Tuesday, June 25, 2013

[Animal research] hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem... E. Zerhouni


From New Vantage

Ex-Director Zerhouni Surveys Value of NIH Research
By Rich McManus

On the front page...

Nearly 5 years removed from his NIH directorship, Dr. Elias Zerhouni returned to campus June 4 to offer his views about how to value NIH research economically in an era of flat federal research budgets.


“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse—which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped—researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem…We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” NIH RECORD Vol. LXV, No. 13. http://nihrecord.od.nih.gov/newsletters/2013/06_21_2013/story1.htm

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"[The Dalai Lama is] the human embodiment of compassion."

There was an article published at the end of May in Madison's Capital Times newspaper titled "How meditation can make the world a better place." The paper summarized the article's main point: "Psychological Science has published a study by UW-Madison graduate student Helen Weng that suggests people can learn how to be more compassionate towards others and themselves." I responded with a piece the editors titled "Madison's love affair with Dalai Lama hasn't benefited its animals."

The article on Weng's research came on the heals of the Dalai Lama's ninth visit to Madison. Here's a little bit of the coverage: "Dalai Lama, in ninth visit to Madison, stresses altruism and compassion."

I understand, to some degree, the frenzied adulation of Elvis, but I am continually amazed by the gullibility and studied ethical blindness of the non-native Tibetan followers of His Holiness. I love that title; it always makes me chuckle.

My article rankled Zorba Paster, a local medical doctor and well known local celebrity. Wikipedia says:
Robert Zorba Paster, MD is a physician and radio show host. Paster was born and raised in Chicago. He hosts a weekly radio call-in show on personal health issues called Zorba Paster on Your Health. The show is produced by Wisconsin Public Radio, sponsored by Public Radio International, and is broadcast on public radio stations around the United States. The show's trademark is a lighthearted, humorous approach, made possible by Zorba's banter with his co-host, Tom Clark. The show's style is somewhat similar to National Public Radio's program, Car Talk, providing callers both with good advice and kind-hearted ribbing.

Paster came to the defense of His Holiness: "Dalai Lama human embodiment of compassion."

Dr. Paster characterizes himself as an amateur Buddhist who has been friends with the Dalai Lama since 1976. Amateur Buddhist? Is that like an amateur Baptist? Does he mean that he's not a professional Buddhist? It's not clear what he means, but it is clear that he is a Buddhist who is intimately associated with the local Tibetan Buddhist center and monastery Deer Park.

In my editorial, I pointed to the plain fact that UW-Madison researcher Richard Davidson promotes meditation as a way to increase compassion, is a personal friend of the Dalai Lama's and is involved in invasive brain research into the neurobiology of fear using young monkeys. I also pointed out that His Holiness eats animals and supports animal experimentation. Paster claims that the Dalai Lama's support for hurting and killing those weaker than ourselves, and Davidson's active role in such work, are examples of compassion. How is it that someone smart enough to get through medical school and finagle a national radio show can be so seemingly blind?

There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called Guru Yoga. One source describes it this way:
Guru Yoga — the practice of merging one’s mind with the wisdom mind of the master. The practice consists of visualizing the guru (either in his own form or in the form of deity), requesting his blessings, receiving his blessings, and merging one's mind with the master's wisdom mind.

His Holiness has his name on a book titled: The Union Of Bliss And Emptiness: Teachings On The Practice Of Guru Yoga. I don't think it likely that any long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism isn't also a practitioner of guru yoga, a fundamental practice in Tibetan Buddhism. And Paster's claim of being an amateur Buddhist is at odds with his long intimate involvement with Lama Lhundub Sopa, or Geshe Sopa, the head of Deer Park. I suspect that Paster and his wife have spent many years trying to merge their minds with his; and I suspect that any Tibetan Buddhist from a sect that has not been banned by His Holiness imagines or tries to achieve some sort of mind meld with the Dalai Lama's wisdom mind as they visualize him as a deity. It makes perfect sense that someone would react with vigor when the perfection of their deity is questioned. Less understandable is the time it can take us to realize that our idols have feet of clay. Unfortunately, the phenomena is very common and frequently leads to muddied thinking and obedience to those with much less than good intent.

Dr. Paster makes some false and odd claims outside his weak defense of His Holiness's and Davidson's embrace of cruelty in his editorial that I'll address here.

-- "The University of Wisconsin has been actively involved in primate experiments since Harry Harlow opened the Primate Center back in the '60s. The reason that many are disturbed by primate research is that we are so close to monkeys on the evolutionary chain. They look just like us. Yet that research has been invaluable in improving maternal and child care and investigating the root sources of anxiety."

This is the recitation of mythology. See my essays:
Harry Harlow's Dark Shadow
Children Need Love and Hugs: A Brief History of Maternal Deprivation
And, Harry Harlow and Stephen Suomi, a chapter from my book, Monsters.

-- "Primate trials were critical to Drs. Salk and Sabin’s developing the polio vaccine, which saves millions of lives every year. Is this bad stuff? Most people would agree with me that ethically done, primate research engineered to help mankind is important to do. The key word here is ethical."

First, the "millions" of lives being saved each year is pure hyperbole. In 1952, at the peak of the polio epidemic in the U.S., 3,145 died from complications related to the disease. This is a lot of people, but polio doesn’t even make the 1952 (or any other year’s) top ten list of the leading causes of death. Polio was hyped only because President Roosevelt had the disease.

Until polio could be grown in vitro, reservoirs of the virus were maintained through serial inoculations of rhesus macaques with tissue containing the virus. If one looked only at that fact, it could appear that the monkeys were a key element in the effort to develop a vaccine. But the whole story suggests something else.

Monkeys harboring the virus were killed and their brains harvested. This is the tissue that was used to inoculate the next batch of monkeys in order to keep a supply of the virus on hand. The virus-laden tissue was injected into their nasal passage and the virus quickly migrated into their brain. But the repeated reinoculations with brain tissue led to the development of a strain of polio much different from that circulating in the human population.

Additionally, because the results were so unambiguous, that is, injecting polio infected tissues into the nasal passages did indeed cause polio, it was falsely believed for a generation that polio was air-borne, when in fact, in natural settings it is ingested orally and lodges first in the gastrointestinal tract.

This was recognized early on by scientists studying humans, but the animal data was so compelling that a generation was lost as scientists based their studies on a different strain transmitted in a different way. The breakthrough came when scientists stopped culturing the virus in monkeys. Nobelprize.org says:
The 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John Franklin Enders and his junior associates Thomas Huckle Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins "for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue." For forty years, dependence on a monkey host for propagation of the polio virus limited progress in basic studies until 1949 when Enders, Weller and Robbins showed how cultures of kidney and other human and monkey cells could produce large quantities of the virus. This breakthrough opened the way to studies that set standards for precision in investigations of other viruses and led directly to the engineering of the Salk and Sabin vaccines that eliminated the dreaded specter of a disabling and often lethal disease.
It remains to be seen whether or not the use of monkeys was either critical or ethical.

-- "Bogle suggests that eating animals is inherently bad. But in fact, even the most strict vegetarian cannot avoid eating animals, i.e., insects. The proof comes from vitamin B12 studies. There is absolutely no source of vitamin B12 in the plant kingdom; it comes from animals. Research of South Indian lifetime vegetarians shows that their B12 comes from insect parts found in grains, flour, legumes and beans. Even a vegan isn’t be immune from animal destruction."

In my experience, "experts" believe the things they "know" to be true and rarely stop to question them. Vitamin B12 does not come from animals. See Microbial production of vitamin B12. Martens JH, Barg H, Warren MJ, Jahn D. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2002. Some animal tissues contain B12, but this is because they eat foods that are contaminated with the micro-organisms that produce B12. No one needs to eat animals to get a sufficient quantity of B12.

Paster seems to me to be claiming that because no one can live in a way that doesn't ever cause others harm that we ought not be upset when someone harms others willfully. Because a purported vegetarian in southern India may get get a trace of vitamin B12 from a dead bug in the grains they eat, it's OK to eat animals generally. Wow. Just wow. What ever happened to Harm no sentient being?

-- "Now on to Bogle’s most outrageous implication — that Tibetan Lamas subjugated the Tibetan people for 800 years. I wonder if Bogle has ever been to Tibet, as I have numerous times. If he had, he would have seen how Tibetans are subjugated by their Chinese overlords, who claim that they “liberated” them. This is classic communist propaganda. Tibetans are quickly becoming a minority in their own country. You need only see the human immolations that are going on in Tibet to see how desperate Tibetans are."

I've never been to Tibet. Paster's trips to the holy land seem not to have resulted in much knowledge of the region's sociopolitical history. Tibet's history, as far as human rights are concerned, is not much different than the history of every other feudal state's. There has been a slow improvement over time. Thubten Gyatso was two years old in 1878, when he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and became the 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet, the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso's immediate predecessor. Thubten Gyatso died in 1933. In 1937, he was reborn and became the current Dalai Lama. Anyway, it appears that there is some doubt or lack of clarity, but it was probably Thubten Gyatso the 13th Dalai Lama who more or less ended the caste-based slavery that apparently was common at the time. Some writers who visited the country just prior to the 1950 invasion by China, report seeing people with missing appendages as a result of being punished by the government. This doesn't sound very unlike some parts of the Middle East.

Tibet in 1950 wasn't any more progressive than any of its neighbors. Were average people being subjugated by the Lamas? Of course they were. There isn't democracy in the belief that those in charge are in charge because they are reincarnated rulers.

Self-immolation is a relatively common practice in Buddhism. In fact, if you look up self-immolation on Wikipedia, it is an essay on Buddhism. In other words, if the Chinese had invaded and subjugated someone other than Buddhists, no one would be setting themselves on fire.

I think Zorba Paster ought to have said up front that he is actually a long-time Tibetan Buddhist and a personal friend of Richard Davidson. He ought to have checked his facts before offering advice on people's nutritional needs and on the development of the polio vaccine. He paints a misleading picture of the self-immolations and ignores the reality of Tibetan history.

I don't care about Tibetan Buddhism any more than I care about any other religion. What drives me up the wall is media's absurd reporting on the great compassion of the leader of the church and UW-Madison and its vivisectors using the Dalai Lama's endorsement of vivisection to claim that hurting those weaker than themselves is compassionate.