Painting mice

Why are we recording a video of my colleague Rita Santos painting the back of a white IKEA mouse with a black marker pen?

The background story is that nearly 50 years ago, in 1974, a US researcher painted real laboratory mice as part of what has become a well known story of scientific misconduct in biomedical research. The story isn’t as well-known among biologists and animal scientists as it is among immunologists (or at least so I assume, based on anecdotal evidence = whom among my contacts and colleagues who were or were not aware of it when I asked), despite being both striking and somewhat sad.

Striking, because once you’ve heard the story, you are likely to remember it. Dr William T Summerlin was doing research into transplantation immunology. He believed that by keeping the tissue in laboratory culture for some time before transplanting it into the recipient animal, it could be transplanted without rejection. His proof-of-concept experiment was to graft skin from black mice to (genetically unrelated) white mice. Did he actually ever transplant skin? I don’t know – this amount of detail is not given in the easily accessible internet sources. But what is very clear is that his demonstration of success was a fraud. An attentive technician discovered that the black patch on the back of the white mouse could be rubbed off with ethanol. As reported in this NY Times account of the case, published only a month later, Summerlin admitted to having painted the mice.

Sad, for a number of reasons, going beyond the actual misconduct itself, which is of course in itself highly lamentable. The painted mice seems not to be a one-off event – when Summerlin was investigated the committee also discovered a seemingly very dubious case of cornea transplant experiments in rabbits. Whereas having their backs painted would hardly have harmed the mice, the failed cornea transplants must have caused the rabbits pain. And none of this was justified. Scientific experimentation is not about simply trying something to see if it works: there has to be a reasonably developed idea of what mechanisms are involved. I don’t find any reference to a theory about mechanisms involved in the purported transformation of a xenograft (from a genetically different individual) into tissue that is not recognised as foreign when transplanted into a recipient. All that is to be found is that Summerlin had claimed for some years that he had a method for laboratory culture of tissues that removed the problem with transplant rejection, and that other researchers were unable to make the procedure work when they tried to repeat it in their own labs (a classic way through which fraudulent or poorly conducted research is discovered). The requirement that an experiment is based on a reasonably developed theoretical framework and previous, related studies is even stronger when the health and well-being of living beings are involved.

Why, then, are we painting mice? As part of the INTEGRITY project, we are developing teaching material into ethics and research integrity issues in animal experimentation, for high school students, ready for road testing in about a month. And please note, we’re not painting mice, we’re painting toy mice. The first R, Replacement, of the 3Rs principle of course. Knowing what mice are like, I actually believe that using real mice for this purpose would not only have been stressful for them but a pain for us!

Reading to update my teaching

Opening a Twitter account has consequences. I’m carefully keeping to scholarly activities, and so the main side effect for me has been an ever expanding list of interesting papers I really need to read. This is mainly a good thing: as a senior researcher and group leader I certainly don’t read enough new papers simply because they are interesting and relevant (as opposed to: because I need to do something with them as I’m either a co-author of, editor for or reviewer of them).

It’s nearly August and I teach in September. My reading list for now is about what I would like to read and think about to update my teaching:

The challenge for me is to find the right balance in helping students to do what they can where they are as researchers using animals, and challenging them to find ways of doing better. Unless I challenge myself, I easily settle too much on the status-quo side!

There’s also Heather Browning’s very recent PhD thesis If I could talk to animals: Measuring subjective welfare, of which I’m very interested in the second part which addresses measuring welfare from a philosophy-of-science perspective. And I want to take Daniel Lakens’ Coursera courses Improving your statistical questions / Improving your statistical interferences.

And then there are a couple of books on my desk…

 

Human-Animal Studies in Portugal: Interview with Verónica Policarpo

Verónica Policarpo, you are coordinating a new postgraduate course at the University of Lisbon, Animais e Sociedade (Animals and Society). Tell us more about this course!

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The course Animais e Sociedade is part of the activities in the context of the Human-Animal Studies Hub. In late 2018, my research institution ICS-ULisboa submitted an application to the US-based International Development Fund do Animals and Society Institute, to bring Human-Animal Studies to Portugal. In this application, we proposed a number of initiatives to launch the basis for this discipline in Portugal, in order to ensure a stepwise and sustainable development of the field. This postgraduate study program is one such initiative. In fact, this type of initiative is what the development fund is for: to promote the implementation of courses in countries where there is little or no activity in the field of human-animal studies. In February 2019, our proposal was awarded funding, which allowed us to continue existing activities as well as launch new ones, such as this course.

What is the unique objective of this course? To provide a scientific, pluralistic and interdisciplinary perspective on the relationship between human and non-human animals, from the viewpoint of the Human-Animal Studies field, and in Portuguese. The course brings together a broad and diverse set of themes, to suit the training needs of students from different professional and disciplinary backgrounds. The program includes themes as diverse as companion animals and multi-species families, the relation between children and animals, the situation of animals in disasters, questions related to wildlife conservation, animals for food production, the welfare of animals used for entertainment and kept in captivity, animal rights and animal politics, media representation of animals as well as the questions of animal law under discussion in Portugal right now. Teachers and specialists from different disciplinary fields will contribute: sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, biology, veterinary medicine and law. The aim is to stimulate critical thinking about human animal relations, based on state-of-the-art scientific information from a variety of fields of knowledge.

The course is part of the initiative you coordinate in establishing this new field of study in Portugal. Tell us more about the field internationally!

Human-Animal Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study. It started to develop in the 1980s, in the USA, in parallel with the modern animal rights movement, following the publication in 1975 of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and in 1983 of Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. This first phase is characterized by philosophy coming back to the question of the value of animals, a question raised by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century – changing the focus from the capacity of animals to think to their capacity to suffer. At the same time, the social sciences were producing emprical evidence of the extraordinarily diverse and complex relations that develop between humans and animals, with focus on the human benefits. Focus was on companion animals and primarily using quantitative methods. In response to this movement, the more interpretative social sciences and the humanities (fields such as history, literary studies and cultural studies) explored the cultural aspects of the framework in which these relations develop. This includes studies of how animals are represented in literature, art and media, or how human-animal relations have changed over time in a historic perspective.

In the 1990s, the second development phase of Human-Animal Studies widened the scope to include all types of human-animal relations: past or present, physical as well as virtua co-existence, harmonious and beneficial relations as well as those characterized by conflicts and risks to one or several of the species involved. Qualitative methods became more common, and geography, especially human geography, emerged as an important field. In disciplines such as psychology, emphasis is on the human-animal bond. In the humanities, the focus is on deconstructing what it is to be an animal, and in the attempt to understand what animals are. In this phase, important input also comes from gender and feminist studies, looking at correlations between different groups that have been oppressed historically: women, ethnic minorities, animals. Criticism of the patriarchy and the notion of intersectionality become important.

Starting around 2000 the field of study virtually explode in what can be described as the third wave. In North America and the UK, courses or university program multiply. From the field of anthropology, innovative ethnographic perspectives emerge, in which animals are integrated as research subjects in multispecies ethnographies. A parallel development are the Critical Animal Studies, a current which brings together academic research with an activist agenda of animal liberation. The academic publishing is thriving and in 2012 the main journal in the field is established:  Animals & Society. In 2014 the International Development Fund of the Animals and Society Institute is established, providing support for courses and training programs in countries where there is no tradition of Human-Animal Studies.

In Portugal there is much less research and far fewer researchers dedicated to the study of human-animal relations, compared to the vibrant international production. Nevertheless, during the last decade there has been some work, although not under a common framework. The Human-Animal Studies Hub aims to be that framework, bringing together under the same “intellectual ceiling” researchers from different fields with a common interest in animals and the human-animal relationship.

The Hub is organized along three axes: research, training and society outreach. I invite all researches with activity in this field to visit our web page and read our Mission, Values and Vision. If you identify with these, you are encouraged to contact us. The objective is to establish a network of synergies, creating a space for dialogue and collaboraiton. At the moment, the Hub hosts projects about companion animals, animals in disasters, feral and abandoned animals and production animals. There are several training activities, including a biannual International Summer School, a monthly reading group and this recently established postgraduate course. We also organize workshops, conferences and seminars.  grupo de leitura mensal, ou este recentíssimo curso pós-graduado Animais e Sociedade.

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Outside the academic context, for whom is this course relevant? In which walks of life do we need more knowledge about animals and society?

We definitely need to produce, and to share, more knowledge about how we live together with animals in society. In my view, everyone who works with and for animals in society need more training: ONGs, animal shelters and other organizations. Training needs to be available for professionals who deals with complex human problems such as poverty, unemployment, separations and physical and mental disease. Social assistants, psychologists, lawyers, educators, teachers. These problems have a human origin but they affect human and animal lives. And also complementary training for professionals who work directly with animals but whose education has not included a comprehensive view of the social problems around human-animal relations, such as biologists and veterinarians.

Find out more by following Verónica Policarpo @VMPolicarpo and Human-Animal Studies Hub @humananimalics on Twitter.

Veterinarians’ and physicians’ attitude to euthanasia

The most recent contribution from the Ordem dos Médicos, the Portuguese professional organization for physicians, to the ongoing political discussion of legalizing euthanasia was to state that they would in no way engage with the process. Of course, the discussion of euthanasia in human medicine is beyond the scope of this blog, and Animalogues is not the right place to share my personal thoughts about something that is not part of my professional consideration.

But I will take the opportunity to share a paper that I find highly relevant in the context.

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This paper, published in Journal of Medical Ethics in 2010, reports the results of a questionnaire to Swedish veterinary surgeons in 2008. It’s part of a larger body of work on attitudes to physician-assisted suicide by two of the co-authors, Lindblad and Lynöe, which also includes surveys to physicians and to the general public in Sweden.

Why would medical ethicists be interested in what veterinarians think about physician-assisted suicide in human medicine? This interest has to do with the argument sometimes presented by physicians that “less experienced physicians and the general public do not know what they are actually reasoning about when dealing with end of life issues”. But unlike medical doctors in Sweden, where euthanasia is illegal, vets regularly perform active euthanasia as part of their professional practice. Hence it can be argued that a veterinarian, at least to some extent, knows more about euthanasia than a physician.

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Perhaps unexpectedly, it turned out that veterinarians’ attitude to physician-assisted suicide is comparable to that of the general public rather than that of physicians.

The authors conclude that “Similar to the general public, most Swedish veterinary surgeons are in favour of PAS. Since veterinary surgeons have long experience of performing euthanasia in animals it seems difficult to assert that they do not understand what it means to provide PAS at the request of a terminally ill and competent patient. Accordingly, it is difficult to maintain that knowledge about PAS and euthanasia is unambiguously associated with a restrictive attitude towards these measures”.

Is a positive attitude to animal research desirable?

The question is motivated by a recently published research paper in JALAAS: Attitudes Toward Animal Research Among Medical Students in the United States by David Q Beversdorf and Nellie R Adams.

The authors recruited student members of the American Academy of Neurology to fill in a questionnaire. 168 students completed the questionnaire, expressing their agreement or disagreement with a set of 14 positively- or negatively-biased statements regarding animal research. After that, they were given the opportunity to watch a video about animal research, and asked to fill in the same questionnaire again, which 108 students did. In the text box to the right, you can see examples of the statements the students were presented with.

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After having watched the video, the students were slightly more positive towards research with animals: the score went from an average of 4.0 to an average of 4.1. (A score near 5 shows a positive attitude to animal research, a score near 1 a negative attitude).

The authors do not make much out of that change (not surprisingly, it’s so small that it doesn’t really matter) but instead discuss the observation that “a substantial number of
medical students express disagreement with statements that
describe essential components of the drug and procedure
development pipeline. As described above, 13.2% disagreed
with the statement ‘New surgical procedures should be tested
on animals before they are used on people,’ and 7.2% disagreed
with ‘New drugs should be tested on animals before
they are used on people.’” They continue to conclude that “The changes in attitudes after observing the video suggests that negative attitudes can be changed, and that medical education may have a role in this setting.” If you want to read the full paper, you can request a copy from the authors at ResearchGate.

Numerous studies with bigger samples and more comprehensive approaches have measured the attitude of different publics to animal research, but the present study is novel in the choice of a very specific public: medical students. My main issue with how the study was conducted is the quite one-sided study design. The video in question is produced by Americans for Medical Progress, an advocacy organisation for biomedical research and in particular the use of animals in such research. While I think the video is quite reasonable, it definitely represents a selective use of information. That’s not surprising, as the organisation behind it is working in favour of public support for biomedical researh with animals.

Should a goal for medical education be to make students more positive to the use of animals in research? I’m really not convinced that this should be a priority. I think it’s crucial that medical students get a reasonable understanding of the role of animals in biomedical research and drug development. But that also includes an understanding of critical challenges to how useful such research is. And an understanding of why the issue is contentious.

There is no equivalent video advocating in a comparable way for the replacement of animals in biomedical research. People such as the authors behind the book Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change would probably be able to produce one, and it would be as credible (reasonably so) and balanced (not very) as the AMP video.

And sadly, both of them would miss out on the most critical issue in animal-based biomedical research today: how to design studies so that the results are reliable and translate to humans.

Should research ethics protect non-human primates as children?

I’ve played with the idea of writing about why chimpanzees are not more protected than children. But whenever I start to develop the argument it seems absurd – anyone who knows what laboratory animal research regulation looks like knows that chimpanzees are not more protected than children! Except that I regularly come across people who argue that in Europe chimpanzees are more protected than children.

I understand where the argument comes from: there is a single regulatory framework for research with animals in Europe (Directive 2010/63/EU) but not for research involving children. Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no rules for children’s participation in research, it only means that the rules differ between countries. And as far as I know, none of these rules allows any researcher to involve a child in invasive and risky research under any condition – except perhaps if that research is likely to help the child. In contrast, a so called safeguard clause allows EU Member States to lift the general ban on the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) in invasive research “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a lifethreatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” (Directive 2010/63/EU Article 55:2). Or in other words, facing an outbreak of Ebola in Europe, vaccine trials in chimpanzees would be permissible. (Whether this research could actually be done in practice is a different question. For a long time, the only industrialized country to keep chimpanzees for invasive research was the USA, but in 2015 the NIH announced it would no longer fund such research and lab chimps are now being retired into sanctuaries).

Interestingly, before I got around to writing any of this, I came across this paper which proposes that research regulation should protect chimpanzees and in fact all non-human primates (NHPs) in much the same way as it protects human research subjects. The authors argue that with so many important similarities in cognitive, emotional and social capacities, it doesn’t make sense to have different ethical frameworks depending on whether a primate is human or non-human. Therefore, they argue, we should move non-human primates out of the utilitarian framework that is generally applied to animal research ethics and into the deontological framework that applies to human research subjects. In practice, this means that research with non-human primates should respect the principles of beneficence and non-malevolence, or in other words, research should preferably benefit and definitely not harm the research subjects.

The paper is an interesting contribution to the debate and well worth reading, for the ideas and the examples of research that would be acceptable under a deontological framework. The idea that some animals should be given a rights-based protection is not new (it underlies the entire animal rights movement), but the paper contributes a unique discussion of the potential to do biomedical research with NHPs in a way that is compatible with the principles of benevolence, non-maleficience and even autonomy and justice. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the picture they paint is realistic. What can be achieved by studying naturally occurring situations is strongly limited, and I would have appreciated if the authors had been more thorough in their analysis of  what research would be made impossible if changing the ethical framework. On the other hand, if this were a paper about how to protect children in research, nobody would dream of arguing about the important research benefits to be lost if children couldn’t be harmed in research! This observation in itself clearly marks the difference in thinking about research in utilitarian and consequentialist terms versus in deontological terms.

From a pragmatic perspective, taking into account the diversity of opinion on the matter, I don’t foresee a change of framework any time soon for non-human primates in research at large. A change for the great apes is way more likely to happen in the near future. With the phasing out of invasive research in chimpanzees, the only great ape species which really played a role in biomedical research, a full ban may be accepted without much protest. By then, it may be reasonable to ask if chimpanzees enjoy greater protection than children in biomedical research. .

 

 

 

Time to think about your contribution to EurSAFE2019!

The conferences of the European Society for Food and Agricultural Ethics (EurSAFE) are among the most important arenas for the academic discussion of animal ethics. The next conference will be held in Tampere, Finland 19-21 September 2019.

These conferences have a two-stage submission procedure: first you submit a short abstract and on basis of that you are (hopefully!) invited to submit a short paper. This paper is then published in a proceedings book, which is available at the conference. As a long-time conference participant and a previous congress organizer, I have lots to say about this concept… On a positive note, it’s always an interesting book. And being responsible for editing one really made me a much more efficient editor!

In any case, this two-step procedure takes time, and therefore the deadline for submitting abstracts is well ahead of the conference. You still have a month and a half, though, this year the deadline is 2 December. More information about how to submit here.

Conference topics on animals are Animal politics, Fisheries and aquaculture ethics and Animal and veterinary ethics. Those of you who are interested in animal politics and animal law may like to know that Gary Francione and Alasdair Cochrane are confirmed as plenary speakers.

Open Science in October

Do you think about Open Science? Do you practice Open Science? Do you think Open Science matters? My research group is working on the topic during the month of October, with the aim of formulating an Open Science strategy for the group. We’re doing this because we think it makes sense for us to put Open Science into practice, but we need to work out the best way for us and our research.

We identified the following burning issues:

  • Study preregistration
  • Protocol and methods sharing
  • Data sharing
  • Preprint publication

These are the ones we are interested in but need to know more about in order to be able to practice (or make an informed decision not to practice) them. In addition, we prioritize  open access publishing and social media communication – but we’re already working on this. Although with a permanent backlog, we are uploading papers to the university open repository and we try to keep the group’s Facebook page up to date.

In a month, I hope to be able to report back on this. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Open Science you may want to look at the FOSTER project.