Wednesday, November 27, 2013

UW-Madison: Stacking the deck against animals

The university has announced the creation of new service that is apparently intended to provide assistance to campus scientists who have questions about the ethics of the experiments they plan to conduct.

On Campus: UW-Madison creates ethical consultation service for researchers

November 25, 2013 1:30 pm • JEFF GLAZE | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6138

UW-Madison researchers dealing with human or animal test subjects will have a new tool for navigating ethical uncertainties.

The university announced last week the creation of the Research Ethics Consultation Service, which will provide assistance to researchers on campus and at affiliated research centers.

The announcement comes roughly seven weeks after the National Institutes of Health cleared a UW-Madison laboratory of cat abuse allegations made by the animal rights group PETA. While there had been a recurring problem of infections related to the placement of head caps, eye coils and ear coils, the NIH found that cats generally were treated according to industry standards.

The consultation service is co-directed by Norman Fost, professor of pediatrics and bioethics in the School of Medicine and Public Health; and Pilar Ossorio, professor of law and bioethics and ethics scholar-in-residence at the university’s Morgridge Institute for Research. The idea is to provide varying levels of consultation based on the challenges of each case. For more complex situations, the consultation service will bring together a panel of university experts in topics such as human subjects, animal welfare, intellectual property or conflict of interest.

Ossorio estimates the service will get 20 to 30 inquiries a year based on consultation programs at other universities.
See too: New ethics consulting service to help UW scientists navigate gray areas

You might imagine, and I'll wager that the spin-doctors expected that you naturally would, that Norman Frost and Pilar Ossorio are well qualified to advise on the ethical, dare I say moral issues that could come into play when one takes the time to consider the use of animals as research tools. But no, they aren't. I suspect they were selected because of the absence of evidence that they have ever given the matter an iota of consideration.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that choosing someone without a clear opinion on a particular matter can at times be the best course, particularly so if the issue is a moral one and you hope that an opinion can be formed based on the presentation of a body of evidence. We do this to a degree when selecting juries, and we tried to do this when we pushed to have Dane County create a citizens advisory committee to consider the ethics of using monkeys as research tools at the university a few years ago. (The possibility of a genuinely honest evaluation of what they do to the monkeys frightened the begeezus out of the university and they worked successfully behind the scenes to convince then county board chair Scott McDonell to scuttle our effort.)

But this case isn't like that at all. These two "bioethicists" have publication histories that provide some insight to what they believe. Norman Frost has been writing about the ethical quandaries surrounding medical research since at least 1973. PubMed lists about a hundred papers by him on the topic. That's 40 years of thinking about the ethics of medical research. As far as I can tell, during the past four decades he has brushed up against the issue of using animals only once; that was in a very brief paper from 2006, titled "The great stem cell debate: where are we now? Cloning, chimeras, and cash." You can read it here.

He says:
Stem cell lines, like most other new biomedical technologies, will have to be tested in animals. When the organs involved are hearts or livers or kidneys, the ethical questions are familiar ones about animal welfare and avoiding spread of infectious diseases. The new issue involves studies in which human brain cells could be implanted into a laboratory animal. In the worst case—and at this point imaginary—scenario, creative thinkers wonder whether a fully functioning human brain could develop inside, say, a goat, and if that did happen, should we think of it as a really smart goat, or as a human trapped in a goat’s body: the so-called “Help, let me out of here” fear.

Most scientists believe this is, and will remain, science fiction. They feel it is biologically highly implausible that human brain cells could organize themselves inside a goat’s head and function in a sufficiently organized way to raise concerns. National and local committees have developed guidelines to reduce the risk of such experiments. For example, one recommendation is that these studies not be allowed to use non-human primates, where the likelihood for a functioning brain might be higher. And ethicists are increasingly directing their attention to the legitimacy of such concerns, and whether further restrictions are needed.
Two implications of his opinions of animals that emerge from this passage seem fairly clear. 1. The "familiar" ethical questions that arise when using animals have never motivated him to address them; and 2. His only concern is the creation of neurological chimeras that could have human minds. Apparently, the experiences being lived by a goat don't rise to the level of needing even a comment.

You can visit his university page here.

And then there's Pilar Ossorio. Here's what her webpage says:
Dr. Ossorio's research interests revolve around research ethics and the protection of research participants, including: governance of large bioscience projects; data sharing in scientific research; the use of race in biomedical and social science research; ethical and regulatory issues in human subjects research; and the regulation and ethics of online research. She is also quite interested in novel ethical, regulatory, and policy issues raised by research aimed at moving scientific and engineering findings from the laboratory to the product development and medical/therapeutic applications (translational research).
PubMed lists seventeen publications from her since 1999 that address the ethics of medical research, none of which have anything to do with animals. In the thirteen or so years that she's been thinking about the ethics of medical research, not once, as far as I can tell, has she addressed the use of animals in her published papers.

I did though find a pdf of a set of slides from a presentation she gave. You can see the file here.

Here's the germane slide, notice the close similarity to the points raised by Frost. It seems reasonable to imagine that they hold similarly vacant views about harming animals. Neither of them seem to have noticed that there is someone looking back at them. They both appear to me to be dead to the notion.
Animal Safety Concerns...

• Injecting human stem cells into animals could create a variety of chimeras
– Yuck factor!!! But...
• We already make a variety of human – non-human chimeras during research
• Beyond the yuck factor: “What is actually wrong with making chimeras???”

– One possible problem
• Create an organism that has human-like cognitive or emotional qualities. It’s existence could constitute a harm, or we could inadvertantly [sic] harm it in research by failing to recognize its interests or rights
And yet, these are the two "experts" named by the university who will help guide vivisectors through the possible ethical issues they might encounter. (I wonder if either of them are vegan?) The new "Research Ethics Consultation Service" would be a scream if the actual screams from the labs weren't quite so blood-curdling.