We Must Face the Threats

Reading between the lines of a top-ranked Faculty of 1000 article

Science at its most exciting: arguable and demanding refinement

Numbers employed to determine a scientist’s career have always seemed dodgy. Just ask Eugene Garfield, creator of the citation index and the impact factor, who has written, “The use of journal impacts in evaluating individuals has its inherent dangers.” Yet where movies, novels, and scientific articles are concerned, I’m a sucker for rankings. I could easily spend a weekend checking out the New York Times’ best-ever films, Modern Library’s top 100 novels, and F1000’s top-ranked articles.

Since it’s unlikely you’re here to read about favorite novels and movies, I’ll focus on the highest-rated article since F1000’s inception: “Genome-wide non-mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis” (Lolle et al., Nature, 2005), with an F1000 Article Factor (FFa) of 62, and a record 20 Faculty evaluations....

Number 2 on the list is a surprising outlier—a commentary in a 2009 Hidden Jewel (lower-impact-factor) publication, Journal of Neuroscience: “We must face the threats,” by D.L. Ringach and J.D. Jentsch of the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles. The title and its subject seem to belong to the Modern Library fiction collection, not to PubMed archives. It describes threats to and actual attacks by animal rights activists on researchers’ families, their labs, and indeed to an entire realm of science experimentation. Seventeen Faculty Members submitted evaluations supporting the authors’ call to the research community: explain your commitment to strict ethical guidelines and “the key role animal research plays in our work and what our society stands to lose if we were to stop it.”

In response, as reported by this magazine’s news team, a working group of researchers created guidelines on how to respond to activists’ demands. It’s heartening to see follow-up and also to review extensive government requirements, worldwide, for lab-animal comfort and safety. As noted in earlier columns, communication with the public—regarding use of embryonic stem cells, cloning techniques, brain scans, or any number of button-pushing methodologies—is critical for nurturing a lay public that champions and funds bioresearch.

In light of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine announced recently, awarded to Robert Edwards for his work on in vitro fertilization, one cannot help but reflect on the nearly 4 million “miracle” lives that have sprung from basic research involving experimentation with rabbits and hamsters. The list of medical conditions that have benefited from the use of animals in research is extensive: cancer, AIDS and other infectious diseases, stroke, traumatic head injury, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart failure.

Yet…there are moments of doubt. How to deal with our observations that animal test subjects have self-recognition (primates) and laugh in their cages (rats)? Indeed 30 minutes of googling reveals deep conversation and debate in blogs among scientists, and a multitude of studies examining the efficacy of animal models in different types of experiments. This, too, is science in action and has led to refined definitions of when animal testing must be employed. Philosophy helps, as well.

Peter Singer, the eminent philosopher at Princeton University, makes the case that “equal consideration of interests” must be given animals not because they are equal to humans in reasoning or discourse abilities, but because they can suffer. In terms of lab experimentation, given the suffering doctrine, one would treat animals according to the strictest guidelines, but how to justify their sacrifice? The recently deceased British philosopher Philippa Foot posed the famous “trolley problem” that helps immensely here. A runaway trolley speeds toward five track workers. An observer is able to pull a switch and divert the trolley to a spur where just one worker is on the track, saving five lives by sacrificing one. Difficult to pull the switch, but we hope our sacrifice of lab animals will save many thousands of human lives.

Foot also is remembered for her insistence that courage, wisdom, and temperance are all cornerstones of morality. Not a bad doctrine for the lab, whether working with Danio rerio, Rattus norvegicus, or any random Homo sapiens.

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