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 injuries. The 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.