September 23, 2020

Rest of the animal research story

Dr. Kenneth Barker (Readers Write, June 21) expressed concern that the “full story” about Dr. John Orem’s research on sleep disorders using cats was not detailed in Lynn Pulis’ excellent discussion (Another Viewpoint, June 6). I would like to bring attention to several more details that hopefully will help to complete the story.

Dr. Orem has spent more than 12 years involved in repetitive work using numerous groups of cats in an attempt to derive information that would apply to humans who suffer from sleep apnea. Orem’s protocols outline the method of deriving such information from the research cats by training them to “voluntarily hold their breath” in response to a noxious stimulus — the blowing of ammonium hydroxide into their faces while their heads are secured into stereotaxic devices.

Meanwhile, state-of-the-art research is being conducted involving human clinical cases at numerous sleep disorder clinics which currently exist in many hospitals. The approximately 1 to 3 percent of the population who suffers from sleep apnea is comprised largely of overweight men who snore. There is no reliable indication yet that the information derived from Dr. Orem’s animal model can successfully be extrapolated to this segment of the human population. Moreover, I find it difficult, at best, to determine how information recorded from such a voluntary situation can, in any way, mimic what is believed to be the involuntary cessation of breathing in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). While no one can deny the urgency to solve this tragic human syndrome, given the nature of Orem’s work it appears remote that it will provide an answer here either.

Dr. Barker refers to the National Institutes of Health investigation of Dr. Orem’s work. I assume he is referring to the team of investigators who visited his lab from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in response to the formal complaints filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The NHLBI team consisted of five persons with very similar research backgrounds to Dr. Orem. All have spent their careers using animals as research subjects. None has demonstrated a clear interest in progressive animal welfare reform.

Clearly, it was a committee of investigators consisting solely of persons who would have been unlikely to question or probe deeply into Dr. Orem’s work. By challenging Dr. Orem’s use of the cats, they would have been putting their own research on the line. I think it is safe to say that this team was decidedly biased prior to its investigation, which found no evidence of animal misuse.

Finally, Dr. Barker makes a plea for “latitude in gathering basic scientific data” for researchers such as Dr. Orem. After reading Dr. Orem’s protocols (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), I ask whether latitude means yearly repetitions of depriving cats of sleep by confining them in water-filled drums on pedestals too small to lie down on for 12 hours, followed by several hours on a treadmill, followed by four to five hours immobilized in a stereotaxic device with micro-electrode implantations being made repetitively into their brains? Somehow, I do not feel this type of work is a good example of the latitude one needs to bring us closer to the alternatives we all seek. Suzanne Cliver, DVM Board of Directors Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights Markham, Va.

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