Opinion: We can advance science without hurting animals

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Courtesy of Charlotte Chaze
Charlotte Chaze, a former biomedical engineering masters student makes her case.

“Science for the sake of science” is a mantra used in academia when research is geared toward quelling a curiosity rather than solving a problem. These studies result in interesting albeit useless information, and they objectively take funding away from labs that are working toward curing diseases, fighting climate change and creating medical devices, just to name a few applications. As if funding “science for the sake of science” isn’t insulting enough to taxpayers, many of these studies harm animals, despite most people agreeing that animal research isn’t justified without a beneficial outcome.

In the Roth Lab at the university, this is exactly what’s happening. Here, newborn animals are forced to ingest alcohol and receive opioid injections, babies’ feet are electrically shocked and infants are torn from their mothers and placed with intentionally distressed foster moms who neglect and abuse them. And it’s all subsidized with federal grant money. As a university alum, I’m disappointed. As a taxpayer, I’m upset. And as someone who cares about animals, I’m outraged.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the experiments taking place in the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The Roth Lab intentionally terrifies pregnant rats by squeezing them into PVC tubes only 2.5 inches wide three times a day for three weeks, and by bombarding them with high-frequency strobe lights and white noise. The experimenters want to see the effects this experience would have on their babies.

Rats are also subjected to the “forced swim” test in which they’re dropped into inescapable water-filled beakers while experimenters record how long they struggle. Unwanted newborns are killed by injecting liquid formaldehyde directly into their hearts, a killing method that is not approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association because it’s considered inhumane.

The aim of this research is to induce trauma to see if physical and psychological abuse results in altered DNA methylation representative of impaired mental health. In other words: does abusing rats cause certain genes to turn on and off, and does this correlate with their mental health?

Students of Tania Roth, the lab’s principal investigator, say that her justification is, “Would you rather I do this on human babies?” This suggests that the research is necessary to begin with, and insinuates that if you oppose her research, you must support human child abuse.

But psychological research has already shown us that child abuse results in impaired mental health, and we already know that DNA methylation occurs in response to environmental factors, such as exposure to trauma. To truly help human children, funding should be reallocated to childhood mental-health research rather than cruel and useless experiments.

Despite the extreme suffering they cause, these experiments continue because rats are excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the state of Delaware exempts laboratory experiments from cruelty-to-animals prosecution. If the same abuse was inflicted on an animal outside of a laboratory, it would result in cruelty-to-animals charges.

Although these experiments are legal with respect to cruelty statutes, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare documents reveal that the Roth Lab has repeatedly violated federal guidelines by failing to properly care for the rats. According to these documents, one rat drowned to death during a forced swim test when the researcher failed to notice that the rat was no longer able to keep his head above water. In another incident, an experimenter restricted food without approval, and the rats lost 15 percent of their body weight in just nine days. In a third incident, a fire poured smoke into a room in which 75 rats were caged, and the university killed all of them, claiming the stress of the smoke would have affected any data obtained from the animals. All that misery, fear and death for nothing — a total waste.

The National Research Council states that animal models should be replaced as soon as possible. They’re outdated, time consuming and expensive, not to mention harmful to animals and irrelevant to humans. The university should end these experiments immediately, and the NIH should redirect funds to programs and treatments that directly benefit child abuse victims using practical and innovative research techniques such as computer models, testing on human cells and tissues and working with consenting humans. It’s clear that victimless methods are the future of research to alleviate suffering; we will not find answers in the pain and suffering of rats. As a biomedical engineering alum from the university and a strong believer in the humane treatment of animals, I know we can do better.

Charlotte Chaze received her Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the university. She can be reached at charlotteachaze@gmail.com.

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  • comment-avatar
    Marion Achoulias 9 months

    Thank you for this very interesting article. It is good news to see an increasing number of scientists to take a stance on vivisection.

  • comment-avatar
    Marion Achoulias 9 months

    Thank you for this important article. The times of sacrifice are soon over as an increasing number of scientists are finally questioning the status quo.

  • comment-avatar
    Susan Keegan 9 months

    UD Class of 1975–I totally agree with the sentiments of Charlotte Chaze. I continue to be appalled by the lack of sensitivity on the part of some researchers and their staff.

  • comment-avatar
    Leslie Kudner 9 months

    A very thought provoking and well written article. Why are we subjecting our young scientist, not to mention the animals, to such a cruel and  outdated mode for discovery? Kudos to the professionals like Charlotte Chaze that promulgate a new humane status quo.

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    Bailey Weatherbee 9 months

    I am currently a graduating senior in the UD Biological Sciences department and there are a number of points that I feel need to be addressed here.

    1 – Ms. Chaze’s flip opinions on “science for the sake of science” are misguided. Yes, there are clinical application laboratories that exist that may be easier for taxpayers to see the direct benefits of as compared curiosity-driven basic science; however, even knowing where to begin that application-focused science has necessary roots in basic science. Someone with these views 50 years ago would have said: “why study junk DNA, it’s not relevant, there’s nothing there that can be applied to health – spend the money on something more relevant.” Yet, because of taxpayer funding investment in people Ms. Chaze deems useless, we now know that “junk DNA” contains non-protein coding genes such as microRNAs which are now major targets for developing cancer therapeutics.
    This diminutive attitude towards basic science, if applied on a large scale, would totally stall innovations and prevent clinical research of the necessary foundational knowledge it desperately needs to be applied. Simply look at the crisis of Thalidomide in Europe – a pregnancy drug that caused children to be born without limbs. With more background knowledge on the basic biology and molecular level events underlying limb development and the biochemical attributes of the drug, that crisis could have been avoided.

    2 – Ms. Chaze’s assumption that the work Dr. Tania Roth’s laboratory is pointless, and that the funding should be reallocated is also misguided. Firstly, I understand the feelings of Ms. Chaze in response to the experiments she explains. As I am not a member of this laboratory, I can not speak to the veracity of those details. I do, however, know that the Roth lab does study differential DNA methylation in response to early life stress. I find it completely baseless that Ms. Chaze suggests that the potential results from this work would provide nothing of value to help human patients. She argues that the funding should be reallocated to child mental health research, which I assume she means applying the background that differential methylation occurs to help children that have experienced trauma. My question then is: how? Will that research target differentially methylated genes to undo the changes of expression? Great. Which genes will you target? Are you sure that undoing that methylation wouldn’t cause more damage? Are you sure that this will make a difference for those children? What drugs will you use to demethylate those targets? How can you ensure off-base changes won’t occur? Will you just be baselessly testing random targets with no idea if you could be harming these children?
    Ms. Chaze has grossly, and irresponsibly oversimplified these questions. Dr. Roth’s work cannot be applied to human children yet, because these are key questions that we must know the answers to before this can happen. But, her work continues to get us closer to doing so. Therefore, as I’m sure we agree addressing the trauma of children is a worthy goal, how do we answer these questions? Right now, unfortunately, the only answer is with animal research.

    (PS to the above point about the Roth Lab – how silly to try and blame them and accuse them of wrongdoing for a fire their lab and work were victims of. I can assure you that they and the rest of the departments affected were deeply saddened over the fire and the damage and loss of animal life that it resulted in.)

    3- Ms. Chaze (willfully? purposely?) does not mention the events currently haunting the Roth lab. For months, PETA has been after Dr. Roth and her students. They went to the faculty senate and tried to get her fired, to ruin her life. She, and her students, have repeatedly and continuously received threats of violence and death. Ms. Chaze’s decision to pile on to this debate, name the laboratory, and more without addressing these issues is troublesome. Ms. Chaze seems to care deeply about the well-being of living creatures, I would hope the same care is extended to the researchers she lambasts here.

    4 – Ms. Chaze calls for an end of animal research altogether and replacement with computation, cell culture, and human patient-based work. This completely misses the nuances as to why animal work has and will likely continue to be necessary for science – especially basic biomedical science. I’ve described above reasons as to why basic science, not just obviously clinically relevant work, is important. I’ve also described some specific questions relating to the differential DNA methylation in response to childhood trauma that prevent a fast-track to clinical application. These points are relevant here as well. Additionally, I’d like to address the three options Ms. Chaze proposes as alternatives to animal work. Firstly, computational approaches are limited by our own background knowledge in the programming. Basic research is needed in order to even know what to enter, look for, and program into computational modeling or bioinformatic approaches. The technology and background knowledge as it exists is nowhere near sufficient in all fields of biomedical research to cut out animal models of disease and use of animals. Secondly, cell culture and human tissue culture does not necessarily accurately recapitulate the way those cells and tissues work in the body. For cells to be cultured in a laboratory, most of them undergo a process of immortalization that results in changes that could affect experiments. Also, cells, tissues, and organs in the body interact and cross-talk in ways we don’t necessarily expect or understand – isolating them for experiments loses this interaction, and we cannot always predict how that can change experimental outcomes. In terms of using human patients – again we really need sufficient background knowledge before applying biomedical research knowledge to humans safely (see point 2’s list of questions and point 1’s example of Thalidomide).
    Animal models are not perfect models for human health, at all. But they are a component of the process that has historically, and continues to, provide key insights into how things work within a functioning organism. Over time we’ve been able to understand where the key differences are between these models and humans, and using the techniques Ms. Chaze suggests are important to bridge that gap, but are by no means total substitutes.

    I personally believe that ethically conducted science necessitates the minimal use of cruelty and stress towards lab animals. The scientific community uses animals ranging from bacteria to flatworms to flies to frogs to rodents, and the conventional wisdom is to use the least “conscious” organism possible for all work – but some questions cannot be answered in bacteria, just as some questions cannot be reasonably answered in human patients. This article is incredibly irresponsible for someone who claims to have a scientific background and respect for this community. Ms. Chaze reduces so much complexity to a nothingness that can trick those who trust her into a misunderstanding of what the scientific community does, is capable of, and aims to do. Her accusations of non-usefulness are misguided and at points completely incorrect. Her only standing here is a moral belief of where a limit is for treatment of lab animals. That is a fair debate to have, but as someone with a scientific background, she has a responsibility to have that debate in good faith and not twist the very foundations of science. This type of piece, this type of flip attitude to scientific foundations, is part of what underlies belief vaccines cause autism or lack of belief in climate change. I, as someone who has worked so hard to become a member of the scientific community, simply will not stand for it.

  • comment-avatar
    Caryl Sawyer 8 months

    Bailey’s comments about thalidomide are inaccurate. A European drug company rushed it to market without sufficient testing. The head of USFDA realized this, and as a result, it was not available in the US. Since then, the FDS has been under the control of pharmaceutical companies.

    Animal testing is a scam, but it assures $$$ from the federal government. Bailey does not address that.

  • comment-avatar
    Doug 4 months

    Basing human medicine on other species does not help humans. This is a cruel fraud.
    ‘Lab mice…have responded quite well to an experimental Alzheimer’s vaccine…Lab rats with paralyzing spinal-cord injuries have walked again…And we’ve cured cancer in enough rodents to fill several New York City subway systems. For people, however, there is no cure for spinal-cord injury, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, osteoporosis, brain and other cancers…the list goes on….”
    (Sharon Begley, ‘Research lags due to few physician-scientists’, Wall Street Journal, 25 April 2003).

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