Friday, April 26, 2013

Saving animals, dooming people

Earlier this month, neurobiologists in Milan had their lab broken into in a deliberate attempt to slow their research.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:
The lab was targeted because its work, like just about every other medical advance and effort of our time, involves mice. Hundreds of small, cute, furry mice, which in this case had been genetically modified for protein mutations meant to model, as [Dr. Michela] Matteoli puts it, "what goes wrong in the synapse."

The animal-rights crowd decided it had better plans for the mice. So on Saturday five members of Italy's "Stop Green Hill" group (initially formed to protest a nearby dog-breeding facility) broke into the Milanese lab and "occupied" the area housing 800 animals, mostly mice but also some rabbits. They chained themselves by their necks to the facility's doors, Ms. Matteoli says, ensuring that any attempt at forced entry by the police could "harm them really seriously. They could kill them, break their necks."
The researchers lost mice, and others were scrambled such that it was impossible to associate a specific animal with a given experiment. The damage is estimated to cost a year of work and hundreds of thousands of euros. The research is intended to develop drugs “that might arrest neuron destruction in Alzheimer's patients, or avoid the synaptic dysfunctions apparent in autism.”

Columnist Anne Jolis concluded:
[C]onsidering the zealousness of the people who have a problem with their work, Ms. Matteoli and her colleagues may hit on the cure for Alzheimer's before they convince any "Stop Green Hill" types that studying the caged mice and bunnies is worth it. Even Ms. Matteoli, polite to a fault, admits that she has been "impressed" with some of the "really completely crazy" online comments about news articles on the lab attack.

"One guy wrote that you should only study mice if you're developing medicine for mice. I mean, this is the level of—it's very hard to understand." Here's hoping she doesn't try too hard—and can get back to her regular work soon.
I realize I’m a species bigot, but I never got why people valued primitive animals over human life. (Dolphins and chimps I understand — at least up to a point.) The advances will come too late to help me, but perhaps they could help my in-laws (in another decade) or people of my generation (in 30-40 years).

The biopharma industry will continue to have these sorts of problems unless it can find a way to persuade the public of the necessity of their research and research methods. The anti-capitalist, anti-science challenge seems greatest in Europe, but the U.S. is far from exempt.

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