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Vould you like to touch my deafferented monkey?
June 5, 2009 11:56 AM   Subscribe

This week Slate featured a five part series by Daniel Engber on the treatment of live animal subjects in biomedical labs and the birth of the animal rights movement.
posted by Rhomboid (21 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
This Daniel Engber?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 12:01 PM on June 5, 2009


If you paid me a million dollars I wouldn't read that article.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 12:08 PM on June 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have read only the first and last stories and it was hard to read, particularly the first about a family pet that had been dognapped and sold to a lab.
posted by Calzephyr at 12:20 PM on June 5, 2009


This thread is already topping the Google results for the phrase "deafferented monkey."
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:21 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember having people warn us about leaving our dog outside when I was little because it might get dognapped and tested on. Guess this is where it came from. Also the Beethoven movie.
posted by idle at 12:50 PM on June 5, 2009


Historian Susan Lederer cites a 1910 screed by a New York physician who accused the anti-vivisectionists of suffering from a kind of "zoophilic psychosis": They "interest themselves not so much in experiments upon fishes, insects, pigeons, rats, mice, snakes, nor in cruelties to men, cattle, chickens, and sheep," he wrote. "Their interests are bent towards those useless animals which can be made the objects of fondling and which compared with other animals play a minor role in the great field of scientific experimentation."

While I think animal experimentation needs to be undertaken in certain ways to be ethical, this guy captures my sentiments exactly.
posted by phrontist at 1:08 PM on June 5, 2009


Great series of articles, especially the last one. I found particularly interesting the moral question of - is it better to practice experiments on one animal for a long portion of it's life, or to use many animals but let their suffering be brief? No good answer from me on that one but reading about the monkey who was being experimented on for at least 9 years was tough.
posted by agregoli at 1:46 PM on June 5, 2009


l also found the last page of part four, discussing the use of rodents, to be pretty interesting. I've known a couple of scientists who have had to switch jobs because they just couldn't stand doing animal experiments anymore (not that they were morally opposed to it, but just that they themselves could no longer stomach it).
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:56 PM on June 5, 2009


Having been a regular Slate reader for the past 10 years or so, I think that this series is probably the most indepth reporting that they've ever done.

I wonder if this is part of the same trend at the WaPo as the Newsweek changes or whether this is an anomaly.
posted by hellx at 2:10 PM on June 5, 2009


The treatment of laboratory research animals has improved radically over the last few decades because of awareness and oversight. Use of animals in research has led to many discoveries. I believe it is ethical to use animals in research that can improve human health, but only when necessary and only when done in the most humane manner possible.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:21 PM on June 5, 2009


The treatment of laboratory research animals has improved radically over the last few decades because of awareness and oversight.

Only if you're talking about the cuddly animals like dogs and monkeys. As the fourth part details, the vast majority of research now occurs with mice and rats, which have never been regulated and to this day continue to be exempt from all of the various humane treatment laws. The little fellows suffer the worst of the worst: starved/force-fed, isolated, dissected without anesthesia, genetically modified to have horrible deformities, flayed alive, and god knows what else. I won't try to argue that it hasn't been a huge benefit to man, or that it's not necessary, but you can't call inflicting that on mass quantities of beings that feel pain anything remotely close to "the most humane manner possible".
posted by Rhomboid at 3:03 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I won't try to argue that it hasn't been a huge benefit to man, but I think it's not necessary. Endeavors (especially profit-driven) ones take the channel of least resistance. If vivisection was not an available option, I have no doubt that we would be able to devise alternate methods to accomplish the same goals.

Even if it was slower progress, I think it's the right choice.
posted by Vulpyne at 3:12 PM on June 5, 2009


***WARNING - GRAPHIC CONTENT BELOW***

I was a vegetarian when I did experiments using rats while I was in grad school and I was pretty skeeved out by it. I liked the science and so I tried to deal with the nature of the work.

We had to get living brain tissue for electrophysiology so the work had to be done really quickly. We used young adult rats and plopped them into a big beaker with some halothane (human-quality anesthetic) to knock them out. After the rat was knocked out, it went into a little guillotine. The most disturbing part was after the guillotine, the jaw would start working open and closed as we put the thrashing body temporarily into a specially-prepared trash can (later into a freezer). We cut the top skin away from the head with small scissors and then cut open the skull. Then very carefully we cut away the dura (the tough membrane between the skull and brain) while trying not to damage the brain, which was hard because the jaw would still be working.

Then the brain was popped out and flat surfaces cut into it in order to mount it with superglue intro a microtome, where we cut slices about half a millimeter thick, thin enough for oxygen and nutrient diffusion to keep the cells alive for pretty much the rest of the day. The slices relaxed in an oxygenated solution for a couple of hours, a convenient time to grab lunch if you were able for it, then we stuck them under a scope and delivered antipsychotic drugs, neurotransmitters, and the like, while measuring electric activity in the prefrontal cortex.

***END GRAPHIC CONTENT***

Two scientists worked along with me, I'll call them Victor and Xiao. Victor did not like Xiao. One day Xiao's equipment was messed up so (we had giant racks full of carefully set up electric equipment) so Victor reluctantly let Xiao use his, with certain caveats that Xiao sort of tried to skirt around. Victor saw him and yelled out across the lab in his pronounced eastern European accent "DON'T TOUCH MY STIMULATOR!" Also, Victor told me me had a dream that some giant rats were seeking revenge and hunting him.

I switched out of that lab after a few months for various reasons.
posted by exogenous at 3:40 PM on June 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


As the fourth part details, the vast majority of research now occurs with mice and rats, which have never been regulated and to this day continue to be exempt from all of the various humane treatment laws.

Untrue. Perhaps there is no federal regulation, but at my grad school in NY state in the 1990s we definitely had a multitude of regulations in place to reduce suffering of the rats used in research.
posted by exogenous at 3:43 PM on June 5, 2009


truth be told companies like Colgate-Palmolive claim they've cut back on animal testing for moral reasons but it really all boils down to money. when a few antivivisectionist executives showed the numbers on animal testing and compared them tests on eggs and other methods, they made sure they switched as fast as possible :P
posted by liza at 4:02 PM on June 5, 2009


This article series was excellent.
posted by localroger at 5:08 PM on June 5, 2009


Perhaps there is no federal regulation,

Yeah I think this is what was meant. The US at least does not consider mice, rats etc to be worthy of monitoring or regulation (they dont even keep track of how many are used). So even if some states, local areas, or universities have regulations, it means those who want to behave in the worst ways can simply find an accommodating area of the country. Much like toxic waste dumps, prisons, etc will slide to the least-regulated areas.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:52 PM on June 5, 2009


the vast majority of research now occurs with mice and rats, which have never been regulated and to this day continue to be exempt from all of the various humane treatment laws. The little fellows suffer the worst of the worst: starved/force-fed, isolated, dissected without anesthesia, genetically modified to have horrible deformities, flayed alive, and god knows what else.

Several of the main laws related to animal research don't cover mice or rats, yes. To imply that there are no guidelines and that people can torture animals randomly is very misleading. All universities, companies, etc. have their own internal guidelines, but more importantly, the government institutions that fund almost all bio-related research have their own guidelines. Fail to follow their guidelines and you lose funding, which is a major punishment for a lab.

Note the beginning of exogenous' story: the procedure that the rodents have to undergo is unpleasant, but they're anaesthetized first (which was the case in every lab I've been in.) Scientists try to keep their rodents as comfortable as possible, and they try not to cause any unnecessary pain or stress for the animals. No one's flaying mice alive.

(This also addresses the suggestion that doing animal research is somehow easier and cheaper than these theoretical alternatives. Doing animal research is a huge pain, in fact, because it's very tightly regulated (for the well-being of the animals). It's very expensive. If there were any true alternatives to animal research, people would switch in a heartbeat.)

I won't try to argue that it hasn't been a huge benefit to man, but I think it's not necessary. Endeavors (especially profit-driven) ones take the channel of least resistance. If vivisection was not an available option, I have no doubt that we would be able to devise alternate methods to accomplish the same goals.

I currently work in a lab that does some animal research, and I've been more intimately involved (taking tail clippings) in a genetics lab I used to work in. Believe me, we wish that animal research wasn't necessary too! It's very difficult for the researchers, emotionally, and of course though we try to be as humane as possible, provide anaesthetics, etc., there's no doubt that some animals do end up suffering. And we have to kill them in the end; ending a life is really hard to do, and it is not something that leaves any researcher completely untouched.

However, there really isn't any good replacement for animals in research right now. Computer models? Fuck, it's hard enough to get a computer to accurately model the interactions between two proteins, let alone a vast system. There are many proteins no one has even researched yet, and there's no way we can get a perfect simulation of a living animal (or even of some small subsystem of the animal) when we don't even know all of the basic parts involved, let alone how they interact. To get that knowledge, we're going to have to continue using biological techniques, some of which will include animal research.

OK, cell cultures? Those are useful, yes, and when possible, researchers do use them. However, cultured cells are living an a very unnatural environment - in a dish, without any other sorts of cells around them. They're great when you're a biochemist who is trying to research a single protein. They're entirely inadequate when you're a biologist who's trying to understand a set of complex protein interactions across multiple sorts of tissue that characterize some disease. The complexity just isn't there.

How 'bout other, lower organisms? Bacteria, yeast, etc? Well, researchers use those. They're great systems, but they may not even natively have the protein system you are studying - meaning that without the environment of the host cell, you've got a bunch of proteins that may or may not do anything. These sorts of microbes may not do the sorts of things you're researching (I doubt, for example, that any neurobiologist has wasted time trying to make yeast exhibit some of the proteins and behaviors of a nerve cell.) They're great for biochemistry, for being able to manipulate DNA and protins in vivo and in vitro, but they're also insufficient for research that's specific to, say, mammals.

In vitro reactions and experiments? These are so very far away from simulating physiological conditions that they're useless as a replacement for animal research. Great if you want to synthesize protein using a wheat germ system or do arcane kinetics experiments; they're awful if you're trying to figure out how anything works in real life.

So for now, for some sorts of research, we're stuck with the animals. Our simulations are getting better and more useful, scientists are working on all sorts of assays that can help bypass the need for certain animal experiments, other scientists are trying to improve live imaging, still others are devloping protocols for use in lower organisms or to get more information out of one animal, etc. We're heading that direction, as fast as we can, but although you may "have no doubt that we would be able to devise alternate methods," I'm telling you that we still need animal research to get to the point where we _can_ devise any adequate alternate non-animal methods.

Animal research is still a necessary evil in science; thankfully, researchers - and the institutions they work for - do believe that animals have rights, and they try to treat their animal subjects as humanely as possible. It's a difficult thing, to balance the needs of research versus the rights of animals, and I have not yet met a scientist who takes it lightly.

Plus, a pet peeve: I really, really wish people would stop calling all animal research vivisection. Actual "vivisection" in the "cutting apart animals alive, and not for surgery" sense is pretty rare; the closest most groups get to it is euthanizing a mouse and dissecting it afterwards, removing parts for study. A lot of groups are trying to improve imagine quality for MRIs, PET scans, etc. so that they can visualize what's going on in the living mouse over time without ever touching it. And so on; vivisection is a vivid and disgusting image, and good for PETA-style PR, but it's not what J Random Labtech is doing when she works with mice.
posted by ubersturm at 6:58 PM on June 5, 2009 [8 favorites]


I worked in a biomedical contract research organization until very recently. Most of my experience has been with rodents, and I can say that they are treated as humanely as possible. My lab used the IACUC Guide when conducting all studies. There were never any painful or stressful procedures performed on these animals without anesthesia, and vivisection was never performed. We had several veterinarians and vet techs on the staff, as well as an IACUC department to oversee all procedures and make sure that the animals were treated as humanely as possible. This includes not only reducing stress and pain to animals, but also using as few animals as possible and providing various forms of enrichment (special food, comfortable housing, and toys). All of the research techs had to go through a lot of training to be sure that they understood how to treat the animals. Also, before the use of any animals at all can be approved, the Principal Investigator needs to show that there are no other options (computer models, cultures, etc) for performing the study. All of these rules applied just as much to rodents as they do to any other species. Of course, I can only speak of my own experience, but I would guess that other labs follow similar procedures when it comes to animal research.
posted by lexicakes at 8:44 PM on June 5, 2009


I worked with a girl who had a side job as a lab assistant. Her job was to poke the eyes out of baby chicks, which they ordered scads of weekly from some animal supply company.

I asked her if this didn't bother her, and she said, "Well, it used to, but then I realized that they're kind of stupid."

I found that a horrifyingly sad response.
posted by HopperFan at 9:45 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I work on fish. I have to write detailed protocols to harvest fewer fish than someone with a $14 fishing license could catch.

In fact, I was still waiting for the permits to go through the other day while I was fishing for fun. The whole time I was thinking how I could do anything to the fish but valid scientific research without getting in trouble.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 8:37 AM on June 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


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