Friday, November 27, 2009

Rats Die That Premature Babies Might Live

There are two themes in animal rights activism involving medical research. One has integrity. It states that even though we receive clear benefits from animal experimentation it shouldn't be done for ethical reasons. I disagree with that, but it is a moral argument that can be respectfully engaged.

Then there is the mendacity--that not only do humans receive no benefit from animal research, but it actually causes us harm. Unless one is totally blinded by ideological zeal, this meme is untenable from a factual perspective. And now, here's another story illustrating the benefit we receive from animal experimentation. Rats have shown that adult stem cell research may be able to save the lives of prematurely born babies. From the story in Science Daily:
An international team of scientists led by Dr. Thébaud has demonstrated for the first time that stem cells protect and repair the lungs of newborn rats. "The really exciting thing that we discovered was that stem cells are like little factories, pumping out healing factors," says Dr. Thébaud, an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Clinical Scholar. "That healing liquid seems to boost the power of the healthy lung cells and helps them to repair the lungs." In this study, Thébaud's team simulated the conditions of prematurity -- giving the newborn rats oxygen. The scientists then took stem cells, derived from bone marrow, and injected them into the rats' airways. Two weeks later, the rats treated with stem cells were able to run twice as far, and had better survival rates. When Thébaud's team looked at the lungs, they found the stem cells had repaired the lungs, and prevented further damage.
Rats died that premature babies might one day live. That's a fair trade any way you look at it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NASA Wrong to Irradiate Monkeys

I support necessary medical and scientific experimentation on animals. But I don't think this experiment is necessary. From the story:
NASA is to expose squirrel monkeys to daily radiation doses to help them understand the effects of long space trips on humans. It will be Nasa's first experiment on primates in decades.

If a manned mission to Mars ever takes place, the human pilots will be outside Earth’s protective magnetic field for several months, unprotected from solar radiation. Little research has been done on this sort of long-term exposure to low doses of radiation. Rats and mice have been exposed to this sort of radiation before, but that gives only a hint of what the effects would be on humans. Eleanor Blakely, a biophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said: "Obviously, the closer we get to man, the better."

The researchers are to pay particular attention to the effects on the monkeys’ central nervous systems and behaviour. The monkeys, previously trained to perform a variety of tasks, will be tested to see how the exposure affects their performance. Jack Bergman, a behavioral pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Boston, said: "We realized there was a need for this kind of work. There's a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts. That's not been well assessed."
This experiment seems wildly premature to me. We are probably decades from being able to technologically support--much less afford--manned trips to Mars. Indeed, we may not conduct such missions in our lifetimes. If and when we get closer to actually doing these missions, these experiments might be necessary, and they can be conducted with a better understanding of the actual conditions the astronauts would face based on the technology of the time.

True: We have had people in space for months at a time in the space station. Surely, they were exposed to continual radiation and their health should be monitored over the coming years. But until and unless extended space missions become plausible, I see no reason to put these monkey through the potentially painful consequences of being exposed to radiation. There may be a time, as I said, to conduct such studies. But that time is not now.