Tag: animal research

Inflammation, Acupuncture, and HPA axis: Faulty Science Clouds Understanding

In the wake of my recent critique of acupuncture being touted as a remedy for allergic rhinitis, I was pointed (via a Twitter comment) towards a 2013 review in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which purported to propose a mechanism for the much-claimed anti-inflammatory effects of acupuncture. There are several putative mechanisms, discussing all of which will make this post gargantuan. Therefore, I shall focus on the explanation involving the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

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Lies, misrepresentation, cherry picking quotes: PeTA’s tactics to garner support against animal research

I work with immunology of infectious disease and study host-pathogen response. My work has naturally involved a good amount of animal experimentation, especially mouse models of various infections. These mouse models are incredibly useful, because they offer a valuable window into the process of infection, pathogenesis (‘disease production’), and the kind of immune response a vertebrate mammal generates to the infection. The same broad reasoning applies to rodent models of various metabolic and endocrine diseases, as well as cancer. These models are attractive because most often these research animals are genetically homogeneous, and therefore, provide a less complex (and more manageable) environment to study the genesis, as well as treatments, of a disease – while mimicking much of the same physiological responses seen in larger and more complex animals.

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Urgent Help Requested By Belgian Scientists

My readers may remember a previous post detailing a crisis in animal-based research in Italy. Early this morning I received a note from the Basel Declaration Society alerting me to an urgent situation developing in Belgium. Scientific research with non-human primates appears to be in serious jeopardy in that nation, but it is hardly likely that the fallout from any anti-science policy prohibiting research will remain restricted to Belgium alone. Bioscientists from Belgium are asking for immediate help and support from the world science community; Prof Rufin Vogels, current President of the Belgian Society for Neuroscience, and his colleagues have formulated a petition to the Ministers of the EU and the members of the Belgian parliament. The Basel Declaration Society (to which I am a signatory) is supporting this petition; I am including the text of the petition. Please read it and consider signing.

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Italian Biomedical Scientists Petition EC Officials and Italian Politicians Protesting Extreme Restrictions on Animal Research

I have written earlier about the peril that Italian Biomedical research finds itself in, due to extreme, immoderate and unreasonable restrictions on animal experimentation that the Italian Parliament approved recently. Via a missive from the Basel Declaration society (Disclaimer: I am an individual signatory to and supporter of the Basel Declaration), I learnt this morning about a PETITION (in Italian, and in English) that several prominent Italian Biomedical Scientists have launched, directed at European Commission officials and copied to several relevant ministers in Italy.

I am including here the text of the English version of the petition. Please read, support and share it. The place to put your name, email, and optionally, location and degree, is to the right side of the petition text (see the petition page link above). The field-names are unfortunately written in Italian even in the English page, but they are not difficult to understand. Upon signing the petition, you’d receive an email with a validation link which you must remember to click in order for your signature to be registered.

Please stand with these scientists for the sake of not only saving Italian scientific research, but also maintaining the integrity and continuity of biological research as a whole throughout the world.

Dr. Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for the Environment
Directorate General for the Environment
European Commission
B-1049 Bruxelles


Dr. Susanna Louhimies
Policy Officer- Use of animals for scientific purposes
Directorate General for the Environment
Unit 3
European Commission
B- 1049 Bruxelles


Minister of Health of Italy
On. Beatrice Lorenzini

Minister of EU Affairs of Italy
On. Enzo Moavero Milanesi

Minister of the University and Scientific Research of Italy
On. Maria Chiara Carrozza

Subject: Implementation in Italy of EU Directive 63-2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific research in Italy. Art. 13, Law n. 96/2013.

Dear Dr. Potočnik:

We are writing to share our concerns on the criteria approved by the Italian Parliament concerning the implementation of the European Directive 2010/63 on the protection of laboratory animals in Italy.

As a scientific community we have approved and supported the decision to generate an harmonized approach shared by the whole Community.  The European discussion has lasted almost a decade and has led to a well-balanced compromise between the demands of animal welfare and the interests of research.

This well balanced compromise has been challenged by the Italian Parliament with
severe risks for the future of biomedical research in the country.

We ask you to help re-balance the discussion by warning the Italian Government that the Parliament has approved decisions is in violation of art. 2 of Directive EU 63-2010. If transformed into a legislative decree by the Government,  those decisions  will make the Italian law much more severe and restrictive than the EU Directive.

Specifically we ask you to convince the Italian Government to implement in Italy the EU Directive 63-2010 as the UE Parliament and Commission have licensed it. This will require the rejection of the Art. 13 of the national law of implementation of the EU Directives for 2013 (Legge di delegazione europea 2013, n. 96, published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale, Serie generale n. 194, 20/08/2013, into force since 04/09/2013).

The different paragraphs of art. 13 of the above mentioned law contains a severe limitation to the use of cats, dogs and non-human primates for basic research, limitations in the re-use of animals of any nature previously employed in procedures classified as of “moderate” severity, prohibition of research on non-anaesthetized animals, limitation in the use of genetically modified animals, a ban of animal experiments on xenotransplantation and drug addiction, a ban of animal breeding centers in the national territory.

We trust that the strict control and ethical review mechanisms proposed by the EU Directive are the most effective mechanisms to prevent unnecessary and unjustified pain and suffering for animals. The Italian scientific community is very supportive of this strict review process but opposes any total bans, as fully inappropriate to regulate the complexity of biomedical research, and liable to damage it severely without adding significant benefits to animal welfare.

In the interest of biomedical research in Italy, we ask you to follow our recommendations and help us obtain a new and well balanced Italian animal welfare legislation, in line with the European directive.

Yours sincerely,

Fabio BenfenatiProfessor of Physiology, University of Genova

Giovanni BerlucchiProfessor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Verona 

Roberto CaminitiProfessor of Physiology, University of Rome SAPIENZA, Chair, Committee of Animals in Research (CARE), Federation of the European Neuroscience Societies (FENS)

Enrico CherubiniProfessor of Physiology, SISSA, Trieste, President of the Italian Society of Neuroscience (SINS)

Francesco ClementiProfessor Emeritus of Pharmacology, University of Milan, and National Council of Research, Milan

Gaetano Di ChiaraProfessor of Pharmacology, University of Cagliari

Silvio GarattiniDirector, Institute for Pharmacological Research Mario Negri, Milan

Jacopo MeldolesiProfessor Emeritus of Pharmacology, University Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milan, past President of the Italian Federation of Life Sciences

Giacomo RizzolattiProfessor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Parma

Carlo ReggianiProfessor of Physiology, University of Padua, President of the Italian Physiological Society

Piergiorgio StrataProfessor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Turin

Italian Biomedical Research in Peril

Those of you who are familiar with my views on animal experimentation (e.g. see here and here) probably know and understand that in order for biomedical science to progress for the benefit of humans and animals, it is important to engage in reasonable animal experimentation. I emphasize the word ‘reasonable’, because the welfare and humane treatment of research animals remains one amongst the most important tenets guiding animal experimentation. These tenets also behoove us biomedical researchers to actively seek non-animal, alternative study methods wherever possible, and employ rigorous analytical tools to minimize the number of animals to be used.

At the same time, however, I also emphasize that animal experimentation remains a very important and crucial experimental tool. Let’s take an example that I came across in today’s Nature Medicine alert. SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome), a form of viral pneumonia, affects a variety of small mammals, a fortuitous fact which the scientists have utilized for over a decade to study the ways and means to stop this deadly coronavirus pathogen. However, the etiological agent of the so-called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), another coronavirus (CoV) that is wreaking havoc in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t seem to be able to infect the usual subjects, small lab animals (such as rodents) – reports Elizabeth Devitt (DOI: 10.1038/nm0813-952) in Nature Medicine News. This has seriously hampered the search for a treatment or preventive vaccine. Teams of scientists have, of necessity, moved to a non-human primate model, Rhesus Macaques, in which the MERS-CoV does cause a form of disease that is less severe than one seen in humans. In this model, possible vaccine candidates, as well as two antiviral drugs, are to be tested.

All this is why I found a piece of news in a recent Nature News Blog highly alarming and disappointing. Reported Alison Abbott, Italian parliament approves sweeping restrictions to use of research animals.

As Allison explained, Italy, as a member of the European Union, was required to legislate the protection of animals used in scientific research, following a 2010 EU directive that was seen as striking “a delicate balance between animal welfare and the needs of biomedical research” but was also amongst the strictest of such regulations around the world. However, the Italian Senate introduced last month a series of amendments in favour of placing extreme restrictions on animal research:

  • Forbidding the use of non-human primates, dogs and cats – except to test drugs or perform translational research,
  • Mandating anesthesia use even in mildly and transiently painful procedures, such as injections, and
  • Prohibiting animal use in some specific research areas, such as xenotransplantation (transplantation of cells and tissues between species, an important research area associated with transplant medicine), and addiction.

Not surprisingly, the scientific establishment of Italy is crying foul, voicing the concern that these measures would seriously hinder important biomedical research in Italy. It is not difficult at all to see why they should feel this way. Allison’s blog post is followed (at the last reading) by an illuminating discussion by five illustrious commenters, some noted biomedical researchers amongst them: neuroscientist Prof. Stefan Treue (Director of the German Primate Center, and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Psychology, University of Göttingen), Constitutional scholar Prof. Francesco Clementi (Professor of Political Science, University of Perugia), neuroscientist Prof. Nikos Logothetis (Director, “Physiology of Cognitive Processes” Department, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen), neuroscientist Prof. François Lachapelle (Research director, National Animal Welfare Office, INSERM) and Science blogger Dr. Paul Browne of the Speaking of Research blog. I encourage everyone to head over to Allison’s blog and read these comments.

Paul Browne’s comment brought back to my mind an excellent 2010 post he wrote along with Dr. Allyson Bennett on the Basel Declaration, “a declaration that affirms commitment to responsible research and animal welfare and calls for increased effort to facilitate public understanding of the essential role that animal studies play in contributing to scientific and medical progress” (Full Disclosure: I am an individual signatory to the Basel Declaration).

Particularly in relation to the Italian legislation’s intent to allow animal research for some, but not all, biomedical research, this line from the Declaration is especially important:

“…Biomedical research in particular cannot be separated into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research; it is a continuum stretching from studies of fundamental physiological processes to an understanding of the principles of disease and the development of therapies.”

Paul’s comment after Allison’s post includes a note of hope. He wrote, “… it has become apparent that the voices of science are beginning to be heard by Italian politicians.” I hope that is true – not only for Italy, but across the world, especially in the US, as well.

Opposition to Animal Research: Who Benefits, Really?

A recent edition of Nature News brought some terribly worrisome news: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-animal experimentation pressure campaign group based in Norfolk, Virginia, has apparently secured –

… written assurances from the world’s two largest air-cargo carriers, FedEx and UPS, that they will not transport mammals for laboratory use. UPS says that it is also planning to further “restrict” an exemption that allows the transport of amphibians, fish, insects and other non-mammals (Nature, 489: 344–5, 20 September 2012).

As this Nature News report, as well as the Editorial highlighting this issue (Nature, 489: 336, 20 September 2012), indicates, this particular move is not likely to have too serious an impact on the availability of animals for laboratory research, because FedEx and UPS are ordinarily not involved in the movement of too many animals in any case. However, the significance of this incident is in that it portends a rather disturbing trend.

A Nature News report from March this year (Nature, 483: 381–2, 22 March 2012) indicated how various major airlines across North America and Europe have been succumbing to the pressure tactics from PETA and refusing to transport non-human primates; how transportation of research animals — including sophisticated mouse models of various diseases — into the UK has been discontinued by ferry companies who capitulated to campaigns orchestrated by PETA. And this trend, which shows no evidence of bucking, has biomedical researchers deeply worried all over the world. As the Nature Editorial cautions, “the bid to halt air transport of lab animals poses an imminent threat to biomedical research.

It’s not just the mammalian models of biological systems that are at risk. If UPS does indeed restrict the transport of non-mammals and lower species (including amphibians, insects, crustaceans, molluscs and fish), pressure from groups like PETA may well wean FedEx and other carriers off this particular business segment. And the devastating impact would be keenly felt by the researchers who study these organisms. The Nature News report quotes neurobiologist and behavioral researcher Darcy Kelley, who expressed her grave concern that a restriction on the shipping of the frog, Xenopus, would be a tremendous setback for her research work – particularly since “… It takes Xenopus females two years to get to sexual maturity…”, making it challenging for a research laboratory to initiate a colony and maintain a study supply of the amphibians for research use. Kelly further states, “… maintaining an animal colony is a very expensive proposition” – something that most animal researchers know first-hand – not to mention, a proposition that is not entirely free of PETA’s ire and interference, as history has shown.)

Kelly examines sensory, neural and muscular systems involved in vocal communication in Xenopus to understand how one brain communicates with another; for her work, she utilizes three supply companies in three states, all of whom send the amphibians via UPS by Air for next-day delivery.

And not just Xenopus research. A significant part of Drosophila (fruitfly) research in the United States depends on FedEx which currently ships the fruitflies from suppliers such as the Drosophila Species Stock Center at the University of California, San Diego, and the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center at Indiana University; Carolina Biological Supply in Burlington, North Carolina, ships via FedEx Drosophila, crayfish, mussels, and many other non-mammals, to science teachers.

What is the most troublesome aspect of this? It’s not PETA’s mindless, ignorant, unthinking, extreme activism. Rather, these events are a testament to the fact that advocates of animal research – including scientists, researchers, administrators, communicators, a wide community that includes me – are failing miserably to make the case to the general public for the legitimate and compassionate use of lab animals in scientific research, leaving the public vulnerable to the lies, misinformations and misrepresentations that groups like PETA use to further their agenda. It means we, as a community, are failing to educate our fellow members of the society about what we do and why. This bothers me a lot.

As a conscientious researcher who works with rodent models, I am aware of my responsibilities as a scientist. When devising my experiments, I firmly adhere to the principle of 3Rs – Replacement, Refinement and Reduction wherever possible – a widely accepted ethical and rational framework for humanely conducting scientific experiments using laboratory animals (See a nice essay expanding on this at the “Speaking Of Research” blog). All research involving animals are regulated strictly via federal mandates and guidelines (in the United States, as well as in most industrialized nations) to which my institution and I adhere inflexibly. But I am by no means unique in this respect. All scientists/researchers at reputable institutions, who work with animals on biomedical projects, subscribe conscientiously to the same framework, not only because of ethical considerations, but because of scientific imperatives as well. But while we, as researchers, understand this, it patently appears that we are doing a shoddy job of impressing this upon the general public.

Let me elaborate on the concept of Replacement, because it is central to the understanding of the objections against animal experimentation. Wherever possible, animal models must be replaced either absolutely (i.e. by using techniques which do not involve animals, such as computer modelling, in vitro techniques such as biomodeling and tissue engineering, or even human volunteers), or relatively (i.e by using in vitro or ex vivo technologies, such as animal cell lines (usually derived from cancers), organs and tissues harvested from relatively few animals, and so forth). For example, technology now exists to allow a few cells of the trachea (‘windpipe’) from one or two mice to grow onto an artificial support at the interface of air and liquid medium; in this way, these cells are able to mimic somewhat what happens in the trachea when airborne pathogens, bacteria, fungi or viruses, come in – allowing the researchers to study them in real time. Studying the same events earlier would require many mice. However, it is important to emphasize that not everything in the body, in health and in disease, can be studied in this piecemeal fashion.

Two significant examples jump to the mind straight away: infectious disease/immunology research, and research in metabolic diseases. It is not possible to study these two in an isolated manner without the use of a host. Both these phenomena involve cells that run inside the whole body, and chemical messages that carry internal signals from one part to the other and may act differently depending upon the situation or destination; both these involve responses that occur throughout the whole body of the host. Not all the intermediate components of these processes are even known (which is why ex vivo work or in silico modeling doesn’t provide the complete picture).

Last month, PETA had announced with great fanfare how a grant from the group helped Egypt ‘completely end’ the use of animals in its leading trauma training program, and use instead a state-of-the-art human-patient simulator. This is GREAT news, a great example of replacement and refinement. Use of a human patient simulator is a great training tool, already in use in many teaching hospitals in the US, such University of Texas and the Virginia Commonwealth University, but it cannot provide any information about the actual pathogenesis or dissemination of the disease, nor the intricate details of the body’s response to the disease conditions.

Another area where animal experimentation is absolutely necessary is basic biological sciences. Nature’s infinite beauty is manifest – to those that can see it – in the intricacies of the body’s biological processes. Why is it important to study them? The same processes are active in both health and disease, and without knowing more about them in health, it is impossible to decide what to do in disease. Any knowledge that is gained helps, as a matter of course, both humans and animals. Imagine Professor Kelly’s work on Xenopus that can yield important clues about the neurology of social communications; or, Drosophila work that identified the Toll Receptors, pattern recognition receptors that help fight pathogens, in a manner remarkably similar to the action of the Toll-like receptors in mammals; or, the animal experimentations that have given rise to vaccines, or medicines for bacterial infections, or furthered the understanding of what happens in Alzheimers or Parkinson’s. Knowledge derived out of animal experimentation progresses our understanding of the interaction of biological beings – humans and animals – with the environment, and saves lives, both human and animal.

Credit: University of Toledo, Department of Lab Animal Resources

PETA folks, whose objections to animal experimentations are absolute (and rather simplistic), are nothing more than right wing evangelicals who channel their energy into what they perceive as ‘animal rights’. Despite their general odiousness and intellectual myopia, I have always believed that they, too, serve a useful role – well, mostly – as an equivalent of the ‘checks-and-balances’ model; they remind us of our obligations as scientists towards conduct of responsible research. But, as these recent events indicate to me, PETA is gaining valuable ground, aided by their relentless campaigns, however lacking in truth and substance. For example, a concerted thrust undertaken by PETA-India recently got the Indian national airline, Air India, to agree to cease transporting research animals within the country from government suppliers such as the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, to the detriment of research efforts. Such success of their campaigns can only embolden PETA and their ilk; to my mind, this should galvanize the scientists into becoming better educators, as well as vocal and passionate commentators, on the issue of animal research. Otherwise, the danger to biomedical research is imminent. The Nature Editorial agrees with me. I quote:

“If this is not enough to make scientists sit up and take notice, they might consider the use of lab rodents, now under threat in India from a PETA campaign… As PETA undertakes a systematic push to target all major cargo carriers, scientists in any country who rely on air freight to deliver rodents should be on notice that their turn may be next. Of course, in the increasingly global world of science it is already, in many senses, everyone’s turn…

… Biomedical researchers in many different countries, through reticence and passivity, are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public when it comes to the need for, and legitimacy of, animal research. Why else would high-profile companies be willing to indicate, however implicitly, that they want no part in a transportation infrastructure that is crucial to global biomedical science?

… If individual scientists wait until they are personally affected… it will be long past too late to mount the vigorous, public campaign in defence of animal research that is so sorely called for at this moment…

… As researchers join this battle — and join it, they must — they should, as a first step, work through their institutions, academic societies and umbrella groups to make an urgent, articulate, unified case to UPS and FedEx that the shipping of animals, mammalian and other­wise, is essential for both biomedical research and scientific education.”

Truer words have never been said. It is high time scientists and science communicators asked loudly and in unison, all this opposition to animal research, who benefits, really?

Going bananas over RotPotA…

Caveat Lector: This post may contain what one might consider spoilers. Therefore, if you haven’t already watched the 2011 movie “”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1318514/" style=“text-decoration:none;”>Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and are planning to do so, please cease and desist from reading any further. This post contains some of my thoughts and impressions on the said movie.

In no uncertain terms, I quite liked this movie, which has been imagined as a ‘prequel’ to the long running “Planet of the Apes” franchise (originally made in 1968 by Franklin Schaffner, featuring Charlton Heston; reimagined by Tim Burton in his 2001 multi-award-nominated feature). The 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, under Rupert Wyatt’s competent direction, featured some spectacular CGI special effects, and a fabulous performance by Andy Serkis (of the LOTR Gollum fame) as Caesar, the chimp with genetically enhanced intelligence; I don’t know how Andy did it, but he has copied the simian movements almost in toto, making for a highly believable Caesar through a performance capture CGI technique (where the motion capture session includes face and fingers in order to capture and reproduce subtle expressions). The storyline was taut and exciting, without a dull moment, and contained some emotionally-charged sequences which were brilliantly executed. James Franco did a decent enough job as the geneticist Will Rodman, and the mandatory feel-good factor (of course!) was provided by India’s own Freida Pinto as the San Francisco primatologist, Caroline Alanha. All in all, an eminently watchable movie.

The Primates Meet
Image Credit: Weta Digital/20th Century Fox, via NY Times Movie Review Slide show

So what’s my beef with it?

Same as what gets my goat everytime, the piss-poor portrayal of scientific research in Hollywood movies. A part of me says, it’s all right, it’s fiction. But it’s also true that there’s no dearth of gullible people around who consider such portrayals the Gospel truth, and form a negative opinion of the work that scientists are engaged in, as well as of research ethics which is the cornerstone of good science. So, having enjoyed the Rise of the Apes, the average viewer possibly leaves with an egregious impression of science and scientific research – that scientists, in (the much-maligned) white coats/scrubs, are really a bunch of heartless brutes who go about mistreating the non-human animal test subjects for their fun studies, not the least of all when they involve primates.

Nothing could be farthest from the truth. First off, for anyone wishing to engage in research involving primates, there are definite and quite strict guidelines to adhere to and laws to abide by. In the US, the Animal Welfare Act, signed into law in 1966 and strengthened thereafter through several amendments, assures humane care and treatment of certain research animals; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with the responsibility of administering the minimum care and treatment requirements under this law, including those for primates for research, testing, or experimentation. The Animal Welfare Information Center of the USDA has – on its webpage for Primate Research Animals – a wealth of information with links to documents that provide guidance on the husbandry, care and health of non-human primates used in research, in both US and the Europian Union. In the European Union, the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection (DG-HCP) has extensive information on the care and use of non-human primates in research and safety testing, including guidelines on the welfare of primate subjects and recommendations for the replacement of this model in future. Exhaustive information, guidelines and legal policies are also available from the Primate Info Net, an information service of the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All of these international bodies subscribe to the mandate of painstakingly avoiding any unnecessary and duplicated and/or redundant research using non-human primates, which, of course, hearkens to the rational principle of Three Rs of animal-based research – reduction, refinement and replacement, wherever possible.

Secondly, the primates to be used are not picked up randomly. Different types of primates are used in scientific experimentation, including prosimians, New World monkeys, Old World monkeys and Apes (tailless primates, such as Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Bonobo and Orang-utans), and it is very important to pay careful attention to their different original habitats in the wild, different physical and behavioural characteristics, patterns of social organization, as well as temperament styles – all factors that may affect their physiological responses. Therefore, experimental designs are created keeping all these considerations in mind, so as to maximize the information outcome with minimum use. According to the 2002 Report of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare to the EU DG-HCP, the maximum number of primates used in research in Europe belong to Old World and New World Monkeys, followed by prosimians, mainly in fundamental biological and toxicological studies. The use of apes is restricted to studies on human and veterinary medicine and dentistry, and accounts for <0.1% of all experiments.

In less enlightened times, primates were captured from the wild and sent up to be used in research – as shown at the beginning of the movie. This is largely no longer practised because of various concerns including physiological responses, adaption to laboratory environment, chances of introduction of unknown pathogens, as well as ethical issues. Currently, most non-human primates used in research are obtained from breeding colonies located in a diverse range of countries such as China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Mauritius, Israel and the US. Primates used within Europe are often sourced from either self-sustaining in-house colonies, other Europe-based breeding colonies or breeding and holding establishments outside Europe, according to the above-mentioned 2002 Scientific Committee Report to the EU DG-HCP.

This document also records specific guidelines for the reuse of the primate subject for multiple experiments, but never indiscriminately – certainly not in the manner shown in the movie. The goal of re-using a primate subject is to maximize the amount of informaiton obtained from one animal by engaging it in more than one experiment simultaneously, but only when this practise does not detract from the scientific objective or result in poor animal welfare. Maximization achieved thus would reduce the overall total number of animals required to be used; however, this objective is always judged against minimising any adverse affects on their welfare.

Unlike in the movie, one failed experiment usually doesn’t lead to en masse euthanasia of all primate subjects. Unless it is contra-indicated because of the procedures performed on them, or there is risk of harm, many laboratory primates are rehomed. Rehoming has been also found to benefit the morale of staff members involved with caring for the animals and can help further develop a culture of care. There are several reputable sanctuaries in Europe and the US where retired laboratory primates, including a number of New World and Old World monkey and ape species, have been successfully rehomed; this allows the animals to live out the remainder of their natural lives relatively free of human disturbance (Prescott, 2006; JWG Report, 2009). However, when it becomes necessary, non-human primates are humanely euthanized by trained personnel following guidelines, and tissue samples for in vitro studies are obtained and banked. Co-ordination, optimization and refinement of primate usage can be achieved by establishing tissue banks and data exchange networks. Such a system is already in place in the US – the Primate Info Net. The EU currently lacks a comprehensive pan-European databanks on the use of non-human primates and non-human primate derived tissues and cells.

None of this available information, of course, ever finds its way into any Hollywood production. I may be expecting too much, but… Honestly, would it kill Hollywood to maintain some semblence of truth in its portrayals of the work of scientists?

(N.B. This is why I was so surprised – pleasantly – to learn that the makers of the movie Contagion had a real-life virologist as a consultant, a welcome move.)

The controversy over using primates in research is far from over, with both sides providing heapin’ helpin’ of arguments. Meredith Wadman has written a nice summary with analysis of the current debates on Chimpanzee experimentation for a Nature News item; it’s well worth a read. Proponents of continued experimentation present some powerful arguments that resonate with me as an Infectious Disease researcher. Like others engaged in rational animal experimentation, I, too, advocate the considerations of the Three Rs of animal-based experiments. However, there are some areas where primate-based fundamental research is essential. For instance, as mentioned in Meredith’s report,

“… the research is necessary for continued progress towards a hepatitis-C vaccine; for developing more effective drugs against hepatitis B and C; for testing monoclonal antibody treatments for a variety of conditions; and for research to develop a vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, a seasonal virus that kills more than more than 66,000 children under the age of 5 each year across the globe2. For many of these conditions, backers argue, the chimpanzee is either the only available model, or by far the best one.

As I mention above, the activities of all nonhuman primate research facilities – public or private – are affected directly by a plethora of international, federal, and state laws, regulations, rules, guidelines, and standards. All facilities where primates are procured, housed, maintained, bred and/or used in research are subject to Federal regulations, which encompass even the design, construction, maintenance, and operation of the said facilities, as well as the occupational and environmental protections afforded to not only the facility personnel, but also the general public.

Postscript:The opponents of animal experimentation, as a matter of course, endeavor to portray that this is not so. And I haven’t yet found their arguments to be convincing. Many of the reports authored by prominent opponents often provide unilateral screeds or opinions with misinformation or data cherry-picked from studies that appear to support their positions, not to mention the obvious conflicts of interest – since many of them are associated with organizations or institutions that promote a blanket abolition of animal experimentations. A lot of controversy also exists as to what construes ‘experimentation’ and what is ‘justifiable’ or not, and these issues often fracture the opponent community. This I hope to discuss in my next post. Stay tuned!


Further Reading

Joint Working Group on Refinement. Refinements in husbandry, care and common procedures for non-human primates: Ninth report of the BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Joint Working Group on Refinement (M Jennings and MJ Prescott, eds). Lab Anim 2009; 43(Suppl 1): S1:1-S1:47 (PDF)

Prescott, MJ. Finding New Homes for Ex-Laboratory and Surplus Zoo Primates. In: Schrier, JE (Ed) LABORATORY PRIMATE NEWSLETTER, Vol. 45, No. 3, July 2006, pp.5-8 (PDF).

Wadman, M. (2011). Animal rights: Chimpanzee research on trial Nature, 474 (7351), 268-271 DOI: 10.1038/474268a

homeopathy replacing antibiotic? Oy vey!

Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli is a common etiological agent of enteric diseases of young piglets. E. coli attaches to intestinal villi using surface protein adhesins, and subsequently colonizes, and proliferates in, the anterior small intestine; the production of enterotoxins results in clinical disease. The diseases manifest in two ways:

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