A word about animal research and animal rights

Animal research is a controversial topic in some circles.

ucla-van-on-fireAs some of you may know already, a UCLA group has recently banded together to counter-protest the fear-mongering tactics used by animal rights activists. Before UCLA Pro-Test became a reality, researchers on campus would hide away when on campus demonstration came our way. No more.

Dr. David Jentsch, who was one of my UCLA advisors, had his car burned and his work, and life, threatened by one of the more extreme, terrorist, animal-rights groups. I’m all for debate, but blowing up cars makes you lose your place at the table as far as I’m concerned.

So what are the animal-rights arguments?

Animal rights groups claim that animal research is simply sadistic and that it does not benefit us at all.

The notion that animal researchers enjoy hurting animals is so wrong as to be insulting. I’ve conducted animal research myself and know dozens of others who have. Not one of us enjoys hurting animals and we do our best to conduct everything in ways that minimize any discomfort to the animals. Additionally, government regulations regarding animal welfare in research are very strict and highly regulated. Research involving animals is always done while considering its necessity and weighing alternative options (like using cells, tissue, computer models, etc.).

The thought that animal research doesn’t benefit us is naive at best, but more likely purposefully misleading. Here’s a small, partial, list of advances that were made possible through animal research:

  1. Penicillin (mice)
  2. Insulin (dogs, mice, rabbits)
  3. Anesthetics (rats, rabbits, dogs)
  4. Polio Vaccine (mice, monkeys)
  5. Heart transplants (dogs)
  6. Meningitis Vaccine (mice)
  7. Cervical Cancer Vaccine (rabbits, cancer)
  8. Gene therapy for Muscular Dystrophy and Cystic Fibrosis (mice).
  9. Techniques such as bypass surgery, joint replacement, carcinogen screening & blood transfusions have all been developed & improved using animals

Now if anyone wants to claim that none of the above have significantly improved, or indeed saved, human lives, I’m ready for the debate.

Alternatives to animal testing for drug safety come to the U.S.

Here at A3 we’re not new to the animal research debate but we don’t feel as if we’re on the front lines either, especially after working along side researchers who get death threats, dangerous mailings, and Molotov cocktails thrown at their cars (see here for other article on animal research). Still, I know that my own personal experience and knowledge allow me to understand that at least for now, research using live animals is necessary in some contexts (like when we study actual behavior) but that technology might offer alternatives in others.

An article in the journal Nature Medicine chronicles recent efforts by governmental agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and advocacy groups are pushing forward with the idea of computer databases that will allow pharmaceutical companies to assess the toxicity of new products early in the development process. Continue reading “Alternatives to animal testing for drug safety come to the U.S.”

Addicts’ brains depressed but normal users… normal.

A paper that’s about to be published in the journal Science has found at least part of the difference between the brains of addicted individuals and those that use recreationally.

The question as to why only some people get addicted to drugs has been a difficult one to answer. Still, there’s no doubt that only a relatively small fraction of those exposed to drugs develop the compulsive, often destructive pattern of use we associate with addiction. The pattern holds in animal research too – even though all the animals in an experiment get the same amount of drugs, delivered in the same way, only some of them develop addictive drug taking. It seems there’s something different about addicts’ brains, but what is it?

What’s different about addicts’ brains?

We’ve found quite a few things that differentiate addicts’ brains from those of normal research participants. These include lower density of a certain type of dopamine receptor (D2), reduced activity in specific brain parts like the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) that are important in decision making and behavioral control. Still, if we start with what is supposed to be a pretty similar group of rats and give them all the same drug, for the same time, in the same amounts, why do only some get addicted?

This recent study found that a specific neuronal process called LTD (Long Term Depression), that is important in learning (or what we call plasticity) is suppressed in addicted animals for far longer than in animals that end up not not displaying addictive behavior. Even though all animals displayed this sort of deficiency in LTD right after learning to take drugs, only the addicted animals showed it when tested two months later.

Since the difference was seen in an area of addicts’ brains called the Nucleus Accumbens, a very important area for learning about rewards, it seems likely that it plays an important role in addicts’ inability to change their behavior after they’ve started using drugs. Past research has already identified this as a problem with something we call “reversal learning” but it seems we may have just found at least part of the mechanism.

Now we have to figure out why some animals show this sort of pattern and others don’t. Genetic variability seems like a good place to start here.

Citation:

F. Kasanetz, V. Deroche-Gamonet, N. Berson, E. Balado, M. Lafourcade, O. Manzoni, P. V. Piazza, Transition to addiction is associated with a persistent impairment in synaptic plasticity. Science 328, 1709–1712 (2010).

Like advancements in medical care and science? Then support animal research

There was a Pro-Test for Science rally on the UCLA Campus today.  The goal of the rally was to spread awareness about the utility of animal-research and to help combat extremists and prove to the community and world that the ethical use of animals for biomedical research is absolutely vital to the progress and success of advancements in science.

Many of the treatments that we discuss on this site are available because of extensive research with animals. In fact, many scientific discoveries have been possible largely because animal research is an available tool for researchers. Immunizations, medical treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes treatments have all been advanced greatly through the use of biomedical research with animals. Of course, great care is always taken to ensure humane treatment of the animals used.  Animals prove a vital part of advancements in medicine, genetics and other research.

Biomedical scientists endure many trials in order to become experts in the type of research techniques we’re talking about here, including extensive schooling, years of training and of course many thousands of hours spent in a lab, all for the benefit of humanity.  They should not have to additionally endure the harassment of extremists and fear for their safety and the safety of their loved ones who often are caught in the middle.

Debate is healthy; discussion is good. But the harassment and terrorizing of researchers must stop if we’re to consider ourselves an open, educated, society. All biomedical researchers want is to better society by finding cures for the many things that plague our world today, so what everyone should really be doing is thanking them.

Co-authored by Jamie Felzer

A perfect little game that teaches all about drug use and addiction

No matter how much work I put into it, I don’t think I’ll be able to come up with a cuter, more fun, or more educational way to teach you all about what drugs do in the brain than the game on this site (click the link). It’s like you get to do your own, harmless, version of animal research (I wish it was really that easy).

However, if after playing this adorable little game you still have questions, come right back and ask them here. I’m sure I’ll be able to expand on whatever you learned at this great University of Utah website.

Drug use memories and relapse: Can medication provide addiction help?

About a year ago, while sitting in a lecture on learning and memory, the idea that certain drugs can affect the emotional responses to memory long after the memory itself has been formed came up. As someone interested in addiction research, the implication for treatment immediately came up in my head:

Could we reduce the effect of triggers by giving people a pill?

In one word – Yes! But, the answer is not, in fact, that simple. Even in the studies already done in PTSD patients, the memories have to be re-triggered and the drug given at exactly the right time to be effective. In fact, in humans, some of the best work has been done in PTSD patients immediately after the traumatic event.

Addiction help through relapse prevention

Still, a recent study in animals suggests that the theory is sound. By interfering with the activity of a neurotransmitter important in the formation of memories, researchers were able to stop animals trained to self-administer cocaine from doing so. The animals, which had been trained to push a lever for cocaine when a light went on, reduced, or even stopped responding after a single dose of a substance that blocked memory formation. Essentially, the researchers prevented the animals from relapse. Again, this only worked if the drug was given while the light (as in the drug-trigger) was presented at the same time.

More recent studies, using repeated doses of the drug propranolol, have been shown to have an even more promising effect. Check out my coverage of that research here.

Given the powerful role of triggers in relapse, this avenue of research has some promising possibilities for future treatment of drug addiction.