genetic methods) is a poor second choice when compared to developing a full understanding of a process that would provide the best information about how to intervene.  Full knowledge will allow us to leapfrog from methods of “drug discovery” to a new age of “drug design”, where we will be finally able to design drugs that will interfere with the mechanisms of a disease.

Second, history has shown that the building blocks of basic science can provide unexpected answers and tools that find important applications in engineering and medicine.   An example that relates to some of our recent discussions is the study of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which deals with how magnetic nuclei respond to an externally applied electro-magnetic force.  It is clear that neither Bloch or Purcell, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on NMR in 1952, had any idea such work would one day allow physicians to image the three dimensional structure of human organs and the active areas of the brain.  A summary of how basic advancements in physics and mathematics have contributed to medical imaging can be found here.

When animal right activists protest that basic research is not saving lives they are wrong : history shows that basic science not only saves lives but it is a critical component of knowledge development.  When they suggest that we should concentrate our work exclusively on diseases they are wrong: we cannot effectively develop cures for diseases we do not understand.  When they suggest that decades of animal research studies have not contributed anything to human health they are terribly wrong: examples abound demonstrating how knowledge of animal physiology and biology has helped us understand human biology.   When animal right activists suggest that “Prof. X research has not led to any cures and never will” they are simply making a wild prediction that has no basis at all.

Basic science is fundamental science.  As such, basic medical science must also be defended from the attacks of animal rights activists.

Dario Ringach

Are you Pro-Test? Sign the Petition!!

Join over the hundreds of people (1400+ at time of writing) who have signed The Pro-Test Petition! This is a petition of scientists, students and the general public aims to show the world that the majority do support animal research – and moreover they dare stand up and sign their name to it. On April 22nd around 800 people stood up at UCLA in support of lifesaving medical research – now it’s up to you. Tell your friends, family and colleagues to go to:


We the undersigned believe:

  1. That animal research has contributed and continues to contribute to major advances in the length and quality of our lives.  It remains vital to understanding basic biological processes and for the development of new treatments and therapies such as antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplants, and cancer medicines.
  2. That animal research is morally justifiable provided animal welfare remains a high priority and no valid non-animal alternatives are available.
  3. That violence, intimidation and harassment of scientists and others involved in animal research is neither a legitimate means of protest, nor morally justified.
They're Pro-Test, Are You?

They’re Pro-Test, Are You?

This petition is a joint effort between  Speaking of Research, Americans for Medical Progress, and UCLA Pro-Test. This project was also motivated by the successful People’s Petition in the UK, set up by Coalition for Medical Progress (now called Understanding Animal Research) which gathered well over 20,000 signatures – including then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In Blair’s letter to the Sunday Telegraph he wrote:

Announcing that I am to add my name to the on-line petition in support of animal testing … is something of a break with tradition – and a sign of just how important I believe it is that as many people as possible stand up against the tiny group of extremists threatening medical research and advances in this country.

With Barack Obama’s desire to increase funding in science, there has never been a better time for politicians to add their name to the Pro-Test Petition. If you do hold a particularly public post, or you a particularly eminent scientist (Nobel Prizes etc.) and you are willing to have your name highlighted in the petition – please contact us after signing.

I’ll finish with a quote from Obama:

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been. And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it’s today.

Never a truer word was spoken.


Tom Holder

Why are we marching?

At a banner making session today (Monday) I decided to ask a few people why they were planning on attending Wednesday’s rally. Here are a handful of responses I got:

My dad survived leukaemia, my mum survived ovarian cancer, all thanks to chemotherapy – which was developed in animals. Everyone knows at least one person who’s been affected by cancer, and novel treatments need to be developed and require animals for this process.
– Stephanie Groman

I’m going to the rally because I’m tired of no one standing up for us, and letting the animal rights activists walk all over us, when we’re actually benefiting society.
– Sarah Sterlace, MA, UCLA

Without the research we are turning our backs on the thousands of veterans returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder. We work on novel treatments for this disorder using rat models. We treat people who have already been through a serious trauma and it doesn’t seem right that their trauma continues because animal rights activists scare researchers off their work.
– Moriel Zelikowsky, UCLA

Because those who make scientific advances should not have to live in fear.
– Melissa Flesher

As a human researcher I recognize the importance of using animals in research and I’m here to support my colleagues against the deplorable acts of violence that have plagued scientists everywhere. My research directly benefits from the work done by my colleagues who research using animals.
– Fred Sabb, Assistant Professor Psychiatry, UCLA

It’s about time that scientists stand up and speak out in support of biomedical research. I hope students and scientists from all academic departments across UCLA and its neighbouring universities come to support us as we march for the future of medical progress.
– Andrew Poulos

These responses are boosted by scientists from all across the US who have signed their support for UCLA researchers (still time to sign it). So we expect to see you at the junction of Le Conte and Westwood, at the UCLA campus, at 11:30am Wednesday April 22nd 2009 – a day that may change the direction of the animal research debate in the US.

Check out the UCLA Pro-Test page to see the latest updates including speaker lists, directions and schedule.


Tom Holder

p.s. Check out the UCLA Pro-Test Facebook group (now well over 500 members) to show your support for medical research, and participate in some healthy debate from the occasional animal rights activist who took a wrong turn on the internet.