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Professional News
International Outcry Follows Attacks on Neuroscientist's Home
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 10 page 6-23

When John Krystal, M.D., editor of Biological Psychiatry, heard about the attacks by animal rights activists on the home of a fellow researcher, his first instinct was to circle the wagons.

In October 2007, the home of UCLA neuroscientist Edythe London, Ph.D., sustained thousands of dollars in damage when someone from the Animal Liberation Front ran the garden hose in a window and flooded the house. Four months later, someone tried to firebomb the house. No one was at home either time.

When Krystal, a professor of clinical pharmacology and deputy chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale, learned of the attacks on London's home, he began discussing a response with members of the Biological Psychiatry editorial board. Together, they crafted a two-page commentary signed by 77 neuroscience and psychiatry researchers from half a dozen countries.

"The attacks are horribly misguided," the statement said." It is impossible to reconcile the willingness of these terrorists to harm humans, particularly people who are working to alleviate human suffering, with their contention that they value life of all kinds."

London is a professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, and Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Some of her research on drug, alcohol, and nicotine dependence involves nonhuman primates. At least three other UCLA researchers who work with animals have been harassed, threatened, or attacked in the last two years. One publicly swore off animal research after his children were frightened by trespassers one night.

UCLA's chancellor condemned the vandalism, and a judge issued a restraining order against three organizations and five individuals prohibiting them from harming or threatening anyone involved in animal research (or their families) or trespassing or vandalizing property.

"It seemed to me that a line had been crossed, escalating the threat to a researcher, her family, and her neighbors," said Krystal in an interview. "The event brought home to me how serious this kind of intimidation is and how we should have responded earlier."

London, through the UCLA media relations office, declined to be interviewed for this article.

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Others in the scientific community registered their concern, too.

"We should all stand for the humane treatment of animals, and I respect the right of individuals to express their concerns in nonviolent and constructive ways," said former APA President Herbert Pardes, M.D., now president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Healthcare System." But the use of violence to intimidate people is offensive in the extreme, and we should be supportive of colleagues faced with that sort of extreme and uncivil action."

Pardes was director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 1978 to 1984 and has a long-standing interest in the value of animal research in psychiatry.

The Society for Neuroscience released a statement saying that animal research is an academic-freedom matter and issued recommendations for protecting researchers and their work "to preempt and react to anti-research activists.... Ultimately, research institutions must make an unwavering commitment to ensuring the safety, security, and ability of researchers to pursue responsible research."

"We are very concerned because use of animals is critical to biological discovery," said Norka Ruiz Bravo, Ph.D., deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, in an interview." Without it, we would not have the cures we have now. We want to use animals ethically where it is scientifically appropriate in studies reviewed by peer-reviewed panels and animal use committees."

Under federal law, animal care and use committees at universities have to approve all research protocols governing the number of animals used, how they are cared for, and what may be done to them.

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Answering when, how, and if animals can or should be used in biomedical research raises practical and moral questions that remain on the table after decades of argument. People like those behind the UCLA attacks believe that absolutely no animal research is permissible, and anything, including violence, is justified to stop it, said John Gluck, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. He once ran a nonhuman primate research center and now teaches bioethics.

"They believe they are protecting innocents and that nonviolent means have failed," said Gluck in an interview. "I think that's wrong."

Some other animal rights organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), also oppose research (including veterinary research) with animals on ethical and moral grounds, with exceptions such as in-home nutrition studies on companion animals or observational studies of animals in their own environment, said Kathy Guillermo, PETA's director of laboratory investigations.

"We choose to use tactics other than violence, and PETA is a peaceful, legal organization," she said.

"We understand their frustration," said Guillermo, speaking of groups like the Animal Liberation Front. "People talk about their fear of violence [against researchers] but not about the violence committed against animals."

She cited universities around the United States where animals have been denied adequate veterinary care, researchers have gone beyond study protocols, and oversight committees have not monitored labs. PETA takes such reports—often provided by workers disturbed at conditions in their labs—to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Institutes of Health.

PETA also argues that preclinical animal research isn't very good science because it doesn't translate well to human beings due to biological differences.

"When we study animals, we find out about animals," she said in an interview. Some experiments study animals and humans simultaneously, a poor way to guide tests of effects in humans, she said. Other studies are simply redundant.

"These researchers say they're doing essential work for helping human beings, but they don't know unless they try it in people," said Guillermo.

Darrell Regier, M.D., M.P.H., director of APA's Office of Research and executive director of the American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education, backed the need for research with animals.

"There is no substitute for animal research," he said in an interview. "Anybody who says so doesn't know about science."

Proponents of animal research list many improvements to human health developed with the use of laboratory animals and point to legal requirements for humane animal care they must follow. What animal rights advocates call" redundant" experiments, researchers call" replication."

Using in vitro methods or computer models may lessen the need for animals in regulatory testing but are less applicable in research in which the interaction of genes, cells, and organs throughout the entire body must be considered, said Regier.

"The opportunities for using alternatives are miniscule," he said. "There is no substitute for animal research. Biological systems are complex, and they can't be replicated with computers."

Researchers also claim progress (albeit slow) in the use and treatment of animals in the lab, much of it stemming from the 1959 publication The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, by two British scientists, William Russell and Rex Burch. Russell and Burch argued that whenever possible, scientists should replace animals with nonanimal procedures, reduce the number of animals used, and refine procedures to lessen animal suffering—an approach dubbed the" 3Rs." However, it took a long time for those principles to enter the consciousness of laboratory science, much less its practice.

"Even 10 years ago, most scientists had no idea about the 3Rs," Alan Goldberg, Ph.D., director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins, told Psychiatric News. "They met the letter of the law [the federal Animal Welfare Act], but that was it."

Treating animals well is not only desirable ethically, but also makes for better science, since data gleaned from animals mistreated, put in unnecessary pain, or stressed by inhospitable living conditions have less value, said Goldberg.

Animal-rights proponents say their position is based on morality. Animals, they believe, especially nonhuman primates, are sentient creatures with moral rights and should not be used for the convenience of human beings.

But that moral argument doesn't hold water, said Regier.

"Equating humans and animals is wrong," he said. "It's a philosophical approach that is inimical to science."

Scientists who work with animals believe that the benefits gained for humanity from animal research outweigh any harm to their subjects, and most agree that any pain and suffering should be minimized.

"A humane approach to animals is essential," said Regier." If you don't do that, you denigrate the entire research enterprise."

Both sides in the argument appear to have little desire to talk more than perfunctorily with each other.

"There's almost never any meaningful dialogue with experimenters in the basic research and biomedical research areas," said Guillermo, who added that many more researchers support PETA's position than signed the Biological Psychiatry commentary.

Incidents like the ones at UCLA only make scientists who work with animals dig in their heels, said both Goldberg and Gluck, although Gluck was a little optimistic.

"Progress may be slow, but a useful discussion is still going on," he said.

"We recognize the value of an ongoing public dialogue on what could supplant animal research and on strengthening the ethics governing laboratory animal use," said Krystal.

"Over the years, I've found that animal protection people come to meetings less often," said Joanne Zurlo, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR), a part of the National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C., in an interview.

Can the domains of morality and science ever find any common ground?

A recent review of the issue by Great Britain's Nuffield Council on Bioethics tried to narrow the debate in that country. The council laid out a view it said most members of society could live with, a "hybrid moral position," with some absolute limits on animal research combined with some balancing of costs and benefits.

Similar discussions may be overdue in the United States but do not appear on the horizon now, according to Zurlo.

ILAR will soon update its guidelines for the use of lab animals, she said. Its committee will review all relevant literature since the last edition was published in 1996, including the scientific study of what constitutes consciousness in animals.

Among Zurlo's advisors is bioethicist Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy, animal sciences, and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

In Rollin's view, two 1985 laws governing laboratory animals reflected a society that now views invasive animal research as a significant moral issue and implied a need for ethical engagement by scientists.

"They have led to what I call the 'reappropriation of common sense' with regard to the reality of animal suffering and the need for its control," he wrote last year in the journal EMBO Reports." One can be guardedly optimistic that animal research will evolve into what it should have been all along: a moral science."

"It Is Time to Take a Stand for Medical Research and Against Terrorism Targeting Medical Scientists" is posted at<www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/bps/article/S0006-3223(08)00295-3/fulltext>. An op-ed article by Edythe London from the Los Angeles Times is posted at<www.newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/PRN-targeted-ucla-scientist-speaks-40153.aspx>. Bernard Rollin's "Animal Research: a Moral Science" is posted at<www.nature.com/embor/journal/v8/n6/full/7400996.html>.

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