Editorial: Calling for Fundamental Change: A Case of Mistaken Priorities
Researcher Denis Burkitt once said that every research grant application ought to have two words written in at the bottom: "So what?" The fact is, too many research projects have no practical application. Burkitt called them "an absolute waste of money."
Burkitt ought to know. He was the award-winning researcher who identified and cured a form of cancer now called Burkitt's Lymphoma and also established the cancer-fighting effects of fiber in the diet. He was also a long-time advocate of PCRM's mission to advance healthier diets.
Burkitt's words are apparently lost on Ohio State University experimenter Michael Podell. Podell plans to infect 120 cats with feline immunodeficiency virus and give them methamphetamine, the drug commonly known as "speed," hoping to loosely copy the brain-damaging effects of AIDS and amphetamines. As the cats gradually deteriorate, he'll make them walk planks to check their balance, conduct various other behavioral tests, perform spinal taps, and finally kill them to examine their brains.
Needless to say, the experiment has been criticized—and rightly so—for being hard on the animals. But the project has also come under scrutiny for its scientific naiveté. Other research teams have been studying the interaction of HIV and amphetamines much more effectively in human beings. Some have studied drug abuse patterns in AIDS patients, as well as the brain damage caused by AIDS associated with drug abuse. Others have studied the antidepressant effects of amphetamines in HIV-positive individuals, tracking their neurological function along the way. Still others have looked at patients in amphetamine maintenance programs, which are similar to methadone programs. With modern scanning technologies and neuropsychiatric tests, these research methods allow far more detailed study than is possible in any sort of animal "model." Human volunteers are able to report subtle learning problems, mood changes, memory problems, hallucinations, or delusional thinking, all of which would never be identified in cats.
The fact that Podell's cat experiments were approved at all indicates a problem at higher levels. The University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee gave the experiments its stamp of approval, apparently believing that Podell had looked for alternatives and been unable to find any. But the real blame rests at the funding agency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIDA had solicited grant applications from researchers looking into the relationship between drug abuse and AIDS, such as the spread of HIV through shared needles. But NIDA threw open the government coffers with abandon. Anyone wanting to study anything linking drug abuse and HIV was welcome to apply. In the process, Podell's cat experiments scored $1.68 million.
Our goal is not simply to spotlight one short-sighted researcher. We hope to change America's research priorities in a more fundamental way, as Denis Burkitt attempted to do. At a time when modern research technologies allow us to ethically study subtle brain effects in living human volunteers, experimenters have no excuse for retreating to the animal laboratory.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM