Someone sent me an e-mail today that was originally written by Rick Bogle that shows just how animal rights activists often blatantly lie about medical research involving animals.
In this case, the topic was a recent report by Harvard Medical School about research into heroin addiction with monkeys. Bogle sent an e-mail to an animal rights mailing list with the subject line: “Harvard announces major breakthrough in heroin research” and described the research in one sentence,
Researchers at Harvard University’s NIH supported New England Regional Primate Research Center have announced the breakthrough discovery that monkeys are able to distinguish between injections of heroin and a saline placebo.
The implication is pretty clear — what sort of idiots would sit around running experiments with monkeys to see if they can tell the difference between heroin and a saline placebo? The answer to that question is “no one,” because that is not at all what the study actually involved.
Given that drug addiction is such a problem in U.S. society, many people might think that researchers already know everything there is to know about addiction. In fact, the reality is that much about addiction is still poorly understood, especially when it comes to how specific drugs cause addiction.
To try to better understand addiction, researchers perform tests in monkeys called drug discrimination tests. Here’s the basic idea behind a drug discrimination test: suppose researchers have a drug like heroin and they want to find out what it is specifically about heroin that causes people to become addicted to it. One way to do that is to train the monkey to give a certain response when it is injected with heroin — for example, the monkey is trained to push a lever that rewards it with food. When the monkey is injected with a placebo, however, it is trained that if it wants the food reward, it needs to push a different lever. In this way, the monkey is able to tell researchers whether it is receiving an injection of heroin or of a placebo. The monkey can now discriminate between the two.
Now, the researchers move on to finding out what it is about heroin that makes human beings “high.” Heroin turns out to be a difficult drug to figure out for a number of reasons. As the Harvard researchers explain,
Heroin is a complicated drug with some unusual properties. For example, heroin is converted to a number of metabolites in the brain and liver. How this occurs is shown in the Figure below. Once heroin passes from the blood stream to the brain, it is rapidly converted to other chemicals by enzymatic activity. First, heroin in the brain is converted to a chemical called 6-MAM, then Metabolic pathway of heroin after intravenous injection. After activating the brain’s natural opioid system (by binding to proteins called “mu opioid receptors”), morphine returns to the blood stream where, like most drugs, it is metabolized by the liver. Enzymatic activity in the liver converts morphine into two other substances called M3G and M6G, which can re-circulate back to the brain.
So here’s what the Harvard researchers wanted to find out — do these 6-MAM, M3G, M6G, and morphine byproducts which go back to the brain contribute at all to the “high” that users feel after injecting heroin. Or, are they just an otherwise a relatively unimportant side effect in the way heroin is experienced? Before these studies, the general consensus was that M3G did not play much of a role in heroin experience.
To test this, they took a saline solution and put each of these byproducts in it, and then injected the monkeys with the solution. The result? When the monkeys were injected with a solution containing saline and 6-MAM, they pushed the lever just as if they had received a heroin injection. The results were exactly the same for solutions containing M3G, M6G and the morphine byproducts. As Harvard summarizes the importance of this research,
These studies, to our knowledge, provided the first demonstration of discriminative stimulus effects produced by i.v. injections of heroin in nonhuman primates. Also, the finding that M3G may contribute to the subjective effects of heroin was very surprising, since this compound previously was believed to be a harmless, inactive by-product of heroin metabolism. Another surprising finding was that the brain dopamine system the system most commonly implicated in the addictive properties of drugs seems to play almost no role in the subjective effects of heroin. The i.v. heroin discrimination model appears to be an especially useful tool for identifying potential medications that, by acting through the mu opioid system, may prevent the intense subjective experiences associated with heroin addiction.
This research, in other words, strongly challenged traditional thinking about heroin drug addiction.
But to animal rights activists like Rick Bogle, none of this matters. This is simply a case of researchers wasting time and tax dollars to prove that
“monkeys are able to distinguish between injections of heroin and a
And this will certainly enter animal rights lore in just this way — few activists (no activists, actually) seem interested in ever doing any sort of fact checking of these sorts of assertions. This will end up on some fact sheet at some group and be endlessly copied and pasted without any activist wondering if there might not be more to the story, much less anyone in the animal rights community bothering to do any research into the matter.
One of the ways to judge a social or political movement is by how accurately it presents the position of its opponents. The animal rights movement is apparently satisfied with distorting, obfuscating and outright lying about its opponents rather than try to make an extremely difficult case against them. Like creationists and other advocates of pseudo-science, animal rights activists rely on distorting science and playing to the general ignorance of the general public about medical research rather than objectively looking at research methods and ends and then critiquing those methods and ends from the animal rights position.
Heroin’s Effects in Monkeys. Harvard Medical School, Accessed: March 20, 2002.