Week in Review: April 24

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Fire bombings over animal research, Jim Carrey and the anti-vaccine movement, fossil of walking seal discovered, senator proposes science envoys, and transcription mapped.

Credit: Martin Lipman

A Walking Seal

Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and colleagues from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History published in Nature their discovery of a walking, 23-million-year-old seal-like animal, which they named Puijila darwini. The list of transitional fossils grows and the ire of the creationists likely grows with it. It would make me cranky if I had dedicated my life to the defense of ignorance in the face evidence.

Defending Animal Research

A recent spate of fire-bombings and other criminal activity in the United States aimed at scientists who rely on vivisection as integral to their work received a full-throated rebuttal from American scientists this week. David Jentsch, a UCLA neuroscientist and the victim of a firebombing this spring, organized the march and rally of several hundred supporters of animal research; it took place April 22 and followed an anti-vivisection confab earlier that day. Also present was Tom Holder, the 22-year-old founder of the British group Speaking of Research and a founding member of the group Pro-Test.

It would be flatly false to accuse anti-vivisection activists as a whole of violent and criminal behavior, or even of condoning it, but even the methods of those who act within the law are not always above question. Anti-vivisection propaganda — typified by websites such as World Week for Animals in Laboratories 2009 — disingenuously treat animal research as though its methods are unnecessarily cruel, its goals trite, and its potential limited. These tactics — of purposefully obscuring the goals of research, or highlighting issues such as the use of animals in cosmetic testing — do nothing to elucidate the truth about the purpose of animal science. In the end, much of it sounds as uninformed or disingenuous as Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin wondering why the US government would pay for research on fruit flies or grizzly bears.

Respected scientists, like Jane Goodall, are involved in anti-vivisection groups. And clearly, the testing of cosmetics should not be a prioritized use of animal life. But many of the great scientific mysteries of our time — how the brain works, how to defeat HIV and other infectious diseases, and much more — are not likely to be answered in vitro anytime soon. One might argue that we ought not to solve them if the cost is animal life but that is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Messrs. Jentsch, Holder, and all the participants at the rally are commended for taking this stand for science.

The Cartography of Transcription

The FANTOM Consortium, a worldwide organization for genomic research led by the Riken Omics Science Center in Japan published a paper in Nature Genetics mapping the transcriptional network in human myeloid leukemia cell line. The map of it is a marvel: More than two-dozen genes and their interactions among themselves and with the assorted processes and organelles existing in and around a cell are charted for the first time. There are still many gaps to fill in the map, with putative links needing to be demonstrated — or overthrown — by experimental investigation. As much as this paper charts our knowledge, it is equally a map for scientists, a map of where time and effort would be well spent, and where the mysteries remain.

Science diplomacy

US Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, introduced a bill to establish a corps of science envoys in the Department of State. Science-related diplomacy has long been an interest of Seed’s; we have called on President Obama to move to bolster the ranks of ambassadorial science attachés through the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. As the State Department’s science advisor Nina Fedoroff put it, “we need our scientists, our engineers, our experts of all stripes, to wander the world, to coach and help and teach,” if we are to survive the next century. Although in our April issue we envisioned something “part World Bank and part Peace Corps,” and a bit grander than Sen. Lugar’s proposal, this certainly is a start.

An Environment for Ignorance

Apparently under the influence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s calls for “green vaccines,” the Huffington Post published a column on Earth Day by the actor Jim Carrey, devotee of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose infamous 1998 paper in the Lancet first suggested that there might be a link between vaccination and autism. Carrey, along with his partner Jenny McCarthy, can’t believe that every major study published on childhood vaccination and the incidence of autism finds no support for a link between shots and autism because after all, they already know that vaccines do cause autism. No vaccines, they insist, means children will be safe from autism and the depredations of evil scientists. But as sites such as the “Jenny McCarthy Body Count” indicate, denying children access to vaccines kills; and as epidemiological studies indicate, denying children access to vaccines has had no effect on the prevalence of autism itself.

It is tragic that even one person dies of preventable disease. But the biggest risk in the anti-vaccination movement does not lie in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world; the medical technology exists to treat patients suffering from measles and other such diseases, and mortality rates are generally low. What’s scary is to consider what would happen if anti-vaccination movements were to catch on in the developing world as skepticism about treatments for HIV/AIDS has in Africa. Thanks to vaccines measles mortality has fallen by 74 percent since 2000 worldwide saving hundreds of thousands of lives annually; vaccination programs as a whole save millions of lives each year. Advanced clinical care in the United States may be able to save most people who are victimized by anti-vaccination activists. But in the absence of vaccines, what is a survivable disease in one place is likely to kill in another.

Originally published April 26, 2009

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