Twelve years of research and close to $3 million of taxpayer money have made scientist Mark Laudenslager's monkey project a sitting duck for national animal-rights activists.
Opponents of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center researcher's experiments on 120 macaques have picketed the medical center, written scores of letters demanding the termination of Laudenslager's program and enlisted a team of experts who have tried to debunk many aspects of the primate study. Amid the maelstrom of opposition, Laudenslager is scrambling to find future funding for his project after his federal grant runs dry this November.
The CU primate study, titled "Behavioral and Physiological Consequences of Loss," revolves around experiments testing the effects of being separated from a mother. Money received since the inception of the program has come from AIDS funding allotted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Not only are animal-rights activists angered by the use of monkeys in experiments, but they argue that Laudenslager is wasting AIDS money that could be better spent on treatment for humans.
One activist, Virginia psychiatrist Murry J. Cohen, co-chair of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, contends that Laudenslager has included the topic of AIDS in his grant applications simply as a means to keep his research funded. In a written critique of the CU study, Cohen writes: "Laudenslager makes the preposterous claim that his experiments relate to HIV-induced immunosuppression in AIDS. How these monkey studies, involving infant monkeys maternally deprived for two weeks, can 'become particularly important' in treating HIV-positive 'teen populations' remains a mystery."
Opponents of the CU program are also quick to point to a recent report prepared for the federal Office of AIDS Research by non-government reviewers. The report found that many research projects are "inappropriately classified as AIDS or AIDS-related," which has led to "allocation of AIDS research funds to activities with little or no direct relevance to AIDS." Laudenslager, however, says that he was approached by the NIH with AIDS funding, not the other way around.
Laudenslager defends his research by pointing out that infant monkeys who have been separated from their mothers run a much greater risk of contracting immune-system diseases. He says his experiments have led him to believe that childhood trauma (such as the loss of a parent) can affect the chances of humans, especially teenagers, contracting immune-system infections such as AIDS and increase the rate of the disease's progression once it is in the bloodstream.
"What we're trying to determine," says Laudenslager "is, all things being equal, why is one person at a greater risk than another? Why does one HIV-positive person die after six months as opposed to one who's living fifteen years later?"
Animal-rights activists have marshaled other experts besides Cohen to argue against Laudenslager's experiments. Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says it's impossible to compare the immune systems of monkeys and humans.
Barnard explains that using findings from animal experiments to explain human health issues is "like if I lost my car keys on Second Avenue, but Second is dark, so I look for my keys on Third because it has streetlights. If I find some keys on Third, I'll pick them up and hope that they start my car."
Still other activists focus on the experiments themselves. The most recent public protest was played out in a picket line at the Health Sciences Center on September 14. (Laudenslager notes that the protesters were "polite in voicing their right of opinion.") Renada Cerniglia, president of the local group Citizens for Responsible Research, claims that CU is running an "Auschwitz for animals" and that Laudenslager and others at the university are simply "white-coat welfare recipients" on the government dole who are tormenting animals in order to come up with self-evident results. Cerniglia wants the study halted and the macaques released.
Others in the animal-rights movement have said that Laudenslager's lab is "no worse" than any other. As Laudenslager describes it, infant macaques are housed in social groups of ten to sixteen primates, including their mothers. When a baby monkey reaches six months of age, the mother is removed from the group for two weeks and the infant's reactions and behavior are monitored.
Although the infant macaques are comforted by the other members of the social group, their behavior after being separated from their mothers can be characterized as "protest-despair," Laudenslager says. That initially includes "increased vocalization and active searching behaviors" followed by a withdrawal phase "characterized by reduced activity, vocalization, social play and altered feeding patterns." During this period, the infant monkeys are also subjected to blood and hormone testing.
When the monkeys reach the age of fifteen months, they are removed from their group in order to try to assess the psychological and physical results of the previous separation. During this second stage, the monkeys are monitored for behavioral, endocrinological and immunological reactions in situations that range from being placed in a pen with a plastic Godzilla doll to having encounters with unfamiliar monkeys.
The monkeys are studied until they reach four years of age, after which they are returned to their social groups to live out the remainder of their lives--in the CU lab. This, says Laudenslager, is one of the reasons that the costs for his program can get to be so expensive. "There aren't any retirement funds for monkeys," he says. "We're responsible for them for the rest of their lives, and they can live anywhere from fifteen to twenty years."
Laudenslager insists that he, too, wants to see the number of animals used in research experiments curtailed. "I, like the majority of other researchers," he says, "believe in the three Rs: Reduction, Refinement, and Replacement [of animal subjects]."
As Laudenslager's No-vember deadline looms larger, he hopes that the NIH will continue to find merit in his research even if his detractors don't.
Officials in the Office of AIDS Research say it's too early to tell whether the recent report criticizing some research projects will hurt proposals such as Laudenslager's. But Cohen fears that the funding will keep on rolling in, regardless of the clamor.
"It's such a good ol' boys' network at the NIH," Cohen says, "that all he [Laudenslager] might have to do is turn in his application, give a wink, and his grant will be approved.
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