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?