Responding to another Ruth Decker petition

In a petition posted at in January, Missouri surgeon Ruth Decker expresses her concerns about research with nonhuman primates, work that is supported by the National Institutes of Health and undertaken to meet public interests in scientific and medical advances.

We appreciate and share the concern for animals that leads people to add their names to the petition. But we don’t appreciate the way petition’s author, surgeon Dr. Ruth Decker, misrepresents the research. By piling up mistakes, myths and exaggerations, and omitting important information, she asks well-meaning people to speak out with little understanding of the real science and the long, deliberative process through which it was approved.

This isn’t fair to the people who signed the petition, to UW–Madison psychiatry professor Ned Kalin, to Dr. Stephen J. Suomi of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to other scientists contributing to the work, or to the millions of people who suffer from mental illness for whom available treatment methods offer little relief.

The truth is of little concern to activists who wish to end animal research, no matter the benefit to humans and animals. We don’t share that sentiment. We prefer people make their judgments on animal research with a fuller understanding of the research — of both its costs and potential benefits.

So, if you have read the petition, please also consider these corrections and additional information:

• Animal research has value. The mission of the NIH is to support research that contributes to improving public health, combatting diseases and reducing suffering. The scientific and medical leadership of our country have determined that animal research plays a fundamentally important role in scientific studies that advance the health of the nation.

Studies with nonhuman primates are a small fraction of NIH-supported research, but they are critical to scientific research that seeks to address health issues of grave concern to the American public. Nonhuman primate research includes studies relevant to understanding, preventing and treating a range of diseases — including cancer, asthma, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, mental health disorders, stroke, HIV and AIDS, hepatitis and anemia. Such research has also contributed to our understanding of maternal and child health.

Although the petitioners may believe that animal research supported by NIH is a waste, there is no evidence that the majority of the American public concurs. Furthermore, for scientists, healthcare professionals and others who are compassionate and dedicated to improving human and animal health, it is clear that failing to engage in and support research that is ethical, humane, and well regulated would be an abdication of our moral obligation to use science to better the human condition.

• The research conducted by Kalin and Suomi is valuable and ethical. The petition repeatedly maligns the research of two of the nation’s leading scientists as “needless” and “unnecessary.” We and many others think otherwise.

Kalin, who treats human patients with anxiety and depression disorders, has worked for more than 30 years to understand both inherited and environmental causes of mental illness. His research was reviewed and supported by panels of scientists at the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).

Dr. Tom Insel, director of NIMH until November 2015, said, “One only has to look at the Ebola crisis to appreciate the vital role that animals play in biomedical research, in this case, in the testing of potentially life-saving vaccines. But, it doesn’t stop there. Neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Advances in understanding and treating these devastating conditions rests on fundamental basic behavioral and brain science that, as with infectious diseases, begins with carefully conducted studies in animals. NIMH has supported the research in the Kalin lab for many years. This support is part of our commitment to the belief that careful, well-founded, peer-reviewed research such as this will lead to improvements in our understanding and treatment of mental disorders.”

Over more than 30 years, Dr. Suomi and his scientific collaborators – leading scientists around the world — have together made scientific discoveries that are reflected in over 500 published papers. The significance of those findings is reflected in the over 10,000 times Suomi’s papers have been cited in peer-reviewed publications. The citations are by a broad range of clinicians and by scientists studying humans and other animals in order to better understand genetics, immunology, neurobiology, pharmacology, behavior and other aspects of health. The esteem in which this work is held was clear in statements of support issued by the American Psychological Association and American Society of Primatologists earlier this year, as well as NIH’s response in 2015 to allegations made by PETA.

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program, “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

The decision to study animal models to understand human psychiatric disorders is not made lightly. Millions of people in the United States, including children, suffer from mental illness. Their conditions subject them to immeasurable disability and dysfunction. And the worst outcome, suicide, is increasing and already among the leading causes of death in adolescents. To develop effective treatments that may alleviate the suffering of millions, it is necessary to understand the root cause of psychiatric illnesses.

In this case, the human suffering is so great that Kalin, Suomi, and review committees at NIH and UW–Madison believe the potential benefit of the knowledge gained from this research justifies research with animals.

• Alternatives to animals are not available for the research the petition addresses. Animal research occurs alongside other types of studies, including human clinical and epidemiological research, as well as alternatives to whole live animal research such as cell cultures and computer simulations. In fact, consideration of viable alternatives to research with live animals is a basic ethical principle that undergirds the conduct of all research with nonhuman animals. Furthermore, this principle is implemented through a stringent regulatory oversight system that mandates review and approval of such research, at multiple levels.

It is possible that the petitioners are unaware of this requirement, or ignoring it to further their agenda. It is also possible that the petitioners do not understand the differences between questions that can be addressed by using alternatives, and those for which there are no current alternatives. There are many sources of public information about animal research and regulation that address the use of alternative research methods.

• Research animals are treated humanely. Research conducted with animals is highly regulated at the local, state and federal levels. The No. 1 priority for UW–Madison’s scientists, veterinarians, animal care personnel and institutional animal care and use committees is ensuring the welfare and humane treatment of animals used in ethically and scientifically sound research. In addition to honoring their ethical obligation, scientists maintain the highest standards of animal care to ensure that research results are scientifically valid.

At the federal level, animal research is overseen by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Care Unit and NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. In addition, voluntary accreditation bodies — such as the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International — also set and enforce standards for the use of animals in research. This multi-level system of oversight ensures the highest standards for humane care and treatment of animals in research.

• Publicly-funded scientific research with animals receives rigorous review. Proposals for research undergo expert scientific review to evaluate the importance of the research question, the quality of the research approach and investigators, and the likelihood of the project’s success. The scientific review for proposals to NIH occurs through the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. The process is extremely competitive in order to ensure both the quality and the importance to public health of NIH’s research portfolio.

Proposals for research with nonhuman animals must also be reviewed by a federally-mandated institutional animal care and use committee at the research institution. UW–Madison’s committees include veterinarians, members of the public, scientists and others. Their charge is to carefully analyze each research proposal and ensure high standards of animal care and humane treatment, in accordance with federal law.

Additional information can be found here:

— posted Feb. 2, 2016