By: Staff  Date: 01/13/2012 Category: | Research Reports |

Didn't anyone notice? Evidently not. With all the controversy swirling around Peter Singer, the Princeton professor of bioethics who, in certain circumstances would endorse infanticide, it is not surprising that most of us missed his recent astonishing admission about animal research.

The man many call the father of the contemporary animal-rights movement was heralding experiments in which damaged nervous systems were repaired with stem cells taken from embryos. The promising work was done with rats. Leave aside the fact that Singer wrote in his op-ed piece in the Manchester Guardian to criticize Catholic bishops who are opposing the use of federal funds to support further research with human embryo stem cells, a debate entangled in the politics of abortion. Leave aside, too, his opinion that animal experiments can be justified as long as we are prepared to conduct the same experiments on human infants having mental capacities comparable to those of rats and mice, an opinion that has gotten the DeCamp Professor of Ethics in hot water with the school's alumni.

What is of concern here is that in Animal Liberation, the 1975 charter of the contemporary animal rights movement, Peter Singer savaged animal research. When he had a chance to shift his position in a revised edition of the book in 1990, he equated animal research with animal cruelty and declared that "much of it is of minimal or zero value."

To be sure, Singer gave himself some wiggle room. The now famous attack on animal research in Chapter Two of Animal Liberation dealt almost exclusively with product safety testing, painful behavioral research and military experiments. He aimed nary a salvo at the health research that Americans so readily understand and appreciate - the research that has given us children's vaccines, polio protection, heart surgery, and even some victories in the war on cancer. Perhaps his silence on these topics was an acknowledgment that biomedical research has delivered again and again and still delivers today. But something else, something even more important was missing from Singer's rant on the use of animals in biomedicine - he showed no understanding of basic research. We can hear him even now: the exciting experiments with embryo stem cells and nervous systems of rats are ok - their benefit to thousands of humans outweighs the value of the few rats they condemned to death - but the routine use of thousands of laboratory animals in research 'without the remotest relevance to human health' is ethically unacceptable.

But it is through such routine use of laboratory animals in basic research that medicine advances. Scientists investigate mechanisms of cell development and interaction with only a hint and hope of how their studies may benefit us, either remotely or immediately. For every Edwin Horwitz, who injected normal stem cells into the bone marrow of three children with brittle bone disease - cells which became collagen-producing cells allowing the youngsters to grow normally - there are dozens of researchers such as Oliver Brustle, whose work with rats attracted Singer's attention. Jonas Fisen located the source of neural stem cells in rats, Byron Peterson reported that stem cells harvested from bone marrow converted themselves into healthy liver cells in rats, and Evan Snyder found that transplanting neural stem cells in rats' brains might compensate for damage done in certain diseases of the brain. And each of these scientists stand on the shoulders of other hundreds who have pursued still more basic investigations on the process by which not-yet-committed cells turn into liver cells or become brain tissue. It is doubtful that any of that research would pass muster with Singer's naïve rule-making.

We welcome Singer as he joins NIH director Harold Varmus in looking forward to the day when embryo stem cells may "eliminate the need for organ transplants, cure leukemia, enable people with diabetes to manufacture insulin, treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease and repair the nerve systems of quadriplegics." That day will come, however, only with much more of the animal research that he has ridiculed. Even if each of the diseases he mentions should become history, there will always be new challenges and more questions. The truth is that we can't have medical advances without animal research. Singer, who revived a discredited antivivisection movement that now threatens our health, needs to say this. His followers in Portland, for example, are parroting him in charging that no good has ever come out of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. Singer should say "Whoa! James Thomson, one of the first to isolate stem cells in human embryos - the research Singer celebrates - perfected his skills and honed his questions while he was a postdoctoral fellow at the center, conducting research in fertilization with rhesus monkeys." Singer can't have it both ways - blessing the promise of stem cell research while condemning the value of animal research. If he agrees with another professor of ethics, Ian Fletcher, that "Soon every parent whose child has diabetes or any cell-failure disease is going to be riveted to this [stem cell] research," then he is going to have to recant his opinion on animal research.

photo credit: Singer via photopin (license)

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