Assault on science

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CLEVELAND—A not-so-quiet war has been waged on unsuspecting researchers and doctors around the world. Though Europe largely has been affected the most severely, biomedical research companies and laboratories in the United States have endured their share of vigilante activism for decades.

CLEVELAND-A not-so-quiet war has been waged on unsuspecting researchers and doctors around the world. Though Europe largely has been affected the most severely, biomedical research companies and laboratories in the United States have endured their share of vigilante activism for decades.

"I've had protestors on my lawn at home three times," says Joe Kemnitz, PhD, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of its National Primate Research Center. "Experience shows us that what happens in Britain and the rest of Europe often happens here, too."

British pharmaceutical companies, research facilities, farms and universities report that vigilante activism costs the country about $2 billion each year, primarily in security investments and lost productivity, as well as personal security. Many pharmaceutical executives in Europe now require security escorts to ensure safe transportation to and from work, a detail that requires big money diverted from other budgets, including research and development.

"If the dean of a veterinary program starts to get death threats, or his house is attacked, or his children are followed to school, then is the veterinary school prepared to provide security protection to an individual? This happens a lot in the UK and is very expensive," says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Culprits and targets

Animal rights groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), have a good idea about the lack of security of U.S. labs compared to their counterparts across the pond, Trull says.

Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe's largest vivisection laboratory with facilities in New Jersey, is the main target of SHAC, but the vigilante group also targets companies that Huntingdon does business with, including American biopharmaceutical companies.

More than 400,000 people are employed by the biopharmaceutical sector in the United States, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhARMA). The industry was directly responsible for $63.9 billion in real output in 2003.

"One huge underestimation is the tenacity of the activists. They don't go away. If you become a target, then you have to make a long-term commitment to your employees and your animals," Trull says. "Every facility must do an assessment of their security vulnerabilities, and if they don't have sophisticated personnel, then they need to bring in security experts to evaluate a facility; then they have to decide whether or not they are going to make a commitment."

Despite heightened security in Britain, incidences are on the rise. British law enforcement reports more than twice as many incidences as last year. The United States has endured sporadic but significant events, too.

The UW-Madison facility was targeted in 1999 as part of a nationwide scare campaign that mailed razor blades accompanied by letters threatening that the razors were laced with poison. More than 80 scientists were harassed by the letters at primate centers affiliated with Tulane University, Emory University, University of California-Davis, University of Minnesota, University of Oregon and the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as UW-Madison. The letters were mailed from Las Vegas, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"We increasingly are spending more time and money in securing our facilities," Kemnitz says. "The perception of the threat is still relatively new in this country, and mechanisms are not in place to allocate funds where necessary, in grant proposals, for example."

The facility swallowed a $75,000 bill for a keycard security system during the past couple of years, which now requires a $25,000 upgrade and an annual operating budget of about $5,000.

There are soft costs, too. Keeping up with the requests authorized by the Freedom of Information Act and public relations functions forced the facility to add 1.5 full-time equivalents for public outreach.

"There has been a dramatic increase in activism during the time I've been at the primate center," Kemnitz says. "When I joined 25 years ago, there was little or no activity, and now we experience a nearly continuous barrage of requests for information, and we must defend ourselves against published material, which eats up a lot of our resources."

Necessary evil

But the security measures might do more than exclude potential rabble-rousers. In many cases, keeping close ties on facilities and personnel helps secure scientific results and protect the public from infectious disease.

"Security isn't stealing money away from research; I think it's helping to secure the research," says Bettye Walters,DVM,director for the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "If you do research and there is a breach in security and someone comes in and tampers with the animals, cell lines or growth media, then that is going to affect the research that you do, and if it is affected in a negative way, then it is going to be repeated or the data are no good. It's the cost of ensuring the data are valid."

The University of Virginia-Maryland's College Park Campus (UVM-College Park) operates a biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) facility, one of four classifications for biologic research designated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The levels-one through four-signify the level of risk individual pathogens can present to humans. Biosafety Level 1 presents no risk of infection in humans, while pathogens labeled as Biosafety Level 4 carry a high mortality rate.

The UVM-College Park facility works with avian influenza to help predict what a biological outbreak might mean for Maryland's eastern shore, which has the highest concentration of poultry in the United States.

Though many sources were apprehensive about discussing specific security measures, Walters says the facility mandates keycard access at all points, as well as a guarded delivery gate. She says researchers and staff use entranceways and exits to access only the wing or corridor that houses their research, and those who belong are instructed to query unfamiliar people that might have strolled into the wrong corridor unwittingly, even if they might be researchers in another part of the building.

"Frequently we hear about what is going on in Europe, and we wonder if that level of activism is going to reach the United States, and to be honest, I'm not sure why it hasn't," Walters says. "I might be because scientists here do a better job of explaining what they do and explaining that alternatives to the use of animals is explored, or perhaps it's simply a cultural difference or a matter of communicating in a different way what we do."

Care and use

Communication and disclosure of the rigors imposed by care and use committees are crucial, too. Although the added administrative leap might translate into an added expense, the council on care and use at each U.S. research facility can help alleviate public concern by enforcing standards for husbandry and clinical legitimacy to testing.

Care and use committees must review every protocol that involves the use of animals to ensure their use is not unnecessarily duplicated. They review protocols to explore alternatives to the use of animals in painful or distressful procedures, and to use those alternatives if available. They also review the basic care and husbandry of the animals and help provide them with environmental enrichment opportunities when possible as long as it doesn't interfere with the data that's being generated. The committees ensure that people are qualified and adequately trained to work with whatever species they are working with, and they make sure that they are aware of various rules and regulations as they come on line from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institutes of Health.

"We exercise a great deal of effort to make sure that people adhere to NIH or USDA standards for the use of animals in research," says Dr. Mark Roberson, research program director at Cornell University's Department of Biomedical Sciences Veterinary Research Tower. "We've always filled out the same amount of paperwork in the nine years that I've been here, and we've always adhered to the same standard of public reporting, which, in the case of our care and use committees, has been very good. They are here to help protect us as well as our animal resources."

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) shelled out more than $27 billion to researchers and institutions in fiscal year 2003, and more than 18,000 employees help guide the institutes' care and use programs.

Research results can be more accurate with the enhancement of the lives of animal subjects, too, Walters says.

"The care and use committees support the research because if you have animals that are housed in currently acceptable ways, then they probably have a certain amount of enrichment that improves the data," she says. "People have looked at that fact, and results are more consistent."

Though researchers' public relations in the United States might be more effective than their counterparts over seas, Roberson says more must be conveyed about the level of stewardship that most researchers offer to lab animals.

"We certainly are aware of the sensitivity people have to animal research, but we are also very aware of the importance of animal research in the context of biomedicine," he says. "In considering that, one has to balance the appropriate laboratory measures and learn how to ask that right questions and offer the right answers. We try to be very aware, but I don't think we've spent any more money in relation to that, at least not in my group."

Despite the public relations machines at various institutions, it's clear that no one is insulated from vigilante activism.

"Veterinary schools, in particular, think they are less subject to attack because they are conducting research with good intentions, but that's very naïve," Trull says. "Nobody is safe. If you have animals in cages, for any reason, then you are a potential target."

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