Monthly Archives: February 2015

Deadly research that provides “a bit of a clue”

Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) Source: Wikimedia/Manfred Werner / Tsui

Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) Source: Wikimedia/Manfred Werner / Tsui

Today, Monash University informed us via its website about “New pathways discovered to prevent blindness”. Wonderful. Worthwhile research, one might think. A good use of public money.

Scientists have made a major new discovery detailing how areas of the brain responsible for vision could potentially adapt to injury or trauma and ultimately prevent blindness.

This sounds already a bit more cautious. The new research could “potentially” lead to something very useful for humans. But wait a minute, for humans? Nowhere on this webpage does it mention the research was undertaken on humans or the insights gained might apply to humans. But that’s what most readers would assume.

The research was not carried out with human subjects, but used 14 non-human primates. Nine 13-day old and five young adult marmosets were subjected to interventions on their brains and were subsequently killed.

This information is not provided on the Monash University website, nor in the article in The Age newspaper that reported on the research. I found it in the supplementary notes of the research article “Preservation of Vision by the Pulvinar following Early-Life Primary Visual Cortex Lesions” published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology. The research article and the additional notes are behind a pay wall.

The article in The Age quoted one of the researchers on the benefits of his research:

This gives a bit of a clue and an insight into how those things might be happening if the primary pathway looks normal.

What do you think … does invasive brain surgery on 14 marmosets and their subsequent death justify gaining an insight of “a bit of a clue”?

And what do you think about the researchers withholding vital information about their research? Why did they not tell us that the research was conducted on non-human primates and may or may not apply to humans? That the 14 marmosets were killed as part of the experiment? How much the animals suffered during the 12-month period of the experiment?

Apparently, misrepresenting and/or exaggerating research findings is not uncommon. In December 2014, the British Medical Journal published an article whose authors examined 462 press releases issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011. They found that in health related science news and academic press releases

40% (95% confidence interval 33% to 46%) of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% (26% to 40%) contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% (28% to 46%) contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.

The exaggerated or misrepresented information is then duly reported by health journalists in the media. And who can blame them … or should health/science journalists look at the original research articles and also ask the researchers a few questions?

Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) Source: Wikimedia/ Leszek Leszczynski

Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) Source: Wikimedia/ Leszek Leszczynski

On a brighter note, today I noticed a new publication by Animal Aid UK. It’s titled “The Scientific Case Against the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research” and meant to inform research charities on the limitations of animal research. Or, in their words, “why animal research can’t be trusted”. Check it out. It’s clear, informative and well written, and it includes references and links for further reading.

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Non-animal research methods in the media

Over the last weeks articles about the development of research methods with the potential to replace animal models have caught my eye: One about bio-engineered muscles and two that report on new developments of organs-on-chips.

Tattooed man with a child. Source: Wikimedia/Jason Regan

Tattooed man with a child. Source: Wikimedia/Jason Regan

Bio-engineered muscles

Researchers at Duke University have created lab-grown human skeletal muscles that contract in response to electrical and other stimuli. They say the tissue works like regular muscles, but in a dish.

This model could be used in testing drugs for muscle diseases such as different muscular dystrophies, genetic metabolic diseases … and even diseases such as diabetes.

It could also be used to take cells from a patient, create functioning muscles in the lab and test various drugs to determine which drug and what drug dose would work best for that individual. It’s a new method that does not rely on animal testing.

Tissue chips

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who work with tissue chips say these could replace animal studies. This project is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and is part of the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program. The UW-Madison researchers focus on brain cells.

Tissue chips are

clusters of interacting cells that mimic specific organs, such as a model of a developing brain. Using stem cells, miniature scaffolds and sophisticated computer programs, they’re crafting prototypes that could someday replace animal testing for drugs and serve as screening tools for environmental toxins.

With neural stem cells and hydrogels the researchers formed multilayered structures similar to the early human brain. With these tissue chips they tested 35 known toxins, such as arsenic and benzene, and 26 non-toxins, including arabinose and lactose. They found their system to be 93 percent accurate in predicting toxicity. This is much better than animal models, as nine out of ten new drugs that are safe and effective in animals fail in humans.

Mini synthetic organism instead of test animals

Researchers at the German Fraunhofer Institute have developed a multi-organ chip that replicates complex metabolic processes in the human body. The new chip can be used to test the active ingredients in new medications and cosmetics.

More on organs-on-a chip in these three video clips (though they’re not new):