This week, researchers and scientists at UCLA are doing something unusual: They are organizing a demonstration against the violent tactics of certain animal rights groups.
This week, people in labs across the country are saying: It's about time.
-- It's about time that people came out of their labs and off the bench and took a public stand, rather than relying upon trade groups and animal providers to make the case for them
-- It's about time that science generated its own leaders to pro-actively make the case for animal testing, rather than rely on the usual ( and rather suspect) cast of pharmaceutical companies and toxicology labs
-- It's about time that independent scientists put a human face on the very human targets of animal terrorism--terrorism that has in just the past year resulted in a number of fire bombings of university researchers.
-- And, it's about time to respond forthrightly--and with the best data they've got--to the legitimate concerns raised by more legitimate animal welfare organizations.
Bravo to UCLA for leading the way.
The question now: What's next?
One answer: Researchers and their test animals must get closer to one another. Since only one side of the party has a choice, that means that researchers must reconnect with the animal--both for the sake of better animal husbandry and better science.
Although the great emotional fuss at UCLA and elsewhere concerns primates, the bulk of biomedical work today uses mice and rats, with a growing number of amphibians and fish joining the ranks as well. Because these are small, relatively inexpensive and fairly well characterized, they are used and killed in great numbers. One consequence of that is that they occupy a fairly abstract realm, far from the empathogenic profile projected by primates.
It's a perfectly understandable human inclination, but it comes with a cost.
Ed Masoro, the retired University of Texas pioneer in mouse and rat metabolism, once explained the conundrum this way: "It used to be we had animals. Today we have models. and what's more we have transgenic models--models that are created solely for their mutant qualities -- for, say, testing a thesis about what causes inflammation. That's fine, but what I find you often up with are grad students and young post docs who perfectly understand how to propose an experiment using a transgenic mouse, say, an APOE knockout to test a heart drug, but who at the same time have almost no idea about the physiology of the underlying animal. They are playing with the transgenic novelty without enough consideration of the basic animal."
As Masoro explained, that can have an obvious downside when intepreting results. It may also at least partly explain why, to date, their have been no new breakthrough drugs created with transgenics. (Gleevac was discovered with ordinary black-6 mice.)
There is another reason for researchers get a little emotionally closer to their subjects: the growing body of literature showing that mice and rats possess a sense of empathy for one another, something long thought the exclusive domain of primates. Designers of animal tests must learn to calulate-in the added stress of confined housing on an animal that may be more sensative to neural tweaking than they thought. At a conference a the Jackson Laboratories last year, an NIH department head told a group of neurobiologists that " the average researcher today has no clue about how to adjust for these new insights." And so the science itself may someday be called into question.
None of this diminishes the importance and need for this week's demonstrations. Rather, it points to the next part of the march: Retaking the high ground when it comes to animal welfare. Here are a few suggestions:
-- Make the transcripts of the Institutional Animal Use and Care Commitee, or IACUC, available online. These documents, which show how the institution handles specific cases of animal misuse or abuse, are supposed to be public, but one usually has to go though a lengthy Freedom of Information Act request to get them. It is also complicated because PETA and the Animal Liberation Front have tried to use the access provision to gain physical entry to these important meetings; their ends are notoriously intimidating and nefarious. One way to get the information out without endangering anyone is to redact all names from the transcripts--something for which any sophomore in high school could write a program. Then post them for all to see. If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. Strike one from the animal rights arsenal of polemic.
-- Quit using words like "model" for animal and "sacrifice" for kill. Everyone knows what these words mean. Using them is dishonest and instills distrust. Instead follow the very explicit guidlines laid down by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, or other organizations. Get over it.
-- Make economic transparency your byword: There is nothing legally wrong with sponsored pharmaceutical research, provided it is done with approval by the right Institutional Review Board, or IRB. But try finding that out through normal channels and one finds oneself in a maze of institutional baloney-speak and buck-passing. On every animal experiment posted on the (above) IACUC transcripts, notate the name of the sponsor. Transparency eviscerates conspiracy--the first law of honest spin.
-- Take the high road on alternative testing. Everyone pays lip service to this NIH mission statement, but no one does it systematically. (At UCLA the effort seems limited to one internet site with tags to other internet sites.) Instead, large institutions should set up independent offices of alternative testing, and share that data with smaller institutions. The downside would be minimal, the upside could be huge savings in cage-cleaning fees and other expenses.
--Lastly, do some non-crisis outreach: Try something simple at first, say, taking a few animals to local high school biology classes and discussing the moral and ethical issues headfirst. More: leave a few mice behind, for observation and continued discussion.
Greg Critser is the author of "Fat Land," "Generation Rx," and the forthcoming "Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging."