Animal Testing (with Dr. Katherine Roe & Dr. Emily Trunnell)
We’ve all heard the arguments against animal testing: it’s cruel, it’s unethical. But you may not know the dirty truth: it doesn’t even work most of the time. This week on Taboo Science, we dive deep into the animal testing controversy. We talk to researchers and neuroscientists Dr. Katherine Roe and Dr. Emily Trunnell from PETA’s Science Advancement and Outreach Division about unethical experiments and flawed disease models. While scientists all over the world still rely on animal data, new technology like organs on chips and AI models offer a lot of promise. Tune in to hear what’s being done to end animal testing—and whether that’s really the best path forward.
Learn more about the PETA Research Modernization Deal.
My late friend Sliman Bensmaia’s prosthetic on 60 Minutes:
Citations and further reading:
- Akhtar, A. (2015). The Flaws and Human Harms of Animal Experimentation. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 24(4), 407–419.
- PETA’s Science Advancement and Outreach Division (2023, July 12). PETA.
- Americans are divided over the use of animals in scientific research. (2018, August 16). Pew Research Center.
- Why Animals are Used in Research (2019). NIH.
- Why Animal Research? (2022). Animal Research at Stanford.
- Husain Attarwala. (2010). TGN1412: From Discovery to Disaster. Journal of Young Pharmacists, 2(3), 332–336.
- Suntharalingam, G., et. al. (2006). Cytokine Storm in a Phase 1 Trial of the Anti-CD28 Monoclonal Antibody TGN1412. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(10), 1018–1028.
- Chan, S. 6 Hospitalized, One of Them Brain-Dead, After Drug Trial in France (Published 2016). (2023). The New York Times.
- Rosenthal, E. British Rethinking Rules After Ill-Fated Drug Trial (Published 2006). (2023). The New York Times.
- The discovery of insulin. (2014). AnimalResearch.info
- The Best PETA Photos of 2019. PETA.org.
- Kimmelman, J., Mogil, J. S., & Ulrich Dirnagl. (2014). Distinguishing between Exploratory and Confirmatory Preclinical Research Will Improve Translation. PLOS Biology, 12(5), e1001863–e1001863.
- Drummond, E., & Wısnıewskı, T. (2016). Alzheimer’s disease: experimental models and reality. Acta Neuropathologica, 133(2), 155–175.
- Konnova, E. A., & Swanberg, M. (2018). Animal Models of Parkinson’s Disease. Codon Publications EBooks, 83–106.
- USDA APHIS | Animal Welfare Act. (2013). USDA.gov.
- PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals | OLAW. (2015). NIH.gov.
- King, M., & Hazem Zohny. (2021). Animal researchers shoulder a psychological burden that animal ethics committees ought to address. Journal of Medical Ethics.
- Rolf, B. and Bennett, P. (2005). Perpetration-induced Traumatic Stress in Persons Who Euthanize Nonhuman Animals in Surgeries, Animal Shelters, and Laboratories. Society & Animals.
- Organ-Chips Accurately Model and Predict Thrombotic Side Effect Caused by Anti-CD154 Monoclonal Antibody hu5c8; Emulate Publishes Results of Collaborative Research with Janssen. (2021, June 30). Emulate.
- NIH awards $50.3 million for “multi-omics” research on human health and disease. (2023, September 12). National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- Test Subjects, a documentary featuring Emily Trunnell and two other PETA scientists
Ashley: In the early 2000s, a team of scientists did everything right, and everything went terribly wrong.
Ashley: These scientists were from a company called TeGenero, and they became interested in a new type of antibody that had promise in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.
Ashley: So they studied it. First, they investigated it in mouse cells, which helped them zero in on the exact antibody they were after. Then they combined parts of that mouse antibody with a human antibody structure so it could play nice in the human body.
Ashley: Next, they did tests with animal cells in petri dishes. They found that cells from primates reacted well to the new antibody.
Ashley: Humans are technically primates, so that was a good sign. Next came tests with actual human cells, which also passed with flying colors.
Ashley: Next came the tests in living animals. The scientists injected the antibody into two types of monkeys — because again, humans are primates — and everything went well. So, finally, it was deemed safe, effective, and ready for human trials.
Ashley: This is where the story takes a turn. On March 13, 2006, at Northwick Hospital in London, six healthy male volunteers got an infusion of the new antibody. About an hour after the injection, the headaches started.
Ashley: Then came the lower back pain. Then the nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Their blood pressure dropped, their heart rates shot up, and they spiked fevers. Some could hardly breathe. Their organs began shutting down, and they were rushed to intensive care where some had to stay for up to 16 days.
Ashley: These patients suffered from what’s called a cytokine storm where the immune system goes on overdrive. You may have heard of it as one of the life-threatening results of COVID-19 infection.
Ashley: The men survived, but it left scientists reeling. Everything in these trials went right. So what went so terribly wrong?
Ashley: This is one example of where animal testing can lead us astray. Many of us think about animal testing as a necessary evil for the greater good. I know I did.
Ashley: But today, we’ll find out how that greater good isn’t as great as we think.
Ashley: I’m Ashley Hamer, and this is Taboo Science, the podcast that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask.
Ashley: If you ask the general public, people are pretty evenly divided on their opinion of animal testing. In a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, about half of respondents said they favor the use of animals in scientific research, while slightly more oppose it, 47% to 52%, about equal to when they did the same poll in 2014.
Ashley: And the greater a person’s scientific knowledge, the more likely they are to support animal testing.
Ashley: I definitely land in that camp. I know that using animals in research can cause suffering, but I also believe that the cost is worth the benefit.
Ashley: The example I always turn to is insulin. My brother is type 1 diabetic, and without injecting insulin multiple times a day, he would die. Insulin has both come from animals and been tested on animals. Cows, dogs, pigs, and rabbits have all given their lives and their pancreases to treating diabetes in humans.
Ashley: There’s a long list of medical successes that have animal testing to thank. Out of every Nobel Prize awarded for physiology or medicine, about a hundred have been due to animal research, and that includes every single one awarded in the last 30 years.
Ashley: But. Those successes hide a dark truth. The vast majority of animal testing doesn’t actually translate to humans.
Ashley: A whopping 96 percent of drugs that pass preclinical tests, including animal tests, never make it to market. And if most people don’t know that, opinion polls are going to be pretty skewed.
Katherine Roe: So a lot of the times when you see how those questions are posed to the public, the question is, is written as, are you comfortable with ethical research on animals that will benefit human health, without a working definition of what constitutes ethical research in animals.
Katherine Roe: And with the assumption that it will always benefit human health. And that assumption is not true.
Emily Trunnell: I think those polls, they can be useful, right? I mean, it’s half the public knowing what the public knows, which is, it’s not really a lot about the scientific process and about what happens in laboratories. Half of the people are still against it. so yeah, I, I think they’re often missing a lot of context. And I think if people had the context, I, I know that it would sway further into not approving of the animal research.
Ashley: That is Katherine Roe and Emily Trunnell. They work together in the Science and Outreach Division within the Laboratory Investigations Department at… wait for it… PETA. I know, I know. But I invited them on when I learned just how much science PETA actually does in their efforts to support animal welfare.
Katherine Roe: PETA has, I think the largest number of scientists on staff as any animal rights organization, and our expertise is really diverse. You know, Emily and I both happen to be neuroscientists, but we have people in expertise in all areas of biomedical research um, and ethics. I think that most of the time that people hear from PETA, it’s in the news and it’s a picture of somebody, you know, holding a sign in front of a company or dressed up like a mouse, because that’s just what you hear about. Um, a lot of the work we do isn’t going to make mainstream media.
Katherine Roe: It’s, it’s writing scientific papers. It’s reviewing the literature. It’s talking to policymakers and people within the biomedical community going to conferences. Um, yeah. It just isn’t newsworthy, but it’s happening.
Ashley: So yeah, behind the protesters covering themselves in fake blood in front of department stores selling goose down jackets, or pretending to grill a golden retriever on a barbecue on Memorial Day, there are scientists, like Katherine and Emily, who are figuring out ways to help labs transition their experiments away from using animals.
Ashley: Which brings me to one note about this episode. I find that for some reason, episodes about animal cruelty are harder to believe than other topics. Maybe I’m just projecting, maybe they’re just the ones where I bring the most resistance, but I wanna assure you that I have fact checked every single thing the guests have said on this topic.
Ashley: There are sources included in the show notes on the website if you want to do the same. So, back to research on animals. It mostly comes in two broad categories.
Emily Trunnell: there’s animals that are used for regulatory testing. So this is, you know, toxicology, anything that is testing a product to see whether it is safe for humans and the environment. Those types of animal tests are stipulated by federal and international regulations, um, mostly country by country.
Emily Trunnell: And then there is animal testing that’s done not for legal required purposes for drug testing or product testing, but it’s done, you know, kind of for exploratory research. And this is, I think kind of what a lot of people think about research that’s done in a university setting, looking at, you know, basic biological processes human disease. And, and trying to kind of translate that to humans. So those are kind of the two broader categories.
Emily Trunnell: Our division focuses on the non required tests, so the non regulatory testing. And that is where the majority of the animals are being used. Um, so this is, you know, curiosity based research, disease based research, those kinds of applications.
Ashley: While the two categories are different, they’re related. Exploratory studies can lead to regulatory tests. Say you use mice bred with genes for Alzheimer’s disease, then try a bunch of things to treat the animal’s symptoms. When you find one that seems to work, that’s when you’d head down the path of regulatory testing.
Ashley: That is one way we look for Alzheimer’s treatments, by the way. We create mice that over express genes that we know are associated with Alzheimer’s disease in humans, and that makes them form the telltale plaques in their brains that we see in human Alzheimer’s patients.
Ashley: We have tons of different types of Alzheimer’s mice, which each express a different gene associated with the disease to let scientists zero in on one element at a time.
Ashley: Sounds super promising, right? That’s what scientists thought when the first transgenic Alzheimer’s mouse was developed. The result? 99. 6 percent of clinical trials of Alzheimer’s treatments fail.
Ashley: Because these mice don’t have Alzheimer’s disease. We just breed them to have the symptoms. And this is standard operating procedure in animal testing.
Katherine Roe: we don’t see Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and say, autism spectrum disorder spontaneously emerging in animal models. Those need to be induced. And the reason they need to be induced is because the animals don’t naturally develop them because their brains are different. Their gene expression is different.
Katherine Roe: Their, their developmental trajectory is different. Even the way that the cortex is organized and what sorts of cells and what layers and what lobe are different across mice and rats and cats and dogs and birds and humans, you know.
Emily Trunnell: I think about cancer research a lot. We’ve, it’s not my background, but we’ve done a lot of work on cancer research because it’s a huge use of, of animals, especially mice.
Emily Trunnell: There’s a cancer model specifically where they take cells from a patient’s tumor and graft it into a mouse in order to try to study that, uh, patient specific mouse model, what some researchers have found is that when you put those cells in a mouse, they change in ways that are mouse specific. In ways they would never change in a human.
Emily Trunnell: Once you remove the cell or the issue, the process, the pathway that you’re looking at from the human, from human biology and try to study it in other species, you know, these things are going to be different in ways that are really important for the things that we need to know.
Ashley: Something else that’s different between humans and other animals? Animals can’t tell you what’s wrong.
Emily Trunnell: We do a lot of research into animal models of neuropsychiatric diseases. and these are exceptionally hard to model in animals. Um, you know, you can’t ask an animal, are you depressed? You know, are you, have you lost interest in the things that you used to enjoy?
Emily Trunnell: So we use these very simplistic behavioral assays that just completely mislead an entire field of research. You know, if you’re, if your entire career is based on the fact that you think if a mouse stops swimming, he’s more depressed, there can be some issues that result from that.
Ashley: Yeah, that’s totally a thing. It’s called the forced swim test, and it’s where scientists put a mouse in a container of water that it has no chance of escaping. Then they time how long it takes the mouse to give up on swimming.
Ashley: It’s used as a model for depression for a few reasons. First, this is clearly stressful for the mouse, and stress can be a trigger for depression, and depression can involve trouble handling stress. And second, antidepressants seem to help mice swim for longer.
Ashley: But it’s easy to see how limited this model is, right? For one thing, human patients with depression usually have to take antidepressants for weeks or months before they see any improvement. And these mice improve way faster than that. And for another thing, that’s just not depression. There are no psychiatrists that make new patients swim laps first, you know?
Ashley: And if there was, it’d be pretty clear that they were doing a shitty job at psychiatry. And putting more triathletes into the world, which nobody wants.
Ashley: But also, depression isn’t just caused by environmental stressors. It’s way more complicated than that.
Katherine Roe: how we’re trying to measure depression in a, in a mouse or a rat or a monkey is, is almost absurd. And how we’re trying to induce it is also absurd. It doesn’t take into account the enormous complexity of how these things develop in humans, which of course is, is genetic, it’s environmental and it’s epigenetic. It’s the combination of those two things and, and, and has sociological. Um, both sociological causes and implications.
Ashley: But again, this is pretty much modus operandi for neuropsychiatric diseases.
Katherine Roe: for things like, as Emily talked about, neuropsychiatric diseases, including things like schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety. A lot of those are exposing animals to environmental stressors, and those can range from taking baby monkeys away from their mothers, this can range from what is called chronic unpredictable mild stress, which can be shocking the animals, throwing cold water on the animals. I mean, basically torturing, what we would consider in humans, torturing animals to induce epigenetic changes or behavioral changes that might slightly resemble what you see in humans, but of course, etiologically are not happening the way that these diseases emerge in humans. But it can be extraordinarily rough, I think for the animals involved.
Ashley: It’s even worse for Parkinson’s disease. For that many studies inject mice or non-human primates with neurotoxins, literally things like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides specifically to kill brain cells and induce Parkinson’s-like symptoms. But again, that is not Parkinson’s disease. That’s garden variety brain damage.
Katherine Roe: How we induce these conditions in animals is very unpleasant, and again, is often ignored when mainstream media discusses this research. If they discuss the fact that it was with animals at all, they tend to just say, Oh, we created mice with Alzheimer’s disease, or we created a monkey with symptoms of depression without getting into the details of how they went about doing it.
Katherine Roe: So it is often extraordinarily cruel for the animals, and it’s often extraordinarily invalid in so far as it being a good model of that condition for humans.
Katherine Roe: When we come back — aren’t there like, ethics boards for these things?
Katherine Roe: So, my guests were explaining all the terrible stuff scientists do to animals in order to use them as moels for disease. So I asked the obvious question.
Ashley: I thought that this was always… This always had to be like approved by an ethics board or something, right? I guess they just don’t have that high of requirements.
Ashley: At this moment in the interview, Katherine and Emily are literally laughing at me. They’re being polite about it, but it’s like, oh, you poor dear. Of course, you thought that.
Emily Trunnell: So there is an oversight system. And broadly that oversight system is, each institution that conducts experiments on animals has what’s called an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The acronym for that is an IACUC.
Emily Trunnell: And so the IACUC is supposed to kind of check various boxes to ensure that the research follows federal animal welfare standards. There are a lot of issues with this, though. So, first of all, the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which is the only, only law that kind of governs what can happen to animals in laboratories, does not cover rats, mice, birds, fish, other cold blooded creatures, farm animals. So it doesn’t cover 95 percent of the animals who are actually used in experiments.
Emily Trunnell: There is some oversight for these animals if they are on a protocol funded by the NIH or the Department of Health and Human Services. So they have a division called OLAW or the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare that’s supposed to oversee experiments on those animals. However, that agency does not do any inspections. If you do anything that violates those standards on those types of animals. You’re supposed to write and tell them, and then they’ll write back and ask you, okay, well have you fixed that?
Emily Trunnell: And you say, yes, we fixed that. And that’s the end of the story. And you know, even where there are laws and regulations in place at the federal level, for example, you know, ensuring that you don’t leave a monkey in the cage before you put it through the high temperature cage washer. You know, errors happen.
Emily Trunnell: And there is almost no repercussions for those errors. There have been audits by Office of the Inspector General of the USDA that looks at the oversight of animal facilities by the USDA, and what they’ve consistently found every time they’ve done an audit like this is that the IACUCs aren’t really doing their jobs. And even when fines are imposed, when, when errors happen or neglect happens, the fines are so low that the institutions kind of just consider them the cost of doing business. Like, there’s no strong impetus for them to follow these regulations very closely except for, you know, fear of public backlash if PETA or another organization gets ahold of it.
Ashley: I looked at one of these audits, the most recent one available from 2015, which is linked in the citations. The USDA found that this oversight body routinely charged violators with lower penalties than they needed to, they didn’t do enough to monitor experimental procedures on animals, and they even closed a bunch of cases involving animal deaths prematurely just so they could get through a backlog on time.
Emily Trunnell: So there, while there is oversight, there are a lot of issues with that. And then, of course, the IACUC itself is primarily composed of people who do animal research. There’s a mandate that there’s one person that is supposed to represent the community’s interests.
Emily Trunnell: Um, often that person is very influenced by the other people on the committee and, and doesn’t have a really a lot of say. So, yeah, there is an oversight process, but it is considerably lacking.
Katherine Roe: The other thing is just to add that the IACUC, as Emily pointed out, in addition to being made up predominantly of people who use animals, is not required to really assess the scientific value. It’s really, as Emily said, making sure that these minimal rules and regulations are being followed for the animals which they apply to.
Katherine Roe: But, frequently, when experimenters are filling out the forms and they’re asked to discuss the scientific value, what the point of these experiments are, it’s one paragraph and it’s, and it’s, you’ll even see like a, write this at the level of a high school student. It’s, it’s, it’s meant to be a very simple, like, I’m interested in understanding Alzheimer’s.
Katherine Roe: So now I’m going to do the following, you know, 25 procedures. There isn’t in the US a system where we can actually evaluate the harms that a series of experiments will cause to animals and the benefits. Again, the benefits are basically assumed by the IACUC and, and their job is to just make sure that the animals are being fed on a schedule.
Katherine Roe: And even those regulations, so things about housing for primates, things about providing pain relief, experimenters can get, um, exemptions for, so if the experimenter is doing pain research where they have to cause pain to the animals to do their study, they don’t need to provide adequate pain relief.
Katherine Roe: So the, the rules are, are bare minimum. They don’t apply to most animals that are being used in laboratories. Breaking those rules rarely has any consequences for the people who break them. And in some cases they’re allowed to be broken because the experimenter asks for permission. So it’s really, it sounds like a lot when you read it on a list, like, oh, they have to, there’s a bunch of hoops that people have to jump through, but they don’t really have to jump through them and they’re the wrong hoops.
Katherine Roe: You know, we need, we need, we need better hoops.
Ashley: In the debate over animal testing, I feel like I’ve only ever heard the argument about how cruel it is to the animals. What I never considered was how bad it was for us humans.
Ashley: I mean, think about it. First of all, we’re wasting a ton of money on failed experiments.
Katherine Roe: estimates are that the National Institutes of Health, NIH, which is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, spends nearly half of its budget annually on animal based experimentation. So NIH’s budget fluctuates, but we’re looking at, let’s say on average 40 billion a year.
Katherine Roe: It’s more than that now. Half of that is going to animal based experiments. So this is money that could be used for a whole host of things that have much better potential to benefit humans, but instead are being wasted on animal experiments, many of which have been proven time and time again, not to work.
Ashley: There’s also the harm to the experimenters, who have to subject animals to these tests and often have nothing to show for it in the end.
Katherine Roe: There’s a ton of data out there now talking about depression and, and post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues for people working in these laboratories. In some cases, it’s called the caring killing paradox, because people who go into an animal lab, whether they’re working as a, as a technician or as a young scientist, do so because they love animals and they think, well, I want to be there.
Katherine Roe: I want to take care of these animals. I want to make sure that they’re living their best life in a laboratory. And of course, find out quickly, I would think that that’s not what’s happening. Um, so there’s a cost to the humans who are doing the day to day harms in these laboratories.
Ashley: And we’re also subjecting human volunteers to experimental therapies that they believe have been confirmed to be safe, when the clinical trials that demonstrate that safety don’t always translate to humans. I told you about one example of that at the top of the episode. But there are more.
Emily Trunnell: Just a few years ago, 2016, there was a drug that was going through clinical trials in France and it was a drug to help like motor problems, neurodegenerative disease. Um, It was administered to, volunteers as part of the phase one trial.
Emily Trunnell: And, and six of the volunteers had to be hospitalized. One was pronounced brain dead. And these were all, like, the dose that was given to the humans was 400 times less than what was given to animals. And none of these symptoms occurred in the animals.
Ashley: I looked into this and later investigations did find that there had been brain stem damage in the monkeys that got really high doses of the drug. But no one looked into it any further.
Emily Trunnell: Overall, it’s just the lack of progress that we’ve made because so much continues to be funneled into, well, maybe if we just tweak this animal model a little bit this way, it’ll give us better results. Or maybe if we try it a little bit this way. instead of being like, why don’t we rethink how we’re doing this? Why don’t we instead invest this money in human relevant disease models? I think we could be so much further along in progress towards treating many diseases had that been done sooner.
Ashley: It’s one thing to point out the flaws in animal testing, but what are we supposed to do instead? We can’t just stop studying human diseases and stop trying to develop important therapies just because the process is imperfect.
Ashley: Well, luckily, for many areas of research, technology has given us another way.
Emily Trunnell: So the things that we look at I would say a little bit more often as the things that can replace animal models are, um, in vitro tools. So these are, you know, cell based models, but they’re not the typical, you know, you have a few cells in a petri dish thing that, that maybe people might think of. Um, there are really advanced three dimensional models now such as organoids, human organs on chips, may have seen these in the news.
Emily Trunnell: They’re developed in ways that really mimic the human body, and, especially like the organs on chips, I think those are super exciting to read about because they’re about the size of like a computer memory stick that you would use, and it’s a device and it’s lined with cells and used in a way that the pressures and the way that the cells are made to develop accurately mimics the human body.
Ashley: This could help us avoid those tragedies where a drug passes safety testing and then goes on to hurt people in clinical trials.
Emily Trunnell: a company called Emulate and Janssen Pharmaceuticals recently tested one of these organs on chips for a drug that they had put out into circulation in the early 2000s. Um, it ended up having to be taken off the market because it caused blood clots in humans and none of that had been seen in the animal model. Well, they tested this in their human blood vessel on a chip and they saw the clotting response. They saw the same response in humans in the chip.
Ashley: Beyond these sci fi mini organs, garden variety imaging tools are getting better all the time. I mean, you can’t dissect a human subject, but you can put them in an MRI and check out how an organ is responding to a drug. And then there’s all the molecular scale technology.
Emily Trunnell: we just saw today actually that NIH has committed $50 million to funding human omics research. So genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, that kind of research to really get into the humanness I think of, of diseases.
Ashley: This research will let scientists get a ton of data from a single biological sample, including information about a person’s DNA, their RNA, and even the stuff happening between their individual cells. That can help scientists better understand disease subtypes, identify biomarkers for those diseases, and find targets for new drugs.
Ashley: We also have what are called in silico tools, which refers to computer models of biological processes.
Katherine Roe: there’s so much data floating around, right? When you think about how much data different laboratories are collecting, and this includes, you know, past data from all species’ response to a particular drug. Information about how drugs fit together, you know, the, the actual physiological chemical reactions.
Katherine Roe: Now these, you know, computational models can predict what a compound should look like if you want it to fit a particular target and it can all be done without testing on humans or animals because that data exists and it just takes somebody with the computational skills and the computational power to get that information.
Ashley: I know a lot of this stuff is new. Are there still some areas where animal testing is the best way?
Katherine Roe: It’s never going to be the best way. I think there probably are areas where it’s currently the only way if, if you are insisting that you have to get a particular type of data, which I question sometimes. So, so for example. Some of the neuromodulation devices that you’re hearing about, like where, where something is implanted in, into somebody’s brain to modulate how their neurons are responding.
Katherine Roe: This is used in, in individuals with Parkinson’s disease, but also now for people who have lost the ability to control a limb site. this is not necessarily something we can test using organoids or organs on chips or certainly not in silico type tools. It doesn’t mean we, we have to do it, but it’s, I don’t, I don’t have another solution for that.
Katherine Roe: I don’t have a way. If somebody has developed this device and they want to know whether it’ll work, I don’t know a way for them to do it unless they work specifically with patients. And that is always an option. There are patients, individuals who are willing to put themselves out there to be, like, a phase one or a phase zero, test participant because they need whatever this tool or treatment is.
Ashley: That sounds ridiculous, right? Like why would anyone volunteer to implant an untested device in their brain? At least, that’s what I thought. And then, after this interview, completely randomly, I met someone who did that exact thing.
Ashley: He was a test participant for a dear friend of mine, a brilliant neuroscientist named Sliman Bensmaia, who died recently.
Ashley: Sliman had been developing a brain implant that would let patients actually feel sensation through their prosthetic limb, which was a total game changer in the field. One of his study volunteers got to give President Obama a fist bump on his prosthetic. It was that huge.
Ashley: Anyway, after I did this interview, I went to Sliman’s memorial in Chicago and actually met one of his Phase I test participants. I didn’t ask for an interview because we were there to mourn, but I did learn more about him.
Ashley: His name is Scott Imbrie He had been paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager, and he was the first person in Chicago and the fourth person in this study have electrodes implanted into his brain to control and feel a prosthetic hand.
Ashley: In order to know where the electrodes should be implanted, though, he did something that non human animals can’t do. He imagined moving each finger, narrating out what he was doing as an fMRI machine monitored his brain activity. That let Sliman and his team pinpoint where in the brain these sensations were based.
Ashley: Now, Sliman and scientists like him rely heavily on animal testing. In fact, the day before the memorial, Scott had spoken at a conference for scientists who use primates in their research. I don’t think any of them would suggest that they could accomplish this without animal testing, at least not anytime soon.
Ashley: Honestly, I think Sliman would probably give me a ton of shit for even doing this episode. But human volunteers like Scott give scientists something that animals can’t, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
Ashley: While Katherine and Emily probably wouldn’t approve of the approach Sliman and his team took, they stress that they aren’t out to shut down anyone’s lab. Their research is focused on finding reasonable ways to transition away from animal testing using new technology.
Katherine Roe: What we can do now is just amazing. And it’s really, it’s astounding that, that everybody isn’t doing it, you know, like it’s astounding to me sometimes that someone is so stuck on trying to study depression in a rat that they won’t learn or, or collaborate with somebody using these other tools because there are so many reasons to do it. And it’s, you know, again, it’s a big part of what we do in our division at PETA is try to convince not just the individual experimenters, but the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and members of Congress who, who decide how much money those institutes are getting and what it should be dedicated towards to make this transition, because it’s going to be win, win, win across the board. It’s just going to take people willing to say, I don’t want to try to tweak this mouse model for another 30 years and try to get it to be more human. Like, I want to do something that’s going to help humans. I’m willing to make, to take the time to learn these new tools. I’m willing to concede that what I have been doing for X number of years was wrong.
Katherine Roe: Scientists should do that by nature. That is a part of science, but pressure to get tenure, pressure to get grants, pressure to get publications, you know, building an entire infrastructure around yourself and your students to do these animal based experiments, asking those individuals to change. It is kind of a big ask. It’s, it’s a worthwhile ask, but it’s a big ask. And so we also ask for funding agencies to put infrastructure in place to support that transition. You know, we’re not trying to shut down anybody’s lab. We’re trying to put not a close sign, but an under construction sign on each of these labs, because these are scientists, they’re smart. They’re hardworking. They’re just, they’ve gone down the wrong route and we need to get them on the other side. And so that’s, that’s, you know, a major goal, but, you know, not everybody’s willing to reverse course and,
Katherine Roe: but they should be, they should be.
Ashley: It’s, it sounds like also that you don’t even really need to care about animals to be against animal testing. You just need to care about good data and like actually like replicable studies.
Katherine Roe: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And a lot of people, that’s, that’s their angle. People who are working on these tools that Emily was describing, developing these tools, validating these tools, for them, they may not have a particular concern about the ethics of animal experimentation. They have concern about the quality of the data, the failings of the biomedical research community to translate data from animals into something meaningful. You know, these biomedical engineers who are pushing these methods to their absolute best and greatest are in some cases not motivated by ethics at all, but by good science and hey, if you can get both, let’s do it.
Ashley: Thanks for listening. Big thanks to Katherine Roe and Emily Trunnell. If you want to learn about PETA’s Research Modernization Deal, which is an evidence based plan to phase out animal experimentation, you can find a link to the full plan in the show notes.
Ashley: Also, if you want to see my friend Sliman’s neuroprosthetic in action, I’ve linked to an episode of 60 Minutes that gets deep into it.
Ashley: Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer.
Ashley: The theme was by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music, who was also a good friend of Sliman’s.
Ashley: Episode music was by Epidemic Sound.
Ashley: I would love to hear what you thought about this episode, whether good or bad. I mean, this is a controversial topic, right? Hit me up at email@example.com and I might share your thoughts on a future episode.
Ashley: I also want to remind you that you can watch every single episode of Season 3 on video at the Taboo Science YouTube channel. Click the link in the show notes or just search for Taboo Science on YouTube. You can’t miss it.
Ashley: It’s October, and we’re counting down to the final new episode of Season 3. Rest assured that it’ll be spooky!
Ashley: Stay tuned! I won’t tell anyone.