March of Dimes-Funded Animal Experiments: Commonly Asked Questions
March of Dimes Claims of Advances From Animal Experiments
March of Dimes Claims Regarding the “Need” for More Animal Experimentation
March of Dimes Claims About the Utility of Animal Experiments
March of Dimes' Funding Priorities
In 2001, the March of Dimes provided nearly $200,000 to researchers at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center to cause uterine infections in healthy pregnant monkeys to try to trigger premature labor. In these experiments, researchers insert monitoring cables into the monkeys’ uteruses and into their babies’ bodies, tethering the animals in cages that are too small to meet animal care guidelines. When the babies are born, they are killed for further study. This is despite the fact that physicians have known for decades that bacterial infections are linked to pre-term birth.
Mriganka Sur, who along with Douglas Frost published a paper describing notorious kitten-eyelid-sewing experiments,1 received a $49,337 grant from the March of Dimes for July 1, 1995, through June 30, 1996, to continue his experiments on visual development. Sur has published papers acknowledging March of Dimes funding at least as recently as 1998. These publications describe inflicting brain damage in newborn ferrets.2
The March of Dimes has funded numerous studies giving cocaine and nicotine to pregnant animals, including a long series of experiments by Edward Levin,3,4 a Duke University toxicologist who has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the tobacco industry and who made headlines announcing that his research shows that nicotine has “benefits.”
In March of Dimes-funded experiments published in 1997 and 1998, pregnant lambs were forced to give birth prematurely. The infant lambs then had their breathing artificially manipulated, producing severe injuries to their lungs. The lambs were killed at the conclusion of the experiment.5,6
Almost all animal experiments involve psychological and/or physical trauma to the animals. Primates in March of Dimes-funded experiments have died due to the absence of an anesthesiologist during surgery, lack of sufficient monitoring after surgery, technical failure of stapling devices, inadequate obstetrical care, and from surgical “technical problems.” There have been numerous wound infection complications resulting in at least one death. March of Dimes experimenters also restrained monkeys in chairs for many days at a time, sewed cats' eyes shut, and gave ferrets and other animals severe brain damage.
Animal welfare laws are insufficient to provide even basic protections. There are three main problems with the current laws. First, the laws merely provide minimal standards for housing, handling, and transportation of animals and do not control what goes on in the laboratory itself. Experimenters can essentially do whatever they want to an animal in an experiment, even perform painful, invasive experiments without any anesthetics or analgesics. Second, most animals subjected to experiments are not even covered by federal law because the legislation specifically excludes rats, mice, and birds. Third, numerous studies have shown that even these weak laws are not adequately enforced.
Yes. Although the charity used to deny this, March of Dimes officials later admitted that it did fund these experiments. A publication by the experimenters states that, “[f]our cats were raised with monocular lid suture from birth to one year or more”1 and cites support from March of Dimes grant 5-417.
March of Dimes Claims of Advances From Animal Experiments
Birth defects are prevented and babies are saved when research dollars go to effective and relevant research, which comes from studying human problems and human babies, not from sewing kittens' eyes shut or addicting rats to cocaine.
In one of the most significant findings of recent years in the fight to prevent birth defects, human observations in England and Wales suggested a link between folic acid and neural tube defects (NTDs). Subsequent human clinical trials confirmed that women who had previous NTD pregnancies could greatly reduce their risk of another NTD-affected pregnancy by taking folic acid supplements. The link between pre-pregnancy obesity and neural tube defects also was uncovered by human, not animal, studies. Every penny spent funding questionable experiments on ferrets or kittens is a penny that could go to educating mothers, providing folic acid supplements, and directly helping babies at risk.
By studying birth registry data and human clinical trials, researchers recently made the stunning discovery that magnesium sulfate can prevent two-thirds of all cases of cerebral palsy and nearly half of all mental retardation in very low birth weight babies. Again, we find that a major victory in the war against birth defects involved absolutely no animal tests.
Animal experiments can give dangerously misleading results that put human babies at risk. For example, the antibiotic streptomycin was declared “safe” after it was tested on dogs, guinea pigs, and mice. Tragedy occurred when many babies who were given the drug were blinded, went deaf, suffered brain damage, and even died.
Visual development experiments have been done for decades without yielding anything of clinical relevance that could not have been learned from human studies. In these March of Dimes experiments, no mention is made of how the results of these studies might solve a human birth defect problem. In addition, a veterinary ophthalmologist commented that because cats and ferrets have much of the development of their retina and brain projections after birth, while in humans much of this development occurs prior to birth, the results of these studies are meaningless for humans.
Diaphragmatic hernia is simply a hole in the diaphragm that allows the abdominal organs to pass into the chest. Even though human studies have already given us a good understanding of this condition, the March of Dimes funded experiments on sheep in which a diaphragmatic hernia was simulated by inflating a balloon in the chest of lambs while they were still in the womb. No new discoveries about diaphragmatic hernias were made from these experiments.
Experiments were also conducted in which diaphragmatic hernias were created before birth in lambs by making a hole in the diaphragm. Attempts to repair this surgically created defect did not fully prepare surgeons for the skills needed to correct the defect in humans because of the differences between the defect in human infants and the artificially created defect in lambs. Despite the practice on lambs, five of the first six human babies who were operated on for diaphragmatic hernias died either during the operation or of operative complications. According to the surgeons themselves, these initial attempts at surgery in humans taught them many important lessons.
No. Surfactant is a natural compound that allows the lungs to operate normally. It was discovered in experiments using animal and human lung specimens in the late 1950s. Although some animal lung specimens were used, human lung specimens could have been used alone. Three years after its discovery, researchers demonstrated that premature infants have no surfactant in their lungs, but that the substance is present in the lungs of more mature infants, children, and adults. Within a few years, trials had begun administering this substance to infants with lung problems. Human studies continue today to improve surfactant therapy for infants.
March of Dimes Claims Regarding the "Need" for More Animal Experimentation
Nicotine and cocaine experiments on animals won't solve the problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse. These experiments do not give results that apply to humans, nor do they do anything to stem drug abuse and its associated dangers to unborn babies. For example, in one experiment, nicotine was given to pregnant rats, and then the offspring were tested to see how they performed in a maze. In another experiment, alcohol was given by injection to newborn opossums, their sex organs were removed, and they then received first testosterone and then estrogen implants. In yet another experiment, daily cocaine injections were given to pregnant rats, and then the offspring were tested in a maze. While some experimenters may find these exercises to be intellectually appealing, they do not stop human birth defects.
Cross-species transplants are not even close to being a reality. In fact, no human who has received an animal organ has lived past nine months. In March of Dimes experiments transplanting pig hearts or kidneys into primates, most primates died in less than three days. Animal organs can also carry dangerous, potentially lethal viruses that could infect the transplant recipient and his or her family, friends, and contacts. Strengthening human donor programs and education initiatives on preventing organ disease will give humans with organ dysfunction the best chance for survival.
March of Dimes Claims about the Utility of Animal Experiments
Because animal physiology differs so greatly from species to species, it is difficult to extrapolate from animal data to humans. Many of these animal experiments are “basic science” and do not even try to find cures or treatments.
Virtually all known developmental hazards were identified and/or characterized through studies of human populations. Such population studies have been responsible for identifying, among other things, the association between alcohol use by pregnant women and the development of birth defects, the association between cigarette smoking and problems associated with pregnancy, and the association between the hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) given to pregnant women and the development of cancer in their children.
Virtually all known developmental hazards were identified and/or characterized through studies of human populations. In fact, the March of Dimes publishes a list of its “milestones,” virtually all of which have been projects or events with nothing to do with animal experimentation. Additionally, one of the most popular reference sources among genetic counselors presents no animal testing information at all, relying solely on human data. It is clear that animal experimentation is not the road to answers in the fight against birth defects.
March of Dimes' Funding Priorities
It is hard to escape the conclusion that at least some March of Dimes administrators do not have a good grasp of research priorities. When PCRM doctors met with Michael Katz, M.D., Vice President of Research for the March of Dimes, he stated that without animal experiments we would not know about the dangers of smoking or alcohol in pregnancy. The scientific literature proves that these dangers were discovered in human clinical studies, not animal experiments. This ignorance about which research methods have proven most effective in the fight against birth defects results in money being inappropriately given to animal experiments rather than to more promising programs.
Every dollar wasted on useless animal experiments is a dollar not spent on programs that work. In 2002, the March of Dimes spent at least $10 million on experiments involving animals. What would happen if they were to spend that money on nonanimal research and programs? Reliance on faulty animal tests puts human health in jeopardy and causes needless pain and suffering for animals. Since 1970, the incidences of most birth defects have risen substantially; only two have declined. Animal experiments also divert millions of dollars from valuable human studies and research programs. A national birth defects registry is desperately needed to uncover the causes of many birth defects. The largest registry in the United States, run by the Centers for Disease Control, collects only limited information.
There is also an urgent need to improve prenatal care in this country. Every year 1.2 million women receive insufficient prenatal care, yet up to 25 percent of all infant deaths could be prevented if this care were given to all mothers. About 12 percent of all pregnant women smoke throughout their pregnancies. If smoking during pregnancy were eliminated, infant deaths would decrease by up to 10 percent. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and mental retardation.
Instead of giving alcohol to rats, we need to educate mothers and offer help to those with a problem. Additionally, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, and AIDS remain major threats to unborn children. We need to devote as many resources as we can to preventive measures such as prenatal care, addiction treatment, and counseling. When the March of Dimes gives money to experiment on animals, babies suffer too.
What You Can Do
Contact the March of Dimes with your concerns about its continued funding of animal experiments.
1. Sur M, Frost DO, Hockfield S. Expressions of a surface-associated antigen on Y-cells in the cat lateral geniculate nucleus is regulated by visual experience. J Neurosci. 1988;8(3):874-882.
2. Angelucci A, Clasca F, Sur M. Brainstem inputs to the Ferret medial geniculate nucleus and the effect of early deafferation on novel retinal projections to the auditory thalmus. J Comp Neurol. 1998;400(3):417-439.
3. Seidler FJ, Levin ED, Morgan M, Lappi SE, Slotkin TA. Fetal nicotine exposure ablates the ability of postnatal challenge to release norepinephrine from rat brain regions. Brain Res Dev Brain Res. 1992;69(2):288-291.
4. Levin ED, Seidler FJ. Sex-related spatial learning differences after prenatal cocaine exposure in the young adult rat. Neurotoxicology. 1993;14:23-28.
5. Pierce RA, Albertine KH, Starcher BC, Bohnsack JF, Carlton DP, Bland RA. Chronic lung injury in preterm lambs: disordered pulmonary elastin deposition. Am J Physiol. 1997;272(3 Pt 1):L452-460.
6. Albertine KH, MacRitchie AN, Young BJ, et al. Altered vascular development in preterm lambs with chronic lung injury. Chest. 1998; 114:6S-7S.