Friday, July 27, 2012

That's Just Not How It Works

I have noticed throughout my biology studies that the general public is grossly unaware of the rigorous ethical standards that biological and medical research has to adhere to. While with medical research I started to understand why after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the misinformation that circulates regarding animal research is astounding, more so that very few people actually step up to correct it. While with other forms of misinformation that circulate in the public there are plenty of people who are not necessarily experts in that field that step up to the plate to refute it, there seems to be a general lack of knowledge when it comes to the ethical process when conducting research on animals. Television also tends to perpetuate the stereotype of the at-worst-sadistic-at-best-indifferent scientist (while also perpetuating old stereotypes in medical research as well – both the placebo and treatment groups get the treatment at the end of the clinical trial guys, I get it makes for good dramatic television to pretend otherwise but enough already), and it doesn’t help that the media go right along with it instead of taking the time to educate the public on a little known fact. I’ve been thinking about writing a post detailing the process for a while now, and a few days ago this post came up on Pharyngula. I’ll let PZ Myers explain:

Now in those old observations, we weren’t really manipulating either the brain or the environment: you don’t get to do that with human babies! All we were doing was documenting the natural progression of synaptic connection density — which, by the way, declines rapidly as the brain learns and refines. What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn’t see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing.
For that, you have to tinker. And since you can’t do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

And the most common animal models for studying the visual system in humans are mammals: cats (also ferrets, for technical reasons involving some of the pathways). And since we’re interested in the plasticity of the brain in young, developing animals, you can see where this is going.

Neuroscientists do experiments on kittens.


I’ve done experiments like these in the past, and even more substantial surgical manipulations. The investigators know how to do these experiments humanely: we know about anesthesia, for instance, and anything involving surgery on animals is tightly policed by Institutional Review Boards (actually, they tend to be discouraged by IRBs, but that’s a different complaint), which usually have veterinarians serving on them. If Buyukmihci has evidence that these surgeries were done in a way that did not minimize suffering, he should speak up, and the neuroscience community would join him in deploring them.
But these protocols went through Cardiff University’s ethical review process and the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. There’s no reason to think they were anything less than impeccable.

Ralph Cook, some politician or bureaucrat: “It’s an academic producing a paper which is meaningless and can’t be transferred to humans. Vivisection is completely wrong.”
No, actually, most of this research isn’t just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations. I had a child with ‘lazy eye’ at birth: the doctors (as well as the parents in this case) knew how important it was to correct this problem as quickly as possible, and gave us protocols (tested in cats!) that we could implement until she was old enough to get surgery.


Scientists don’t do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens. These are experiments that advance our understanding of the wiring of the brain.
I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved, and having done similar work, I also know that good investigators do their best to minimize it. My second job as an undergraduate was as an animal care assistant in a surgery, and one of the things I was paid to do was to spend a few hours a day just playing with post-op cats and kittens, and making sure that their housing was clean and comfortable. These were conscientious scientists. They needed to do these experiments, but they also cared about the animals. I was really impressed with their concern and respect for the animals they had to do experiments on.

So after the Mirror published yet another ridiculously misinformed and biased article, they sent it to a poll, expecting of course for the public to outrageously vote No! Kitty experimentation not OK!

I went over and voted yes, not because I think it’s awesome to randomly experiment with cats, but because I understand how these experiments work and how, at the moment, they’re the best and only option we have. Trust me, scientists are looking for ways to avoid using animals in research: it’s complicated, it’s expensive and getting the experiment approved by the ethical review boards is grueling and time-consuming. Unfortunately at the moment we have no other option, and the decision at the end is that the knowledge gained from these experiments is worth it. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, it’s not as cut-and-dry as some of the other online polls I’ve voted in, but I voted the way I felt was right.

Well, the Mirror was not happy that it’s grossly biased poll did not pan out the way they wanted it to, so what did they do? They reposted the exact same article with the exact same poll, changed the title, and added the subtitle 

Animal lovers across Britain were left out outraged by our story yesterday, however, in our poll, just 54% of people said it was wrong

Golly gee! How did our hatchet job get such mixed reviews?! No assholes, that’s not how it works.

You don’t just get a do-over because you don’t like the results. How about doing a follow-up article about why people didn’t fall for your stupidly biased approach, actually going into what bioethics is and how it works? How many times are you going to lazily repost the exact same article under a different title before you accept that the numbers are not on your side?

This time, just to spite them, I want to vote from a few different computers.

You all should go vote too, if for no other reason than sending the message that you can’t ask people a question then ignore the answer just because you don’t like it.

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