Sunday, December 16, 2012

Primate center leader shouldn't be allowed to talk to children

A friend recently sent me a quote from Jon Levine, the relatively new Wisconsin National Primate Center director. Levine was interviewed by the university’s On Wisconsin Magazine; you can read it here. When he was asked what he thought the primate center’s biggest challenge was, Levine answered that it was money, the implication being that Levine doesn’t seem to think that finding cures or making some progress in the treatment of human diseases is as large a challenge as keeping the dollars flowing in. Maybe Levine knows in his heart that the likelihood of human benefit from the center’s work is pretty much nil anyway, so he probably just wants to work toward something attainable – like a fancier building.

I’d read the interview before (and left a comment), but did again, and something he said caught my eye. Here’s the question and answer:
Q: What do you tell someone — a child, for example — who asks you about the use of monkeys for biomedical research?

A: That we are the good guys. We play by the strictest of rules, intended to ensure the humane and careful utilization of a precious resource. And we have the best of reasons for the work we do. I do not hesitate to give children an explanation in terms they can appreciate. For example, many kids know someone who has been diagnosed with some form of leukemia. We are developing methods to take blood cells from cancer patients and reprogram them into “induced pluripotent stem cells” — make them younger versions of themselves, before they became cancerous. Those induced cells can lead us to an understanding of how blood cells become cancer cells and how we might better treat leukemia.
He’d have been more succinct if he’d simply said, “I side-step the question and lie to them.”

The primate center's staff has a long history of lying and breaking the rules. They lied matter-of-factly and in writing to Dane County officials multiple times over an eight year period as they secretly and in direct violation of their written promises that they wouldn’t, took monkeys from the Henry Vilas Zoo, experimented on them in their own labs, and sold them to other labs around the country.

They lied again and covered up the horrible details of their experiments when they shredded 628 videotapes documenting nearly two decades of experiments on monkeys. They destroyed them when it looked very likely that a public records request was going to force them to give a copy of one of the tapes to anticruelty activists who they must have imagined were likely to make it available to the public.

Play by the rules? Not hardly; that’s something the real good guys do.

Levine says he gives children explanations for the things they do to monkeys in terms children can appreciate. Utter nonsense. He says: “many kids know someone who has been diagnosed with some form of leukemia.” In fact, relatively few children are likely to know someone who has been diagnosed with leukemia.

Here’s what the National Cancer Institute says:
On January 1, 2009, in the United States there were approximately 271,880 men and women alive who had a history of leukemia -- 152,698 men and 119,182 women. This includes any person alive on January 1, 2009 who had been diagnosed with leukemia at any point prior to January 1, 2009 and includes persons with active disease and those who are cured of their disease.
According the US Census Bureau’s Quick Facts, in 2010, there were approximately 73,172,693 children (someone under 18 years of age) in the U.S. According a mathematically inclined friend, this means that if Levine was talking to a class of 20 students, it’s likely that two of them would know someone with a history of leukemia.

But what about his claim that scientists at the primate center are “developing methods to take blood cells from cancer patients and reprogram them into ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’”?

There are two main ways I go about fact checking a statement like this. I look for publications that demonstrate such research being conducted at the primate center, and I look for active projects underway at the primate center that mention some iteration of “induced pluripotent stem cells” or leukemia or cancer.

Searching PubMed, the National Library of Medicine’s extensive on-line database, I was able to locate 137 scientific papers from scientists working in labs in Wisconsin that have the word pluripotent in the title. Of these, I found only one that involved the use of monkeys: Pluripotent cell lines derived from common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) blastocysts. Thomson JA, Kalishman J, Golos TG, Durning M, Harris CP, Hearn JP. Biol Reprod. 1996.

The large majority of published papers that focus on induced pluripotent stem cells from scientists in Wisconsin use human cells. Some older ones involve the use of mice, a few use other animals, but none other than the one above seems to report on the use of monkeys.

Turning to on-going projects at the primate center, the NIH on-line search tool RePORTER returns 32 currently funded projects at the University of Wisconsin, Madison when using the search term pluripotent.

Of these, only one involves the use of monkeys (Project Number: 1R01NS076352-01A1 Contact PI / Project Leader: ZHANG, SU-CHUN Title: INDIVIDUALIZED CELL THERAPY FOR PARKINSON'S DISEASE).

As far as I can tell, the closest thing to a match for Levine’s claim is the work of Igor Slukvin, who has an office at the primate center. He says that his research focus is: “hematopoietic development from pluripotent stem cells; de novo generation of hematopoietic stem cells.”

Hematopoiesis is the scientific term for the formation of blood.

He conveniently lists ten of his publications. Of those (again using PubMed), none involve the use of monkeys. Slukvin seems not to have published a paper involving the use of monkeys since 2007, and only the very last one of those, a report on possible ways to mitigate the inadequacy of monkey as models of hematopoietic stem cell therapies in humans is even vaguely in line with Levine’s claim. (Differential requirements for hematopoietic commitment between human and rhesus embryonic stem cells. Rajesh D, Chinnasamy N, Mitalipov SM, Wolf DP, Slukvin I, Thomson JA, Shaaban AF. Stem Cells. 2007.)

So, getting back to what Levine says he tells children:

1. “we are the good guys.” Wrong.
2. “We play by the strictest of rules... ” Wrong.
3. “... intended to ensure the humane and careful utilization of a precious resource.” Wrong.
4. “And we have the best of reasons for the work we do.” Wrong. It’s all about money.
5. “I do not hesitate to give children an explanation in terms they can appreciate.” Wrong.
6. “For example, many kids know someone who has been diagnosed with some form of leukemia.” Wrong.
7. “We are developing methods to take blood cells from cancer patients and reprogram them into “induced pluripotent stem cells” — make them younger versions of themselves, before they became cancerous.” Wrong. Or maybe, but if so, it has nothing to do with monkeys. At best he's misleading children with a bait and switch tactic.
8. “Those induced cells can lead us to an understanding of how blood cells become cancer cells and how we might better treat leukemia.”

His last point is interesting. Coincidentally, I recently finished Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulizer Prize winning history of cancer and oncology, The Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee is an oncologist. I’ll wager that he knows a bit more about the history of cancer and the present state of cancer research than Levine. Nowhere in his book does he mention the use of “induced pluripotent stem cells” to model cancer cells.

Mukherjee points out that hematopoietic stem cells seem to possess the characteristic that sets cancer cells apart from other cells: immortality, or at least the ability to divide many many times before becoming quiescent. But the characteristic of endless dividing is the common feature of all cancer cells. Understanding the cause of this unique characteristic is likely to be discovered by comparing the cells that have it rather than the cells that seem to have something akin to it occasionally. Furthermore, even if the examination of induced pluripotent stem cells might be useful to understanding cancer, there would be no reason not to use induced human pluripotent stem cells. So, to the degree that Levine was trying to defend or justify the use of monkeys by imagining some way they might be used, he is wrong again.

Real good guys generally tell kids the truth.

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