in support for using animals in research has sparked an aggressive national
campaign to promote it.
By JIM SPENCER, Star Tribune
had leprosy? Thanks to animal research, you won't."
message, emblazoned on 15 billboards around the Twin Cities, strikes at
the heart of a largely hidden but heated health care battle being waged
beyond the national debate over access to medical care. The billboards are
part of a new, aggressive national push by biomedical researchers to promote
and defend the use of animals to test drugs and medical devices. Across
the country, the campaign is also playing out on cable TV commercials, websites,
Facebook postings and Twitter tweets.
organizers say a serious drop in public support of animal research for scientific
and medical reasons forced their hand. From 2000 to 2008, they say, Americans'
support for that research using animals shrank from 70 percent to 54 percent.
A Pew Foundation poll in July found that only 52 percent of Americans support
such research. That's why the Foundation for Biomedical Research is investing
more than $1 million in its "Research Saves" campaign. Pollsters
told foundation president Frankie Trull that without a widespread public
education effort, Americans' support for scientific animal research will
drop below 50 percent next year and could lead to legislative and regulatory
research restrictions that Trull says would have huge implications on public
policy and human health. "We need a celebrity spokesperson, but can't
find one," said Dick Bianco, an associate professor of surgery at the
University of Minnesota Medical School, who is part of the campaign. "If
we could get a celebrity, that would change everything. By nature, we're
a bunch of introverted nerds." Not anymore. Supporters of animal research
believe advances in the treatment of many diseases are at stake in this
campaign. The result is a full frontal assault on the emotions of average
citizens and a no-holds-barred verbal attack on the violent methods of a
few extreme animal rights activists. While the leprosy billboards speak
unequivocally and, organizers believe, effectively, the campaign's most
effective weapon so far seems to be a TV commercial featuring a physician
who is a breast cancer survivor who also conducts breast cancer research
using animals. In the spot, she holds and addresses a mouse. "One of
the problems we have nationally is that people don't see the connection
between science and biomedical research and progress," said Mayo Clinic
research dean Dr. Michael Joyner. "Things like heart valves and statins
wouldn't be here without animal research."
of animal research answer that public aversion to hurting animals is tipping
support away from medical testing on animals and eventually will force academic
institutions and businesses to find alternatives. "I'd rather see [animals]
euthanized than go to a research facility," Minnesota Animal Rights
Coalition president Charlotte Cozzetto said of stray dogs and cats in shelters.
She thinks the new campaign "smacks of desperation." Andrew Rowan,
the chief scientific officer of the Humane Society of the United States,
calls it futile. "We're on the downward slope of animal research,"
he said. "It's going to continue to go down no matter what we do."
The Research Saves campaign "is a fairly pitiful attempt to gather
support for a cruel industry," added Kathy Guillermo, vice president
of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA). Risky business Trull says poll numbers are starting to reflect progress
two months into her group's year-long campaign. With 170 billboards in 10
critical metropolitan areas and 3,000 commercials airing on 33 TV networks,
the Foundation for Biomedical Research says it has already boosted support
for medical animal research to nearly 61 percent. However, most women (52.2
percent) and people ages 18 to 24 (55
percent) remain opposed. Democrats (50.6 percent) barely approve. "The
big challenge is sustainability," Trull said. "We think the American
people don't understand. We need animal research to cure terrible diseases."
Groups opposing animal research have effectively muddled that message, Trull
said. Most opponents "think they're saving puppies."
has surgically implanted thousands of heart valves into sheep to test the
valves' usefulness and safety before they were tested in humans, but he
admits, "We're the worst in the world at PR." At the same time,
by speaking out, scientists might risk serious injury. Dario Ringach, a
professor at UCLA's medical school, once used monkeys to test ways to restore
vision in blind patients. Ringach said he gave up his research in 2006 after
masked protesters descended on his house
and terrorized his family. Another UCLA med school faculty member, David
Jentsch, continues to do animal research on the genetic causes of mental
illness. But since March, when someone blew up his car in front of his house,
he said, he has done so with taxpayer-paid armed guards securing his home
around the clock. Trull says these examples of intimidation have made it
hard to recruit biomedical researchers to appear in the Research Saves campaign.
But she says the campaign cannot succeed unless the research community "puts
a face on" animal research. One of those faces will be Bianco's. His
work has been digitally recorded as part of a series that the Foundation
for Biomedical Research plans to air on the Discovery Channel. "I follow
rules and work on something that helps human health," he
said. "If you abuse animals, you should get fired."
'dungeon chambers'. Some people don't make that distinction. Having received
death threats, Bianco sits at a desk that includes a panic switch connected
directly to the U's Police Department. Blue panic switch boxes dot the walls
of his experimental surgery lab a few floors below. The Humane Society and
PETA decry violence by animal rights activists. But PETA's Guillermo said:
"The real violence is going on inside the laboratories. Very little
is going on outside." To dispute that notion, Bianco opens his experimental
surgery lab to the media and high school students. "I realized PETA
was effective in the high schools," Bianco said. "So
I bring high school students to my lab. I've had almost 10,000 high school
students through to see what a medical laboratory really is. I let them
see the animals. These aren't dungeon chambers." A recent procedure
to insert an experimental plastic valve in the heart of a sheep was like
human surgery - sterile, professional and as painless as possible. Unlike
human surgery, it could not be harmless. The sheep on which Bianco operated
will be "terminated" after a certain number of months and a necropsy
-- the animal version of an autopsy -- performed to see if the heart valve
it received was biologically compatible. This is the state of the art and
Researchers must do animal tests before they move to clinical trials using
humans. Similarly, to teach the insertion of heart valves to physicians
requires the use of sheep that must then be killed. The use of larger animals
in medical experiments is decreasing, experts say. Mice and rats now make
up more than 90 percent of animals used in medical tests. And, Bianco noted
wryly, "We have many more controls than the Orkin man."
alternatives. Critics such as the Humane Society's Rowan and PETA's Guillermo
wish more money would be spent developing alternative technologies instead
of animal research. In an August letter responding to the anti-animal research
group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the U of M med school's
emergency department announced that by year's end "simulation models"
will allow the U to stop using live animals to train medical students in
That day has not come for everyone. "I have friends who disagree with
what I do," said senior scientist Peggy Norris, who directs Bianco's
lab. "I'll respect anybody's opinion based on fact. If you can design
a system without animals, I'll quit tomorrow." Even Rowan, a Ph.D in
biochemistry, agrees that technology cannot yet supplant all animal research
for medical purposes. But if the research community coordinates its efforts,
he believes it can end all animal research sooner than later. Walter Low,
a professor of neurosurgery at the U Medical School, is not so sure. An
erosion of support for animal research will lead to a "downturn in
innovations for people who have diseases," Low said. Getting a solid
majority of Americans to once again acknowledge that will require empathy.
As he implanted a plastic mitral valve into the heart of the sheep on his
operating table, Bianco made the same point that the Research Saves campaign
hopes to make. "If we can get a plastic heart valve that works in a
child," he said, "the mother of that child will be on our side