Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

While in Canada, many universities and institutions remain mum on their animal research activities, researchers in Europe are taking a proactive approach.  There are a few possible reasons for this difference in attitude.  The European research atmosphere is slightly different than that of Canada’s: Certain groups of primates have a legislated right to “inherent value” for example, while no such rights exist in Canada.  Whatever the reason, scientists in Germany and Switzerland have launched an educational initiative called the Basel Declaration which pledges to be more open about research and to engage in public dialogue about research.

As Nature News reports:

“The public tends to have false perceptions about animal research, such as thinking they can always be replaced by alternative methods like cell culture,” says Stefan Treue, director of the German Primate Center in Göttingen. Treue co-chaired the Basel meeting, called ‘Research at a Crossroads’, with molecular biologist Michael Hengartner, dean of science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Outreach activities, such as inviting the public into universities to talk to scientists about animal research, “will be helpful to both sides”.

I think that this is a good point that Dr.Treue brings up – the importance of dialogue cannot be understated.  He also makes a good point, that alternatives like cell culture are not always viable or indeed, may not be the “alternative” that activists would hope for.  Growing cells requires a hodgepodge of media to keep the culture alive.  One important constituent of cell culture media is fetal bovine serum, or sometimes fetal calf serum, which as the name suggests, comes from cows.  [Note: FCS and FBS are by-products of the meat industry and would be otherwise wasted if not used by research].  But it is important to note that the absence of research on animals does not mean that animal products will not need to be used in research and is a prime example of how science does a poor job of communicating what it does.

[Note: it is possible to grow cells serum-free, but the cost remains prohibitive at the moment]

And, there is the simple fact that cells grown as tissue culture are just not quite the same as cells in a living body.  Just ask Mark Post, who’s trying to create lab-grown meat.  Using biopsies from donor animals and tissue culture techniques, he’s trying to grow enough meat to create a sausage that looks and tastes like the real thing.  Dr. Post’s long term goal is to create meat without needing to slaughter animals.  While he’s succeeded at growing a strip of pork muscle, the “meat” does not resemble anything from the grocery store.  The tissue is weak and prone to cell death due to lack of stimulation and without the support of a proper vascular system to deliver nutrients uniformly.

A similar case can be made for the use of computer modeling.  I think computer models are great – they drastically reduce the cost of research by allowing researchers to narrow the field of interest.  But at best, computer models only reduce the number of possibilities.  When it comes to testing drugs, for example, a computer model cannot predict all the effects on a substance on a whole body system.  We simply don’t have enough information about all the interactions that occur in the body.  Yet.

That is not to say we should not pursue new tissue culture or modeling techniques.  Quite the opposite – these techniques will improve with time and refinement.  In time, they may even be sophisticated enough that human clinical trials are less reliant on animal data for safety and efficacy testing.

But in the mean time, hopefully initiatives like the Basel  Declaration will foster more openness between the public and the animal research community.

Read Full Post »

Wow, what a crazy weekend.  I had a lot of fun at ASH 2010 and I’ll put up a post on that soon.  If any readers are contemplating a trip to Orlando, I have to warn you – the water is absolutely disgusting.  At the convention centre, at the hotel… everywhere…  I do not advocate bottled water, but I kid you not, the tap water smelled and tasted like swamp.  I am eternally grateful to live in Vancouver where the water is decent and good food is the norm rather than the exception!!

  • The world this week has been fixated on the Wikileaks cable releases and the subsequent back lash from the United States government.  I think as writers, we should all be concerned when governments begin to pressure private companies to take action against a publisher of information, be it Wikileaks or your local newspaper.  Where is the backlash against the person who actually stole the information in the first place?
  • Speaking of media – scientists and bloggers  have rallied together to critique and question NASA’s press release and publication on arsenic-based life, and NASA’s subsequent dismissal of the “credibility” of bloggers.
  • The recent shark attacks in Egypt are now being attributed to multiple sharks.  While frightening for tourists and  residents, I can’t shake the dark feeling that some people will again use these attacks to justify hunting sharks, when in fact, illegal feeding and irresponsible “tourism” is most likely to blame.

Not a lot of good news, I’m afraid!  On my end, I will be finishing up part 2 of both the biogeography and rodent anesthesia series this week, stay tuned!  I should also have a new blog coming up on the Stem Cell Network in the next week or two.


Read Full Post »

There was another flurry articles appearing in student media this past week over UBC’s animal use.

UBC publication The Ubyssey published an article and a well written opinion piece, remarking on the difficult nature of the debate.  Indeed, they echo many of my own sentiments when they remark that “moderate, progressive voices” are needed in this debate.  Mud slinging and fear mongering on both sides does nothing for animal welfare.  Until people are willing to talk rationally about the issues, no real progress can be made for either side.

It’s gotten to the point where being concerned about animal welfare is enough to send people into a frenzy of recrimination and accusations, while being a biomedical researcher arouses suspicion and distrust.  No doubt this blog will get passed around in numerous clandestine emails where I will be alternately skewered or praised by people too afraid to talk about their own opinions.  And why are people afraid?  Part of it is because we have not done a good enough job of educating our researchers and technicians about ethics and educating our public about science.

That’s one of the reasons I found my university ethics classes to be so insightful – it taught you to leave the emotion aside, think critically about an issue, and look at the scientific, ethical and philosophical arguments on both sides of a debate.   This is an important skill that I feel a lot of people are lacking.

Unsurprisingly, I was the only science-oriented researcher present in a 40-person class on biomedical ethics.  😛

Read Full Post »

I have to admit, I had decided to lay off criticizing CALAS Pacific (at least for a little while) and focus on more important issues in science, ethics and research. But time and again, CALAS is practically falling all over themselves to give me writing material. And this one takes the cake.

Remember the little thing you learned in school about how copying other people’s works is bad? Well, apparently that message did not resonate with the members of the CALAS Pacific executive committee.

In their latest newsletter, they’ve cut and paste an article verbatim from Associated Free Press journalist Otto Bakano, entitled “Sniffer ‘hero rats’ saving lives in minefields and labs”. I’ll remind everyone that this newsletter is a PAID access newsletter. You must subscribe to receive it. And reprinting another person’s work in a paid access newsletter without credit, a byline or even a link to the original article and author is illegal, unethical and completely disrespectful to writers everywhere.

Here’s the original article, again.

And here’s a cut out of the newsletter. I will note that since this article is not legally theirs, I am not reprinting private material. I blanked out the name of the CALAS member who physically submitted the article. Nice that they gave her credit for googling an article but could not give credit to the author, eh?

“From different websites”?  A simple google search of the title clearly yields the name of the author of this article.  Not so hard to give a guy his due credit is it?

Writers, bloggers and social media unite! Nothing is worse than having your work and words stolen without due credit. To know that your work is populating a paid subscription while you are not receiving any compensation – insult on top of injury.

And in case anyone would like to argue that the Associated Free Press is happy to have people redistribute their work, here’s their disclaimer (2), which is found by following the “copyright” link at the end of the original work:

Copyright © 2010 AFP. AFP text, photos, graphics and logos shall not be used for commercial purposes, reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium. AFP shall not be held liable for any delays, inaccuracies, errors or omissions in any AFP content, or for any actions taken in consequence. AFP materials may not be stored in whole or in part in a computer except for personal non-commercial use. As a newswire service AFP does not obtain release from the subjects, individuals, groups or entities contained in its photographs, graphics or quoted in its text. Further, no clearance is obtained from the owners of any trademarks or copyrighted material where the marks and material are included in AFP photos or content. You shall be solely responsible for obtaining any and all the necessary releases from whatever individual or entity is necessary for any of your uses of AFP material. You agree to indemnify AFP from any losses, damages and expenses (including reasonable attorney fees) it incurs as a result of any claim based on your use of its materials in violation of these terms.

Think this sucks? Let’s let the world know!

Leave a comment on my blog!
Retweet the following on Twitter: RT @AlbinoMouse Writers and bloggers deserve credit for their work! http://bit.ly/9VcG7p #CALAS

Disclaimer: (1) I am not personally associated with AFP in any way.  (2) Bolding in this text is my own edit, and not theirs.

Read Full Post »

During the course of research, rodents are commonly euthanized for tissue collection, to end suffering or to terminate surplus animals.  Several methods of euthanasia are possible, and out of these, CO2 euthanasia is most preferred.

An overview of the types of euthanasia available:

Cervical dislocation describes a method in which the head is separated from the spine.  If performed correctly, it can be a quick death.  However, it is technically demanding and any errors would result in suffering by the rodent.  Due to it’s technical nature and the potential for error, it is not a commonly used technique.

Decapitation describes the physical separation of the head from the body.  Some investigators may pursue this method of euthanasia because it does not contaminate the blood or the tissues, which may be of importance in some studies.  While the death itself is quick, again, it relies on the skill of the technician to perform the euthanasia quickly and flawlessly.  Additionally, the handling and restraint required to decapitate a rodent may cause unnecessary stress prior to death.

Chemical methods of euthanasia are generally brought about through the use of lethal injections, typically barbituates. These are generally administered through a subQ injection.  Chemical euthanasia does not require a lot of handling nor technical skill, but some chemicals may be controlled substances or be considered too costly and time consuming to use on large numbers of animals.

Finally, CO2 euthanasia is a form of gaseous euthanasia.  It is the most common form used in laboratory animal science.  It is cheap, requires little to no technical skills, and has some anesthetic properties.  In this form of euthanasia, carbon dioxide is allowed to gradually fill a chamber containing one or more rodents.  As the oxygen levels decline, the animals are rendered unconscious, followed by death from asphyxiation.

While CO2 euthanasia has been the go-to method in recent years, a 2006 thesis by a UBC Animal Welfare Program grad suggests that CO2 euthanasia may cause distress* in rodents due to the dyspnea (the sensation of “breathlessness”) that precedes unconsciousness.   The idea that CO2 euthanasia causes distress in rodents has been explored in other studies as well.

I will note that the UBC Animal Welfare Program does not harm animals used in it’s research nor does it breed animals for the purposes of research.  All animals used are “surplus” from other labs which would have otherwise been euthanized. I will also note that all information provided here is freely available from the above mentioned papers, Wikipedia, and other online sites.

KM Conlee, ML Stephens, AN Rowan and LA King (2005) Carbon dioxide for euthanasia: concerns regarding pain and distress, with special reference to mice and rats. Lab Anim 39:137-161.

Lee Niel Ph.D. (2006) “Assessment of distress associated with carbon dioxide euthanasia of laboratory rats” (thesis)


* “Distress” is one of those nebulous, poorly defined words used in animal research.  Much like “ethics”.  😉  For the purposes of this post, I use “distress” as defined by the author: “… an umbrella term that encompasses negative affect associated with more specific negative states such as pain, discomfort and fear”.

Read Full Post »

So I got some more posts upcoming but had a bit of a busy weekend – I picked up an extra weekend shift and also visited the parents.

  1. I made an edit to my Metacam post after discussing it with a much respected colleague.
  2. Lots of stuff in the local news about the peril faced by sharks.  I wrote about this issue earlier in the year for a different newsletter and I’m trying to find my original article to post here… stay tuned and stay away from shark fin soup.
  3. Check out “Brain Cuttings”, a new eBook by Carl Zimmer – awesome.  Here is a review and interview by Steve Silberman.
  4. I’m writing an article about public opinion of stem cells – would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.  What do you think of stem cells?  Leave a comment or message me privately.

Thanks all.

Read Full Post »

Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving all!

Today was marked by a veritable flood of media attention on the continued UBC animal research debate.  A diverse range of media groups including CBC News, the Vancouver Sun, and online sources presented opinions and stories on the ongoing request for UBC’s animal research data.

Why UBC has not responded with a clear and definite answer is beyond me. Science has benefited so much in the last 10 years thanks to the increase in and availability of open-source platforms. Indeed, many institutions are actively pursuing publication in open source media, due to the incredible increase in journal prices. So why the secrecy with animal experimentation?

It doesn’t help when some animal rights groups still present data from the 1950s and voraciously denounce “vivisection”. Which of course, is followed by scientists denouncing activists as “nutcases” or the like.

In reality, both sides need to move forward, if only for the betterment of animal welfare.

Yes, vivisection is bad. It describes a “live dissection”. But it doesn’t happen in modern research. When tissues are required that can’t be obtained by sampling, the animals are euthanized humanely and then necropsied (AFTER death) for their tissues. To continue to rail against the practice of “vivisection” does not help the cause of animal welfare. True, many groups will continue to use it because it evokes horrific images of cruelty – but do you want to change science for the better, or just inspire mistrust and promote ignorance? (Note: If examples of vivisection can indeed be found in modern research, please castrate the instigators, with my blessing. 😉

Yes, crazy car-bombing family-threatening activists are bad. But that doesn’t describe everyone. Most people just care about animal welfare. Sure there are nut jobs out there, but pick ANY cause and you will find that there are people who like to cause trouble who are drawn to “causes”. That doesn’t mean that the cause itself is bad.

Activists need to be shown that animals are, at the very least, being treated humanely and that animals are only used when absolutely necessary. They need to be able to understand modern scientific data and use examples from modern research to support their causes. I highly recommend some of the research which UBC’s Animal Welfare department has done. For example they have found that the most commonly used method of mouse euthanasia, CO2 asphixiation, may actually be more distressing to mice than originally thought. Disturbing, since it is so widely used.

Scientists need to better understand the ethical concerns raised by activists. They are valid concerns! It is disturbing that so few science majors take philosophy or ethics, because as we have seen in the past, science without morality is a dangerous thing.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the situation as it unfolds. Check back for updates!

Read Full Post »

I’ve had a busy few months with moving and changing jobs, so a lot of my mail has been waylaid. I dropped by the old research facility this past weekend and found that I had some mail waiting for me, including the September issue of Lab Animal.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but my favourite part of the magazine is the “protocol review” section. There are always good ethical issues being raised (though I don’t always agree with the conclusions of the people who write in!) This month was no exception.

The article describes a researcher who submits a protocol to his local animal committee for review. His protocol involved the testing of a drug which prevents hearing loss associated with age. The animal committee suggested the researcher use the same animal for both testing and control (ie. drug in one ear, saline in the other) as this would reduce the numbers of animals required by half. The researcher complied, and had good results from his preliminary study. So he submitted a grant application to the NIH, using a similar study design. However, the NIH argued that he should use separate animals for control and treatment because the drug could have migrated through the blood stream from one ear to the other, thus affecting the “control” ear. The animal care committee still argued for using the same animals for both control and treatment. So what does the researcher do?

The answers given in the magazine is the usual mix of scientific righteousness and idealism. The answer favoured by most respondents was that the animal care committee should not be dictating scientific protocol. Ouch. So we should let science, untempered by ethics and humanitarian concerns, run it’s course? I would disagree.

It’s hard to judge the case because not a lot of detail is provided about the study itself. However, it did say that the study looked at whether this drug could improve hearing as animals age. So, instead of having a side by side comparisons, could they have instead quantified the animal’s hearing before administering the drug and then quantified it again after administering the drug? Improvement in hearing could still be detected then. Or, perhaps the drug itself needed to be improved before further experiments. For example, did the investigator know how long the drug could persist before decaying? If it decayed rapidly, it may not even be possible for it to reach the other ear, thus rendering the issue moot. Or, could the drug be applied topically, somehow?


Read Full Post »

The UBC/animal research debacle continues this past week with an article in the Georgia Strait.

I am cautiously supportive. Even though I believe that animal research is sometimes justified (AFTER exhaustive tissue culture testing and AFTER we understand a certain system well and ONLY IF the people using the animals are well trained in both methodology and ethics… which doesn’t happen nearly enough…)

I think that any amount of attention towards the welfare of animal research is a good thing. 🙂

I used to work in animal research, as I’ve mentioned before. A lot of things convinced me to change careers, and this was one of them.

One of the turning points for me was a biomedical ethics course I took at UBC. I took this class after I had been out of school and working in biomedical research for a few years. Initially, I only took it because I thought it would be an easy class. But in the end, it really opened my eyes. Even though the class focused on human biomedical ethical decisions, much of the underlying theory can be applied to research animal ethics. And I realized then, that a lot of biomedical research cannot be justified morally. Some, yes. But not all.

For example, one underlying idea in moral philosophy and ethics is the idea of “use”. Do we have a right to “use” another creature for our own purposes? Many would argue yes from a utilitarian perspective – the argument of “the greater good”. But even while “using” we have responsibilities.

The Canadian Council for Animal Care recognizes animals as sentient – in other words, capable of feeling, capable of pain. Of suffering. There are good guidelines in place in this book. And yet, they are not mandatory. And yet, UBC continues to let researchers with foreign credentials do research on mice with standards that are unacceptable in North America. There are labs which refuse to give animals the proper pain medications or use proper, sterilized instruments. Veterinarians are handcuffed by institutional rules which do not allow them to conduct surprise visits on animal facilities. Technicians who care for the animals are overworked and under-educated, and not allowed the time to train properly.

So what would I tell UBC?
Teach your technicians and students and staff how to use and care for animals so that we do not use more than necessary. Stop allowing PIs to coerce grad students into to use mice just so that they can get their name on another publication. And give the public the means to shut down those labs who violate the standards of animal care in North America.

Read Full Post »

I learned recently that the professional group I used to belong to (CALAS) spent $250 on a failed restaurant deposit in a bid to throw a party for one of the executives.

*hangs head*

I’m not sure what to say about this group of people, other than the fact that I’m deeply ashamed that they have taken members money and spent it so frivolously and without consultation. They have only had one educational seminar this year and one webinar that cost nothing. This is a group that is supposed to be educating the research technician community in Vancouver, and they are throwing away money on restaurant deposits????


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »