Open Letter by Peter Thier

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Pointless Torture of Experimental Animals by Tübingen Neuroscientists?
(Tübingen, December 30th, 2014)

A few months ago Stern TV presented unsettling video footage taken by an animal rights activist who had managed to work undercover in the husbandry of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biological Cybernetics. The material seemed to suggest systematic maltreatment of monkeys used in cognitive neuroscience research by Max Planck Director and CIN member Professor Nikos Logothetis. During a first examination, however, no indication of systematic non-compliance with prevailing rules and regulations could be obtained. This examination was carried out by Stefan Treue, Chairman of the German Primate Center in Göttingen, who had been summoned by the Max Planck Society as an external expert on the matter. A closer inspection of the case by the authorities is pending. 

It is not surprising that the video footage was used by animal rights activists to discredit the work of Professor Logothetis as generally useless and irresponsible, and to once again deny the importance of all animal models in biomedical research, not only the primate model. We all appreciate Nikos Logothetis as a world-class scientist with key contributions to neuroscience, honoured by many well-deserved prestigious awards. And those of us who are using similar methods have time and again benefitted from his unflagging attempts to optimize experimental techniques and procedures in the spirit of the 3R principle. In the face of public outrage it is an uphill challenge to defend him and to advocate reason and differentiation. The most disconcerting consequence of the public outrage spurred by animal rights activists have been threats on the lives of scientists at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics. A number of distressing precedents from other countries unfortunately demand that such threats must be taken seriously. 

We as neuroscientists are convinced that any attempt to better understand the working of the human brain, these 1500g of tissue, consisting of some 1010 neurons, each of them more complex than the most powerful computer humans ever built, will not be possible without invasive studies of living brains of intact organisms with whom we share important phylogenetic commonalities. The detailed arguments have been presented by neuroscientists on many occasions and some of them are summarized on the CIN homepage. We are, moreover, convinced that only a better understanding of the healthy brain will allow us to develop new or better approaches to the treatment of brain disease. 

The close links between basic and translational neuroscience on the one hand and clinical application on the other hand is typically contested by animal rights activists. Their major mouthpiece has become a group selling as “Ärzte gegen Tierversuche” (PAV; physicians against vivisection), a branding that seems well chosen as the common woman/man in the street usually has confidence in a profession promising help and understanding for the sick based on knowledge and long-trained skills. It is irritating to see that the media readily pick up the absurd allegations of this group without ever questioning their obscure access to disease as expressed in statements such as that most tumors could easily be prevented if we only refrained from smoking and chose the right diet (see Schwäbisches Tagblatt 22 Sept 2014).

Such statements do not only document the complete ignorance of their originators but also demonstrate a shocking arrogance towards the pain of patients and their families, suffering from a stroke of fate they are usually not in the least responsible for. The recent campaign initiated by the PAV against research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the additional funding it is currently receiving from donations prompted by the “ice bucket challenge” is an impressive example of this attitude. ALS (also called Lou Gehrig´s disease by Americans) is one of the most devastating neurological diseases, rendering those afflicted completely immobile within just a few years and ultimately killing them while maintaining full possession of their cognitive abilities and thus also full awareness of the merciless progress of the disease. A recent victim of this relentless disease was the British historian and essayist Tony R. Judt, who allowed the public to share what it meant to be “a bunch of dead muscles, thinking” to “remain cutting edge mentally until the day you die” (see the article by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian of 9 Jan 2010, which also offers a video interview with Judt).

The understanding that at least some forms of ALS are genetically determined and the responsible genes identified has for the first time leveraged approaches to the cellular basis of ALS, using among others transgenic rodents and eventually also primates. While this research is gaining momentum, organizations such as the PAV debase it as pointless and engage in exerting pressure on patients’ associations and other charitable donor alliances to withdraw their financial support of ALS research. In justification of their apodictic conviction of this research’s irrelevance, the PAV presents the argument that those working on ALS, based on a nascent understanding of its molecular and cellular underpinnings, have as yet failed to provide a cure – thus replicating the standard knock-out argument put forward with respect to any hard nut biomedical scientists have as yet not been able to crack.

On the other hand, the many examples documenting that scientific reason can indeed lead to relief for those suffering from brain and other diseases plaguing humans (and indeed also animals) are ignored. These positions reflect a complete lack of understanding of the workings of science and research, the intimate relationship between basic and translational research and the many inevitable failures of research, the dead ends but also the serendipity that may lead to completely unexpected insights. It is in essence an attitude that denies the virtue of any scientific endeavour based on reason. 

I have the greatest respect for animal lovers who bemoan the need to use animals in research, but I am afraid of animal rights activists who pursue an agenda I can only qualify as malicious and fundamentalist, and I am afraid of media aiming to stir up emotions, rather than facilitate an informed discussion. Certainly German society has the right to forswear using animals in biomedical research, as much as it has the right to forswear using them for alimentation or for diversion. Why should scientists, who are convinced of using animals in carefully conceptualized research, regulated by rigorous laws, expect funding for their research if society were strictly against it? Yet, any such decision should be based on a careful matter of fact discussion, rather than on misleading propaganda.

If the biomedical community has made one major mistake in the past, it was to hope that it may be sufficient to duck, so as not to be torn away by the wave of anti-rationalist animal rights activism. If the fury Tübingen neuroscience is currently experiencing may have a beneficial consequence, it is the understanding that we as scientists have to stand together and speak out for the requirements of good and internationally visible research.

Tübingen, 30 Dec 2014