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Animal Research's Changing Equation

Gavels and courtrooms are replacing placards and bullhorns, says the biomedical research community, as determined legal eagles work to increase animals’ rights and possibly even grant them "personhood."
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This is the first of several stories exploring the contentious relationship between the scientific community that insists animal research is essential to medical progress and the animal rights activists working to abolish animal experimentation. In part two, we examine the push to grant animals “personhood.”

One morning in late 2010, a few of the 32,000 registered attendees for the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting gathered in a room of the San Diego Convention Center for a panel whose name exemplified their fears: Conferring Legal Rights to Animals: Research in the Crosshairs.

Outside the building, a cluster of protesters, some wearing lab coats spattered with fake blood, stood alongside Lawrence Hansen, a University of California, San Diego, professor of neuroscience and pathology affiliated with the Experimental Neuropathology Laboratory. In his clean white coat, Hansen joined them in condemning the use of animals in medical research. Clutching a blown-up image of a monkey with a probe in its skull, he extolled the digital imaging techniques he believes soon will provide all the answers without drilling holes into animals’ heads.

“I’m willing to wait a few years until techniques are perfected,” he told

Inside the main hall, neurological researcher John Morrison of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine voiced the Society for Neuroscience’s dominant view that animals are still essential for much research, including that related to brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. “We still have a long way to go,” he said.

Once, unsuspecting human guinea pigs were used for medical experimentation, as in 1932’s notorious Tuskegee untreated syphilis study. Sometimes, new drugs — or new formulations of old ones — weren’t tested at all, as in 1937’s sulfanilamide drug disaster, which led to 100 deaths. Responses to such scandals include the 1938 U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and then 1974’s National Research Act and the 1979 Belmont report, which laid out the principles of ethical research on human beings making animal experimentation a research centerpiece.

With animal testing for toxicity a mandatory step preceding human clinical trials on any drug, it would take an update of federal rules to reflect advances in animal alternatives before animals — other than perhaps primates — have a real chance of exiting into a new era.

Thursday, the National Institutes of Health cited better alternatives as it drastically cut back future biomedical research using federally owned chimpanzees.

Teens Weigh Animal Research Dilemmas
Workshop gives students an understanding of how medical research works, which some say is critical to the pushback against animal rights activists. Click the image to read the story.


And while not all research chimps in the United States are federally owned, the government’s decision likely will cast a long shadow. Some 84 percent of scientists polled by Pew in 2009 listed a government entity as their most important funding source. The NIH provides 85 percent of federal funding, spending approximately $30.3 billion annually on medical research grants and supporting some 325,000 research personnel at more than 3,000 institutions here and overseas.

Johns Hopkins bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn, who headed a panel for the Institutes of Medicine report that examined the necessity of using chimps and which informed the NIH’s decision, said “the bar has been set very high” before future federal research would involve chimps. Other animals, however, were not mentioned.

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In the mid-2000s, an estimated 10 billion animals were fed, confined, and killed for food annually in the U.S. A tiny fraction of that number is caged in research laboratories. But, what happens to them — particularly primates — captures the imagination and produces niggling moral conflicts, even in researchers themselves.

More than 90 percent of the 980 biomedical scientist respondents in a February 2011 Nature magazine poll consider research on animals essential. Yet, according to Nature, nearly 16 percent of the animal researchers who responded had experienced “misgivings” about what they are doing, and 33 percent “ethical concerns” about animals’ role in the work.

Even small strides toward legal rights for animals could have significant ramifications for science’s use of animal models. So, researchers whose work depends on their availability are watching the animal rights movement’s increasing sophistication with concern.

Biomedical research is very big business. A January 2010 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that although growth had recently declined, total funding was $101.1 billion in 2007. President Obama’s stimulus package also provided a one-time increase of $10.4 billion.

“Although computer modeling and cell culture techniques are powerful tools, they are only useful as complements to the knowledge we gain from animal experiments,” says Dallas Hyde, director of the California National Primate Research Center at University of California, Davis’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “For some scientific questions, insects, fish, or birds form good animal models; for others we need animals whose physiology is comparable to ours, and therefore, in large part, respond to the same drugs and treatments as we do.”

The National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbies for the research community, warns its members that “personhood” for animals “means no captivity and no research.”

Will Potter, a journalist specializing in civil rights and domestic terrorism, believes the biomedical research community is concerned because “[t]hey know that a changed cultural landscape in that way affects their businesses, it affects the type of research they do, it affects everything about their professions, their industries, all of it.”

Meanwhile, he argues, “I don’t think anyone realized how much opposition to those practices has grown. It has really caught [the research community’s] attention. And now they’re fighting back quite hard.”

The research community’s response gathered steam after a 2009 Pew report found that 52 percent of Americans supported research using animals, down from 70 percent in 2000. Ominously, only 39 percent of the under-30 public group was in favor.

November 2009 saw industry billboards saying, “Ever had leprosy? Thanks to animal research, you won’t.” The campaign, which extended to social networking and cable TV, typifies the biomedical research world’s growing effort to convey its complex message in sound bites. Recently, the Foundation for Biomedical Research rolled out billboards asking: “Who would you rather see live, a child or a rat?”

Susan Adler, executive director of the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research calls the need to step up the fight against animal activists “an understatement.” Her organization focuses on winning over the next generation by taking the pro-animal research message directly to teachers and students.

In March, a New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research “strategy summit” analyzed trends “posing profound economic and scientific threats to the research enterprise” and asked: Where are the legal scholars “on our side”?

Jerrold Tannenbaum, a veterinary ethics and law professor at UC Davis, gave the keynote speech: "Is There Time to Save Biomedical Research? Understanding the Problem…Developing Effective Strategies." Nature magazine’s survey found that 55 percent of animal researchers are now encouraged by their institutions to communicate with the public about their work, up from 29 percent in 2006. Tannenbaum often speaks out about the need for scientists to better articulate the reasons for their work to keep public support.

“We are competing for a shrinking pot of funds,” says the New Jersey group’s president, Jayne Mackta, who concurs. She believes her community needs to realize “that the end game is playing out in the law courts and legislatures. Perhaps if we had a coordinated national plan to address legal and legislative threats to the use of animals in science, we could leverage our collective strength and focus efforts that might allow us to remain a player.”

That 2009 Pew report that found 52 percent of the public supported animal research also polled 2,533 scientists, and found. 93 percent of the scientists favored using animals in research.

Many impassioned activists consider halting animal research a matter of morality. In a 2010 Gallup poll of moral issues, of roughly 1,000 U.S. adults 59 percent said medical testing on animals is morally acceptable, 34 percent that it is morally wrong. Nine years earlier, 65 percent found it acceptable, 26 percent wrong. There’s a gender gap, too. Sixty-nine percent of men in Gallup’s 2010 gender issues poll said using animals was morally acceptable against 49 percent of women.

But, the marginal eventually became the mainstream in other civil rights movements, and activists are working to see the same for animals.

Humane USA, a political action committee headed by leaders of the Humane Society of the United States, wants to establish a Federal Animal Protection Committee akin to the U.S. Committee on Civil Rights created by Congress in 1957 and the basis for 1964’s Civil Rights Act. An agency with subpoena powers to investigate possible violations of animal protection laws and regulations could replace animal rights’ activists controversial — but to many, crucial — undercover investigations. (Such investigations of possible abuses in agriculture are currently facing new challenges. Legislation that would outlaw them is under consideration in Iowa, Minnesota, and Florida.)

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Many animal activist groups contest the biomedical research industry message that animal research has underpinned virtually every major medical advance of the last century.

“All forms of biomedical research have generated knowledge that has been helpful to medical practice,” says HSUS vice president of animal research issues, Martin Stephens. “But such claims about animal research are overblown and poorly substantiated. What does it mean to say that animal research was the ‘foundation’ of these advances? In each case, what was the role of other forms of biomedical research, including clinical, epidemiological, and postmortem studies on people, in vitro work using human or animal cells/tissues, computer modeling, etc.? We could just as easily say that these collectively were ‘the foundation.’ Historical case studies of these advances usually show a far more nuanced picture than what FBR and others portray.

“It is hardly surprising that animals were involved in these research advances at some level, given the heavy historical reliance on animal research and various FDA regulatory requirements. But where would we be if there [was] not such a heavy reliance on animal modeling? Perhaps in areas such as stroke, psychopathology, and others, we’d be farther along.”

The Research in the Crosshairs panel issued a rallying cry urging its community to step up efforts to take the case for animal research to law schools and to the public. It wants to counter messages advocating for the use of computer models, cell models and other animal alternatives from groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Americans for Medical Advancement.

What frustrates veterinarian Robert Dysko, a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School and president of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, is that announcements of research developments routinely omit to mention that animals were involved, “Because, at some level of announcing it, the institution decides they don’t want the fact that animals were used to be in there.”

Hiding that, he says, bolsters the misconception that “we can do everything with computer models and cell models and we don’t need whole animals anymore. Well, that’s not true.”

Celebrities who have lost loved ones to diseases like breast or lung cancer, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, openly support nonprofits that help fund research. But, Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, says emphatically, “You’re not going to get celebrities on our side, even if they believe in what we do, because they then become a focus of an animal rights campaign.”

And the nonprofits themselves, she says, “wouldn’t touch us with a 10-foot pole, because they’re afraid it will undermine their fundraising efforts if the animal rights people advertise them as supporting animal torture, you know. You’ll never get them to speak out for research that involves animal models. Well, all the research involves animal models.”

In 2007, the National Research Council published a new paradigm for toxicity testing. It calls for a concerted, well-funded effort to utilize disciplines like genomics, systems biology, and computational toxicology, and move away from live animal testing of the toxicity of the pesticides and industrial chemicals to which humans are exposed. It indicates that the alternatives like human cells grown in test tubes and computer-driven testing machines better predict adverse effects on humans, and are a faster and cheaper defense against toxic threats than existing models.

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the National Toxicology Program signed what the HSUS called a “milestone” agreement to implement it.

Joyce Tischler, founder and chief counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is greatly encouraged by this. ALDF has since teamed up with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Lewis and Clark Center for Animal Law Studies, and the Environmental Law Institute to hold symposiums focused on making the vision a reality. In June 2010, for example, lawyers, policymakers and scientists met at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss strategy.

“The key question on animal research,” says HSUS’s Stephens, “is where we go from here, with society’s concern for animals and the acknowledged limitations of animal research.” He sees the FDA’s Critical Path Initiative as confirmation that the current system is not working and points to “the appalling 92 percent failure rate of drug candidates in human trials following animal testing.” The AFMA also opposes using animals as predictive models for human drug and disease response, saying the method has repeatedly been proven scientifically invalid.

Anesthesiologist Ray Greek, president of AMFA, has complained of his inability to engage researchers in public debate. His appearance on a UCLA panel in February 2010 was the first time he could recall sitting together at the same forum with those who had opposing views. However, he was disappointed that attendance was limited to staff and students with security cited as the reason. No similar forums have followed, according to Greek. The two sides still aren’t talking enough for Tischler’s liking, either.

“I wish we could sit down and get past this wall,” she says. “If you look at what happens in England, in Europe, animal protectionists are invited onto these scientific committees and their voices are heard. Our voice is silenced in every possible way. We are not invited onto National Academies of Science committees.” She can’t learn the identities of, or talk to, the “public members” on facilities’ “watchdog” Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees either. And advocates like Tischler worry because they can’t go into laboratories to see for themselves how, for example, the rats and mice that constitute 95 percent of research animals — but are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act — are faring. “Access has been denied pretty much across the board,” she says.

“Many animal protectionists are reasonable people — some even have scientific backgrounds — and would be happy to work with the research community,” she says. “And we have been completely shut out. And that makes me very sad for both sides of the equation. I have no desire to demonize scientists, to make them look bad; I simply wish there were more openings to see where we could have a meeting of the minds.”

She is a realist: “Our society has said that it wants to use animals in research, I hear that. But our society has also said, ‘but we want them humanely used.’ And so why aren’t we talking about that? Why aren’t we working together toward that?”

While legal strides for animal rights inch forward, better communication and mutual understanding seem inarguably important goals. For the research community, the niggling concern is ensuring that discussion not devolve into argument or make someone a target for harassment.

Robert Dysko would be happy to talk to Joyce Tischler. “But, if I was asked to debate somebody in a public setting, I’d never do it,” he admits, “because they would stack the audience, and it would become a … it would be very hard, I think, for any moderator to be able to keep it under control.”