Tag Archives: Stephen Suomi

Announcement About NIH Monkey Research Leaves Unanswered Questions

Late Friday, Buzzfeed broke a story reporting on the planned phase-out of on-site housing of monkeys at one of the National Institutes of Health intramural laboratories, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Laboratory of Comparative Ethology in Poolesville, Maryland. As NICHD Director  Constantine Stratakis outlined in an interview with Science News, the phase-out has been in the planning stages for some time and reflects a combination of economic considerations, the age of the facility, and the eventual retirement of the lab’s 69-year old head, a scientist whose 30+ year career has– and continues– to produce a great many important discoveries. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with other recent announcements about primate research, the news left many with questions and impressions about broader impacts.

Monkeys involved in developmental and behavioral research at Stephen Suomi's lab in Poolesville

Monkeys involved in developmental and behavioral research at Stephen Suomi’s lab in Poolesville, Maryland.

What is clear is that the science is valuable and that the work is conducted with care for the animals (see previous NIH reports, here). Science is the essential foundation of medical progress and discovery that benefits society, humans, animals, and the environment. Dr. Stephen Suomi and his scientific collaborators – leading scientists around the world — have together made scientific discoveries that are reflected in over 500 published papers. (see list here).

The significance of those findings is reflected in the over 10,000 times Suomi’s papers have been cited in peer-reviewed publications. The citations are by a broad range of clinicians and by scientists studying humans and other animals in order to better understand genetics, immunology, neurobiology, pharmacology, behavior and other aspects of health. The esteem in which this work is held was clear in statements of support issued by both the  American Psychological Association and American Society of Primalogists (ASP) earlier this year,  as well as the NIH’s own response to PETA’s allegations last January.

Dr. Suomi’s collaborators include over 60 scientists – with PhDs and MDs – from five different institutes at NIH and 40 different institutions, universities and research centers, including those from 7 different countries outside of the US.

The US is a leader in funding medical and scientific research that benefits people around the globe. NIH’s own research centers – the intramural program – provides scientists and students from all over the world the opportunity to conduct research, make discoveries, and train the next generation of basic and clinical researchers.

The NIH has not ended primate research within the intramural program.  There are many scientists and laboratories whose work depends on humane, ethical studies of monkeys. Those studies continue.

It is work that has contributed to new understanding of a broad range of threats to human health and well-being —stroke, Parkinson’s disease, autism, depression, cancer, diabetes, addiction, and more. The list is long and includes diseases that touch nearly everyone, resulting in suffering and harm that scientists are obliged to address with expert knowledge and training, using the best approaches to discovery that they have available now.

The science is led by experts working for the public to make the world better for the public. The US has a strong system for direction, review, and oversight of animal research.  The public contributes to that via its elected representatives. Political campaigns by groups fundamentally opposed to all use of animals in research threaten the very fabric of science on which medical progress depends.  The public should be concerned about efforts to undermine science and medicine. The future depends on serious, fact-informed, and thoughtful dialogue.  Anything less is a serious harm to public interests in science and to future generations.

Speaking of Research

 

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.

PetaLetter_Collins

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

American Psychological Association supports NIH primate researcher Stephen J. Suomi

Research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural program has been the focus of a PETA campaign over the past several months. Elements of the campaign mirror tactics PETA has used elsewhere to generate media coverage, fundraising, and emails or phone calls to the NIH. The campaign recently reached beyond newspaper, bus, and metro advertisements to include a congressional request to NIH to provide a review of the research.

The American Psychological Association (APA) responded on January 22 with strong statement of support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.

APA 01.22.15

APA’s letter to the congress members, in its entirety, reads:

“In December 2014 you were one of four members of Congress who sent a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requesting that his office commission a bioethics review of a research program directed by the world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi. On behalf of the American Psychological Association and its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, I am writing to provide a broader scientific perspective on this research. As you are likely aware, the request you received was a part of a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr. Suomi’s laboratory by the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in support of its mission to put an end to research with nonhuman animals.

Your letter stated that prominent experts have raised concerns about the scientific and ethical justification for these experiments. 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.

Dr. Suomi and colleagues found that like humans, monkeys share similar variants of genes that make an individual more vulnerable to mood and personality disorders; however, genetics interact with experience in determining such disorders, and mother-infant dynamics in particular have a large influence on later development. Dr. Suomi has successfully produced monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption and his studies provide insight into modes of treatment. Through his work on neonatal imitation, Dr. Suomi discovered potential early signs of atypical social development in monkeys, which has informed the search for screening methods and treatments for autism in human children. Further, through his work on the development of attachment behavior to a caregiver, which is crucial for infant survival in both humans and other animals, Dr. Suomi’s research has had a tremendous impact on the standards for the welfare of nonhuman animals in captivity.

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2

The specific study targeted by PETA was designed to investigate the long-term effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) in children. Given that drugs are typically tested only on adults, the effects of this commonly prescribed anti-depressant on children were unknown. Thus, in response to overwhelming concern raised by parents, physicians, and others involved in child and adolescent health about the safety of this medication for children, Dr. Suomi and his colleagues began a study with baby monkeys to elucidate the effects of fluoxetine in children. Contrary to PETA’s repeated claims that animal research has not improved human health and that modern non-animal research methods are more effective, there are, in fact, no viable non-animal alternatives for identifying the causes of and treatments for disorders that affect the brain and behavior. Studies with a wide variety of nonhuman animal species have been and continue to be integral to basic and applied research on health.

Laboratory animal models generally provide the most scientifically rigorous means of studying normal and abnormal behaviors in order to better understand their underlying mechanisms and to remedy disorders. Monkeys are the ideal model for the work that Dr. Suomi does, because they share approximately 93% of human DNA, they live in social groups with similar mother-infant dynamics as humans, and they develop more quickly than humans. Moreover, the monkeys in Dr. Suomi’s studies are treated humanely, following strict guidelines set forth by the Animal Welfare Act and overseen by numerous entities including the NIH Office for Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC), and institutional animal care and use committees. And given that Dr. Suomi is an intramural researcher at NIH, you can be certain that his research animals receive premier quality of care.

I understand that it may sometimes be difficult to weigh the qualifications and varying conclusions of “dueling experts,” but let me assure you that Dr. Suomi is a highly regarded member of the APA and the psychological science community at large, as well as a highly sought-after expert in the field of pediatric medicine. In addition to providing information to the U.S. Congress, Dr. Suomi has testified at the World Health Organization and addressed the British House of Commons about the implications of his scientific findings.

Based on the conviction that research with nonhuman animals is a necessary component of basic and applied research on health, APA strongly supports humanely conducted, ethically sound, and scientifically valid research with nonhuman animals. For nearly 100 years, through its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, APA has promoted informed, serious, and civil dialogue about the role of nonhuman animal research in science. If you should be asked to take further action against Dr. Suomi, I hope you will make it a point to seek out additional information before making a decision. My staff stand ready to provide you with additional information, including assembling experts for a staff briefing or assisting you in any other way on this issue.”

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The complete statement can be found here:  APA Suomi-letter 01.22.15