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Saturday, November 21, 2009

P. Michael Conn is a Liar

I hope by now you’ve had a chance to watch and digest the CNN segment on “animal testing.” The host was pretty weak, and whoever did the ahead-of-time preparations is probably deeply in debt since they more than likely believe every advertiser’s wild claim. They, and thus the host, swallowed hook, line, and sinker every bit of nonsense and venom spewed by the well-funded public relations machine misleadingly named the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Let’s start with P. Michael Conn’s second claim: “… if you look at recent history, things like polio, tuberculosis, and smallpox, they’re almost gone from the planet. These are triumphs of animal research.”

Setting polio aside for the moment, is tuberculosis “almost gone from the planet”? Not even close. Here’s what the World Health Organization says:
•Someone in the world is newly infected with TB bacilli every second.
•Overall, one-third of the world's population is currently infected with the TB bacillus.

In 2005, estimated per capita TB incidence was stable or falling in all six WHO regions. However, the slow decline in incidence rates per capita is offset by population growth. Consequently, the number of new cases arising each year is still increasing globally and in the WHO regions of Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia.
The Mayo Clinic calls it “a common infectious disease.” What a triumph for animal research.

I always smile when I hear a defender of vivisection claim that the near eradication smallpox is a result of animal experimentation. The story they tell goes something like this: Edward Jenner studied animals and invented small pox vaccinations. Thus, animal research is responsible for the victory over smallpox.

This to gibberish. Jenner did study animals; he is credited as being the first person to observe and write about newly hatched cookoos pushing the eggs of the nest-builder(s) out of the nest. This is called brood-parasitism or sometimes nest-parasitism. But his work on smallpox and smallpox vaccinations had absolutely nothing to do with animal research even though animals were part of the story.

Jenner used humans. In fact, he used his son as an experimental subject. Inoculation was not invented by Jenner. Records are sketchy as to when inoculation against smallpox began, but it was widely practiced in Asia for many years, maybe centuries, before Europeans learned about the practice and began to utilize it.

At first, inoculation aganist smallpox was with pus from lesions on a human victim. A small bit of “matter” was collected and inserted into a series of intentional cuts on the person being inoculated. This was called variolation after variola, the Latin name for smallpox. A very readable and interesting book on the history of variolation in the West is Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. (E. P. Dutton, 2003.)

In fact, Jenner had been variolated against smallpox. Variolation was not without risks, and a small but not insignificant number of people contracted serious cases of smallpox and some died. Jenner was hoping to find a safer method when he inoculated his son with pig pox.

His interest in a safer method than variolation led him to try pus from lesions on the hands of milkmaids who had contracted cowpox, or vaccinia. It was generally recognized that milkmaids were rarely stricken with smallpox. And thus, vaccination replaced variolation, and vaccination and vaccine became the generic terms used for all future inoculants and inoculations. Animal research had absolutely nothing to do with any of this.

It is worrisome that a publicly-funded scientist like P. Michael Conn, who has appointed himself spokesperson for the vivisection industry and has received over $1million in tax-payer support, is either unaware of the historical facts behind the invention of vaccination, the current incidence of tuberculosis, or is simply a liar. He is either wrong or else dishonest.

Polio is an interesting case. 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. 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.
And then there’s Tom Holder. Wow. He says:
No matter what Dr. Greek [MD, medical historian, author of five books on the animal model] says, the fact is, is that every single medical advance, we’re not just talking about most, we’re talking about every, single, medical advance in human history has come about because of research using animals.
Where did this kid go to school? He must read only industry-supported websites; it’s clear that he hasn’t bothered to read even a tiny bit about the history of medicine. Every, single, medical advance in human history. Words fail me. How can anyone be this totally ignorant; this indoctrinated? It defies belief.

The story of smallpox recounted above is sufficient to disprove Holder’s entire shtick, since even one example disproves his desk-pounding: every, single, medical advance. Not most, by God, every, single, one.

Here are a couple of medical advances that Tom Holder might consider reading about if he doesn’t want to continue looking like a total ignoramus: x-rays, the prevention of scurvy, cholera, the treatment of vesico-vaginal fistula, or even cleanliness in hospitals. I would strongly recommend that Holder start reading. A good first choice might be Roy Porter’s The Greatest Gift to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. (Norton, 1997.)

Holder is so woefully uninformed that nothing he says can be taken with much seriousness. He claims for instance that although there are differences between humans and all other species, that the similarities make one species a good productive model of another. I know it’s a lot to ask, but Holder ought to read LaFollett and Shank’s Brute Science (Routledge, 1996) if he can get through Porter.

At about 9:15 into the broadcast, the host cites statistics from the Foundation for Biomedicaal Research, essentially giving CNN’s stamp of approval, as far as viewers are concerned, to what is really nothing other than a front group for the industry.

Like Holder’s and Conn’s silliness, there isn’t much to these statistics if one looks at them closely. They are like a partially remembered dream; the more one thinks about them, the more vaporous they become. The plain facts behind what Conn calls the animal research war amount to a bare trickle of illegal and generally not very serious incidents. As far as illegal activities are concerned, there is nothing vaguely like a war going on. See: Illegal Incidents" on the rise?

At about 19:19, just as the segment is coming to a close, Greek challenges Conn to a debate noting that the animal research community isn’t genuinely interested in public discussion. Conn’s response is a gem of deception, delusion, an outright lie or some insane conglomeration of all three:
Dr. Greek knows very well that we’ve had discussions in the literature before, we’ve pointed out problems in his fact-gathering. My co-author of The Animal Research War [James Parker]documented the vast majority of the quotes Dr. Greek uses in his books and we were able to show that when you trace them back to the origins they bear very little resemblance to the original quote; [Holder begins nodding his head in agreement] they’ve undergone some sort of literary Photoshopping. When you find the individuals who these quotes were attributed to, in most cases they will distance themselves from the quote saying: "this is not my opinion, it’s not what I said, and its so far taken from context as to be unbelievable."

So we’ve done that experiment a number of times. Also, in the book we take Dr. Greek on head-on. In The Animal Research War we talk about a number of his issues. And if he’d like I’d be happy to send him a copy – no charge.
I paid for my copy of Conn’s little book. I say little not as a disparagement, but simply because it’s a little book. It’s just barely five and a half inches wide and not quite eight and a half inches tall. It's 199 pages long, including 42 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. Appendix A is a list of twenty questions; a sort of FAQ. Appendix B is a list of pro-vivisection websites. There are an additional 20 pages of front matter, title, contents, forward, and preface.

There are two entries in the index for Dr. Greek. (Three for me!) One entry is on page 24, the other is on page 121, which should seem a little odd if, as Conn claims, he and Parker took “Dr. Greek on head-on” and "documented the vast majority of the quotes Dr. Greek uses."

On page 24, Conn and Parker write a paragraph that mentions Greek:
As soon as Rossell’s press conference about ONPRC began, animal rights groups began circling around for the kill. Ray Greek, president of Americans for Medical Advancement—it’s hard to tell how many besides Greek belong to this antiresearch group—rushed forward with his comments on the lack of value of animal models, notably monkeys, in studying health. Of course, Greek did not mention that Rossell had once worked for his wife, veterinarian Jean Greek. She had attested to his skills in animal care at the time of his application for employment at the Primate Center. Veterinarian Sheri Speede, DVM, at the head of the local chapter of IDA, weighed in, indignantly discounting the value of “any research derived from the use of a stressed out primate” and claiming, wrongly, that “the public cannot see what they’re paying for” (Avgerinos).
When whackos like Conn and Parker get going, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to their wild claims. The bibliographic entry says: Avgerinos, Zoy. Animal cruelty caught on tape. CBS Worldwide. September 7, 2000. Check out the discussion for yourself.

On page 121, the only other time Conn and Parker mention Greek, they complain about a quotation that he included in Sacred Cows and Golden Geese. Here’s what Conn and Parker write:
Ray Greek, MD, whom we met in Chapter 2 [the passage above from page 24], cites Mark Feinberg, a leading AIDS researcher:
What good does it do you to test something [a vaccine] in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave tottaly differently from monkeys, so you’ve wasted five years.

“Monkeys do not die of AIDS. Humans do. (Greek, 203.)
When Dr Feinberg had a chance to speak for himself, he said:
There are many instances where the use of animal model research is absolutely essential for evaluating the efficacy of [AIDS] candidate vaccines. Moreover, the statement that ‘Monkeys do not get AIDS; humans do,” is completely false. The SIV [simian immunodeficiency virus] infection model for AIDS has been extremely important for understanding critical aspects of AIDS pathogenesis that cannot be studied in humans. I do not wish to be held responsible for comments . . . that have been so removed from their context that they no longer convey the meaning I had intended. (personal email from mark Feinberg, MD, PhD, to Charles Nicoll, PhD.)
These two pages are the only places in The Animal Research War where Conn and Parker “Take Dr. Greek on head-on.” If, as Conn says, “we’ve pointed out problems in his fact-gathering, my co-author of The Animal Research War documented the vast majority of the quotes Dr. Greek uses in his books,” that they would have included more than a single claimed misquote or intentional bit of “literary Photoshopping” in their little book.

In fact, Conn and Parker lied in their book, and Conn apparently lied on CNN assuming he can recall what he wrote in The Animal Research War.

Here’s what Greek actually wrote on page 203:

The federal government has devoted billions to discovering a vaccine to protect against AIDS. As already indicated, too much of that money has been utterly wasted on animal experiments. Dr. Mark Feinberg, a leading AIDS researcher wrote:
To make an AIDS vaccine, we really need to know more about the basic human immune system and how it works. They knew next to nothing about it when they made the polio vaccine, but that’s not going to work here. We need to understand more about how the immune system recognizes and deals with HIV antigens. Clearly few, if any, people can deal with HIV once they’re infected with it; nobody that we know of has ever cleared the virus from their bodies after infection. Somehow we have to demand that the vaccine be better than that. I think the way of doing that is doing studies in human beings at very early stages of the development of vaccines to test whether certain ideas work; then you go back to the laboratory to modify them and then back to human beings . . . What good does it do you to test something in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave totally differently from monkeys, so you’ve wasted five years.” [M.A.J. McKenna, “Science Watch ‘Manhattan Project’ for AIDS Q&A With Dr. Mark Feinberg, a Leading AIDS Researcher ‘We Need the Human Trials as Well,’” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 21 Sep. 1997.]
Of course, because Dr. Feinberg has a vested interest in animal-models he went on to say that animal models are “incredibly important.” He explained quite well why they are useless but did not go into to detail as to why they are so “incredibly important.” Could money have anything to do with why they are so important?
Notice how selective Conn and Parker were in quoting Greek. Notice too that they were misleading about what Greek said about Feinberg's beliefs about animal models. And notice particularly that they added the sentence “Monkeys do not die of AIDS. Humans do.” I don't see how an author could be any more dishonest than this.

Conn and Parker also display significant confusion about the instances they write about.
As soon as Rossell’s press conference about ONPRC began, animal rights groups began circling around for the kill. Ray Greek, president of Americans for Medical Advancement—it’s hard to tell how many besides Greek belong to this antiresearch group—rushed forward with his comments on the lack of value of animal models, notably monkeys, in studying health. Of course, Greek did not mention that Rossell had once worked for his wife, veterinarian Jean Greek.
But Rossell had been in contact with IDA for some time prior to the press conference they are referring to. He had begun talking with IDA for months prior to going public. Matt was employed by the Oregon Primate Center as an enrichment technician and had spent months documenting the problems he was observing. IDA asked Dr. Greek, perhaps the leading authority on the problems associated with animal models, and USDA/APHIS past-inspector of the primate center, Dr. Isis Johnson-Brown to participate in the news conference. The claim about animal rights groups circling around for the kill is not only a poor metaphor, but also misrepresents Greek’s role.

Conn and Holder are clearly uninformed and in the case of Conn, apparently willing to lie. I suspect Holder is just a dupe. I could go on at length about nearly every claim they made and about every “fact” attributed to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, but won’t. For more about FBR, see: "Illegal Incidents" on the rise?

See too: AETA and FACE, American Scientist, Frankie L. Trull

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