Category Archives: animal research

“Microfluidic” Chip Mimics Human Organs So Animals Won’t Have To

I never hold my breath on announcements of new technology, but if this pans out it would be a grand step forward towards removing our reliance on animal testing.

Called Organs-On-Chips, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A microchip embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes that are lined with human cells, through which air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria could be pumped. These chips get manufactured the same way companies like Intel make the brains of a computer. But instead of moving electrons through silicon, these chips push minute quantities of chemicals past cells from lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts.

The primary purpose of the chips really appears to be “reduction of use of animals in pharmaceutical testing” (rather than, say, complementing animal testing, or simply making vast sums of cash), and they’ve started a company called Emulate in order to market it.  It’s lovely to see someone deliberately (rather than accidentally, or grudgingly) moving in that direction.

Further reading: Here’s a little more in-depth review from the journal Nature Biotechnology.  Also worthwhile: Emulate’s “publications” section, with journal articles describing the chips’ use as models for various human organs.

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“Zombie Dog” Research Ongoing

Source: morguefile.com

Source: kconnors, morguefile.com

Today’s radar ping was a throwaway line in an otherwise unrelated article on a comedy web site, mentioning research involving the creation of “zombie dogs“.  The research, which is entirely real, is being carried out scientists at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, who want to know if reducing the metabolic state of mammals with traumatic injuries can help increase survival of the treatment for those injuriesThe original article, as well as most of the news about it, is from late 2005.  The media briefly got excited about being able to use the phrase zombie dogs in professional conversation, but, since the science was (theoretically) legitimate and (most of) the reanimated dogs were just fine when brought back to life, eventually everyone put the pitchforks away and forgot about the zombie dogs.

Except, of course, the Safar Center.  They are still doing research on taking animals (and humans) to the brink of death and back — almost ten more years of articles with spine-chilling titles like Intravenous hydrogen sulfide does not induce hypothermia or improve survival from hemorrhagic shock in pigs and Magnetic resonance imaging assessment of regional cerebral blood flow after asphyxial cardiac arrest in immature rats.  Reading down their publication list tells you that, when they can, they are doing relevant experiments on humans, but, since no human capable of informed consent is ever going to volunteer to suffer severe brain injury, when the researchers can’t find human models they use rats, mice, dogs, pigs, and monkeys.

On the one hand, I completely understand wanting to find new ways to fix people who have been severely damaged.  Much of this research is, obviously, going to support our troops, a noble goal, and as you can see in the publication archives, a lot of the research is being done to help children.  I have absolutely nothing against these goals, and the scientific part of me completely understands that, in order to help some people who really need it, sometimes we have to do things which seem impossibly horrible.  On the other hand, every single one of these experiments starts, essentially, by whacking a couple dozen (sedated) rats on the head to induce brain injury, or essentially draining all the blood out of several (also sedated) pigs to induce cardiac arrest.  (If you are looking to cure traumatic injury, Step One in your experimental protocols is to create traumatic injury.)

There is something about this which is, to me, unspeakably twisted, but damned if I know an immediate solution to it.  Using only consenting human subjects as they appear by random chance would set the research back years, and if my child were struck by a car I know I would want all the research going into knowing how to sew my child’s head back on; on the other hand, if I were struck by a car, would I want to know that 2,000 rats died so that they could sew my head back on?  20,000?  Is there a minimum or maximum number of rats(/pigs/dogs/monkeys) that my life is worth?  I know it’s worth a lot of rats to me, but am I the governing authority here?  Cosmically, am I worth more or less than a rat?  Ten rats?  Is my contribution to society worth 2,000 lifetimes spent languishing in a little plastic tub in a research lab?  Would I want to meet those rats?  Explain it to them?  Would I want to explain it to the pigs?  The dogs?

No solutions here, alas — just a note to the world that this stuff is still happening.  No idea how to make it right, but, somewhere, this stuff went seriously wrong.

Ambient Temperature Shown to Affect Results of Cancer Research on Mice

Photo by gracey at www.morguefile.com

Photo by gracey at http://www.morguefile.com

Scientists have finally “asked” lab mice their preferred ambient temperature.  They discovered the mice prefer warmer temperatures than have been traditionally provided, and that, furthermore, their bodies behave differently at their preferred, warmer, temperatures.  (Here’s the original article, by Kathleen M. Kokolus et. al., published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.)

I think the scariest thing about this paper is that it mentions that it has already been shown that mice prefer warmer temperatures than currently mandated, and that the colder temperatures in which they are currently kept induce “cold stress” and accompanying biological changes (references 3-7 in original article, dated from 2009-2012).  Has anyone been fighting to raise the standard ambient temperature for laboratory mice since 2009?  It seems to be taking the threat of these issues affecting the results of research to make scientists care whether or not the mice are in temperatures they’d prefer.

Beyond that — for how many years have we been doing research on mice at these recommended temperatures?  How much research has already been done with populations of mice affected by chronic cold stress?  Would we have gotten the same results in labs kept at 86 degrees Fahrenheit?  What results which we currently take for granted might be wrong?

What other variables might be sub-par for our research animals, and what effect might those things have on their responses to, say, cancer-causing chemicals?

Scientists’ View of Humane Science

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com.

If you are interested in how scientists are currently viewing animal-based research, there is a free online course available, taught by employees of Johns Hopkins University (one of the big animal research “players”), Alan Goldberg and James Owiny.  The course is called Enhancing Humane Science – Improving Animal Research.  It is sponsored by the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, which sounds great until you realize it’s also part of Johns Hopkins.  This course is absolutely not in any way unbiased.  Johns Hopkins has a lot of big stakes in animal-based research.

I’ll admit I haven’t listened to the whole course yet, but it reeks of the stuff I had to read while working in animal research.  It appears to be a pretty accurate picture of the scientists’ point of view concerning animal welfare.

I’m not defending or attacking anybody here.  This mess, and my opinion of it, is too huge and complicated for me to summarize it in one journal post.  But if you were looking for a good introduction to how scientists look at animal research, and where they are coming from when they say, “But we are doing everything we can for the animals in our care,” this is where a lot of them are standing right now.  The jargon and the general attitudes are appropriate and seem pretty representative.

They aren’t cackling and rubbing their hands together, drooling over the prospect of thousands of dead mice.  On the other hand, these animals routinely undergo experiences we would not inflict on our pets.

It’s All Already Been Said

The Huffington Post recently featured an editorial by William T. Talman, M.D., defending animal research.  It’s a…poisonous little read, interesting primarily in that it runs, as though on rails, through the scientific community’s long-standing, standard responses to the animal welfarists’ long-standing, standard objections to animal testing.  There is nothing new here, and everything he says has already been thoroughly debunked.  My inner angry person wants to scream and shout and take down every argument he presents, but it has already been done, in the excellent work Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, by C. Ray Greek and Jean Swingle Greek, which came out more than ten years ago.

If I start pointing out all the errors in this editorial, I will be up all night attempting to re-write Sacred Cows.  I would just like to point out that the man can in no way be considered an unbiased source: here’s a sampling of his rat-based research — any beneficial results of which will still need to undergo testing on humans (“Really!”) before being officially adopted.  (And dude?  People do volunteer to be research “guinea pigs”.  In fact, your own facility has a web site where people can sign up for that very thing.  Why are you dismissing the idea of skipping the “animal” part, and just doing the human research you will still need to do anyway?)

In fact, Talman’s job is trying to convince people that animal research is a great idea.  Here’s an issue of The Physiologist, published by the American Physiological Society — he’s the chair of the APS Public Affairs Committee (or at least he was in 2006 — check out page 44/266 of the PDF).  This is not a disinterested party listing verifiable facts — this is an invested participant feeding you propaganda.

For what it’s worth, my aversion to his arguments is not just automatic denial.  Despite all that I have seen I still think it’s possible to perform animal-based research humanely.  Do I think that we are doing so right now?  Particularly in research?  God no.  Do I think any of Talman’s arguments in this article are valid?  No.  I call absolute shenanigans on this man, and I really wish the Greeks hadn’t written Sacred Cows already, because the urge to explain why this man is wrong is making me want to write it again.  Perhaps I should just mail him a copy.

DIY Mad Scientist Kit Only $99.99

There’s a viral video going around of someone playing “Insane In The Membrane” through the chromatophores of a squid, causing a pretty visual effect.  I’m sure the squid would have been thrilled to know it was sacrificed in the pursuit of such valuable knowledge.

There is a very real possibility that the squid was alive for this “experiment”.  There’s no indication in the video itself, and I can’t find research by the lab (run by Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA) which describes its preparation of squid fins for such video, but here is another video by the same lab, which purports to be of “live squid skin closeups” and shows extremely similar footage.  Is anyone else watching the “Insane” video and seeing a live squid being electrocuted so that someone can watch pretty colors dance to Cypress Hill?

Photo via mjas on morguefile.com

Hanlon’s lab is doing actual research on squid coloration and how the animals use color for visual communication; the company responsible for the frivolous “Insane In The Chromatophores” video is called Backyard Brains, and bills itself as “DIY neuroscience for everyone“.  This makes me nervous.  On the one hand: encouraging kids to think about science and to play with the world: this is good.  On the other hand: encouraging kids to rip the legs off live cockroaches to demonstrate neuron activity…”Don’t worry, they can grow back“?  Really?  Their newest “experiment” is the RoboRoach, which encourages kids to wire live roaches up to little electronic control units and steer them around.  I’m speechless.

I’m all for teaching kids science!  Learning is valuable and education is vital, and hands-on experiments are great for getting kids involved and interested.  But…surely there is some other way to demonstrate this phenomenon?  Even if the insects are, as the authors claim, anesthetized, and the hands-on research really does “increase understanding of neuroscience concepts“, what is this teaching kids about treating animals as things whose needs do not matter compared to ours?  How long until little Bobby wonders if the cat also twitches when you wire him up?

Favorite sentence: “It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like ‘If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.'”

That makes it all terribly convenient, doesn’t it?  The cockroach doesn’t care about the loss of a leg in a way it can communicate to us (or in a way that we care to receive), therefore it just doesn’t care, and therefore we can just lop the leg off a cockroach whenever we like, to show kids things about nerve conductivity.  Even if it is valuable science — maybe we could just do this once and then share the video?  We could set it to Cypress Hill.

Apes Still Quite Bright, Humans Remain Insecure

Just a little interesting thing I noticed about this New Scientist article about Kanzi, a bonobo who has, over the course of 30+ years working with humans, learned to do…something.  In fact, he’s learned to do a vast number of things, but it’s hard to say what he knows, because people keep tripping over the language used to describe what he knows.  The question appears to be whether, when an ape, say, uses matches as a tool to start a fire (and then cooks a marshmallow on a stick over it), the ape is using matches as a tool to start a fire, or if it is imitating the uniquely human ability to use matches as a tool to start a fire, without actually having that ability itself.

Apparently the scientists have taught Kanzi how to make stone tools which resemble those made by our ancestors.  And here he is in a video, spontaneously making one and then using it to open a log in which some food is hidden.  The New Scientist article duly reports upon this ape which can make and use primitive tools which closely resemble early human tools, but ends with a lot of not-entirely-impartial reassurance that this tool-using ape is not really a big deal, because Kanzi was taught by humans to perform this task, and “whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear”.  Why does it matter whether apes can make stone tools?

One of Jane Goodall’s most controversial discoveries about chimpanzees (cousins to the bonobo, and also apes) was that they made and used (not stone, but plant based) tools.  This disquieted people because humans had been using “use of tools” as one of the distinguishing characteristics which “set man apart from the animals“.  This begs the question Why does man need to be set apart from the animals? but I digress.

The discovery was made almost fifty years ago, but we have not yet gotten over this issue.  Look at how worried the New Scientist article is about implying that apes can use tools, or behave even the least little bit like humans!  “Since these animals are raised in unusual environments where they frequently interact with humans, their cases may be too singular to extrapolate their talents to their brethren.”  I might say they were being cautious about not extrapolating things from the original research which are not strictly true, but when the same publication wrote an article about how scientists have produced a substance which temporarily halts reproductive ability in male mice, it did not use a title like “Scientists Temporarily Halt Reproductive Ability in Male Mice”; it announced “First Non-Hormonal Male ‘Pill’ Prevents Pregnancy“!  Clearly this is not a publication unduly worried about implying possibly misleading things through overenthusiastic interpretation of research results.

Likewise, the title of the Kanzi article is the somewhat sensationalist “Bonobo Genius Makes Stone Tools Like Early Humans Did” — an assertion which the rest of the article then goes on to state, then almost flat-out deny — and there, again, is the bias.  How do we know Kanzi is a genius bonobo?  Apes are hard to keep in captivity — our sample size in this particular research is two bonobos.  Kanzi could be a genius, unusual bonobo…but is it not more statistically likely that he is somewhere under the “average” part of the bonobo bell curve?  Why is it so important that he be exceptional?

The more we relate animal behavior to human behavior, the more we blur the line between human and animal, the less we are able to think of ourselves as something other than animal.  This causes problems on multiple levels:

Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

– Dr. Louis Leakey

Contrast the New Scientist article with articles from the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, both of which serve a more animal-friendly clientele.  No mention of how this behavior may not occur in the wild (Do wild bonobos need stone tools?  Is there evolutionary pressure for such a talent?), just a lot of admiration (and, alas, reference to that bedeviled “baby chimp feeding a baby tiger” photo which really needs to stop getting passed around).  In fact, both of these articles actively paint pictures in which Kanzi is replicating the first steps of the human journey towards tool use and civilization.  What an interesting contrast of style!

Online Learning Tool: Animal Ethics Dilemma

While searching Amazon for more books to eat, I found a mention of a free “online learning tool” called Animal Ethics Dilemma.  It presents five case studies (focusing on the use of genetically modified animals, specifically monkeys, in research; the welfare of farmed chickens; euthanasia of aggressive pets; rehabilitation of wildlife; and slaughter plants) and provides various ways to explore the issues presented by these situations.  It encourages the user to  consider various response options to potentially real-world situations.

Overall, it’s well put together.  It does a decent job of introducing five broad areas of animal welfare.  The exploratory answer options tend to be a little fixed — the tool is trying to introduce the user to five (debatable) points of view (“contractarian“, “utilitarian“, “relational“, “animal rights” and “respect for nature“) and, instead of allowing freeform answers, the tool forces you to choose between five fixed answers, each representing one of the categories.  I don’t honestly believe that any one of these viewpoints is entirely right in all situations, but the division helps to simplify the problems a bit for initial interpretation.

You do have to create a username and password to use the thing, but it’s free, and it never asks for any personal information.  It’s designed to let you create a profile of yourself before experiencing the tool, and compare it to a profile of yourself after working with the tool.  It’s interesting, and it’s not preachy.

For what it’s worth, I personally figure as highly “utilitarian” and “animal rights”.

Animal Capable of Human Speech is Remembered for Smoking Cigarettes

Various news sources are telling me that a “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee” passed away on Saturday, December 10.  The name of the chimp in question is Booee (or Booie), and this immediately pinged my memory: was that not the name of a signing chimp — one of the chimps that researcher Roger Fouts communicated with while he was raising Washoe, arguably the most famous of the signing chimps?

Image from Wildlife Waystation Facebook

I wasn’t hallucinating.  Here’s a link to a heart-rending little scene from the book Next of Kin, where Fouts describes meeting Booee again after many years apart.  And that’s the same Booee, a lifelong lab animal, unwilling participant in probably several dozen experiments until being briefly featured on a television show made him less than political to keep.  He was moved to the Wildlife Waystation in California in October, 1995.

This particular chimpanzee could speak to humans.  He used sign language to do so, but he could do so — one of the first of a tiny wave of “animals” which could speak a human language.  He was part of the community that helped open the door between humans and their closest cousins, the great apes, and helped to start the (still ongoing) movement which is trying to get chimpanzees out of the laboratory.  He is part of the snowball that started the avalanche of things like the Great Ape Protection Act, which would have been unthinkable when Booee was born.  This guy is one of the founders of a little, slow, quiet revolution in the way humans think about animals.

And something like 90% of his obituaries say “he was on television once”, “he smoked cigarettes”, and “he begged for candy”.  Why are those chosen as his defining attributes?  Are they just the only ones the news outlets think we’ll understand?  Booee is a historical figure.  He did a lot for animal/human understanding and the promotion of the idea that animals are not just automatons with fur.  It might be hard to encapsulate the meaning of what he was, what he did and the way he changed the world into a blog-sized sound bite, but “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee”?  Is that all we can come up with?

I know that the news media are just trying to garner readers, and that “cigarette smoking chimpanzee” probably: a) resonates better for most people than does “signing chimpanzee” and b) is “cuter” and more “sound bite friendly”.  But please — is that the only thing you can think of to say?  (Here’s the Wildlife Waystation obituary for Booee, in case you’d like to see how to do it with class.)

Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)