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OHSU Whistleblower: Interview with Matt Rossell, former primate center lab technician

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OHSU Whistleblower:
Interview with Matt Rossell, former primate center lab technician

From Stop White Coat Welfare - http://www.whitecoatwelfare.org/

Interview from June 2004. As of June 2012, Matt works with Animal Defenders International (ADI)

Q - Were there technicians, aside from you, who questioned the value of this research?

Matt: One of the technicians who I worked with was obviously struggling with the value of what he was witnessing. One day there was a protest outside of the center. He decided on his own to go have a conversation with the protesters. So on his lunch break, he went out and he came back at the end of lunch and reported that he'd had this conversation to myself and a few other technicians that were sitting around a lunch table. He was taken aback by the reaction he got. He got a really strong message from the other technicians that you do not do that. They told him, "It's totally out of bounds to go talk to protesters. You shouldn't have done that." Whereas he thought that we should just get to the bottom of this. If we have a valid point and they have a valid point, we should be able to communicate about it. He felt really defensive that he hadn't done anything wrong and they were coming down on him too hard. Then the news trickled up to the chain of command and he was told specifically by supervisors that he was not to ever speak to the demonstrators. That was a job for public relations and he should never take that upon himself. He was really frustrated by that response and didn't think that was the right way to handle it, and so he later confided in me and said, "We know that they're right." There were other moments like that in which people other than that would have these feelings of remorse about what was happening there.

Q - What about other coworkers?

Matt: It was weird. One day technicians would be joking about this research and how much of a joke it was. People would actually be laughing about Dr. Cameron's latest study - that it even got past the animal care committee. The technician who sat in on the animal care committee would come out of the meeting laughing about how ridiculous the study was and how unbelievable it was that it was going through. On another day, we would talk about how harsh the "roundup" was where we took the baby monkeys away from their mothers to sell for experiments. Whatever the case was, someone would either be laughing or complaining. And then on the day the protesters were outside, everyone would rally together like, "we're doing the right thing here and you're the ones who are wrong." So people were willing to discuss amongst themselves all the problems, but when they felt challenged by the outside world, by protesters, all of a sudden everyone would get really defensive and rally together and laugh at the protesters and their silly signs. It's really weird. One could do a whole psychological study on researchers who work in that environment. It's really dysfunctional, that is, too focused on intellectual curiosity and not enough on humanity.

I think that the animal rights movement has created a chasm between the people who are doing the research and the people who oppose it. It's polarized to the extreme. I think the community of animal researchers is so defensive that they're not even willing to look at their own ethics and look at the obvious studies that need to be stopped. They'll defend everything that they do. They're afraid of what will happen once the animal rights people get their feet in the door and once the public starts to question the validity of some of their research. It's a slippery slope, and so they're very defensive and it makes the discussion difficult.

CAMERON'S STUDIES:

Q - I've looked at several official grant proposals that Cameron has written to try and get funding from the NIH for certain studies. She's apparently not shy about stating that her experiments reproduce things we already know about humans. It's hard to understand the rationale behind this, especially the behavioral studies. If we have already observed that X produces Y in humans, why is public tax money funding Cameron's work which recreates X producing Y "monkey style?" It's really beyond my comprehension how a scientific community could scrutinize these proposals and determine that they have any scientific merit. Do you have any insight into the matter, as someone who has worked inside the system?

Matt: Several years back Dr. Cameron actually stated publicly in a work-in-progress seminar that she is replicating studies that have already been established in people because she wants to be able speak the language of the clinicians better. Her findings in working with the monkeys supposedly makes her better able to communicate with the clinicians who are actually doing human-based research. She's trying to create a monkey model that is similar or can relate to the human model, but I think that even saying that is an admission of failure.

Q - I don't know about failure, but to me it clearly indicates a lack of necessity and a lack of urgency.

Matt: Right, exactly. It's like saying that you're trying to imitate in monkeys what has already been observed in human children.

Q - If certain phenomenon has already been observed in humans, clearly a superior model to a monkey in terms of data extrapolation, what's the point of attempting to recreate it in monkeys? What does Dr. Cameron think we are going to learn from this?

Matt: A lot of animal research follows or parallels human clinical observation or research. I think it serves to validate what she's doing, to convince the clinicians, who are actually working with human patients, that what she's doing is of value, but her logic doesn't see a common sense kind of level.

One example of this kind of research is the stranger test. She modified what is apparently a very common clinical study where you put a child into the room and then a stranger enters the room and you record how that child reacts to this strange person. She replicated this experiment with monkeys and is proud of the fact that she is now better able to communicate with the clinicians. If it's already been observed in human, why reproduce it in monkeys when it is clearly an inferior model? We are so different from monkeys - culturally, emotionally, behaviorally. The other flaw is that there's a huge difference between the realm of experiences of a human baby and an infant monkey. In a human baby's world, being introduced to a stranger (hopefully) doesn't have any negative impact. They probably have not been mistreated by a stranger, so seeing one is probably a pretty benign stimulus. But for a monkey who has lived in a research lab all its life, seeing a human could evoke any number of traumatizing associations. It may mean getting poked by a needle, getting rustled out of a cage, etc. So having a human being enter the room is an entirely different stimulus.

Q - I noticed in one of OHSU's brochures, which (by the way) are available to the pubic, a statement that research at ONPRC on non-human primates contributed to our ability to better imitate mother's milk in human baby formulas. It seems like a no-brainer to me that if the goal is to accurately reproduce the components of human breast milk to feed human infants, you should check out what's in human breast milk. Duh. Where does one get the idea to examine breast milk from a chimpanzee or a rhesus macaque? How is it a triumph to conclude that depriving infant monkeys of certain amino acids that naturally occur in their mother's breast milk leads to malnutrition, and we should therefore, not do that? The logic is maddening! It's like saying, "By Jove, we've got it! Starving monkeys leads to the starvation of monkeys." Who conducted this research and how could it possibly have led to a change in human baby formula?

Matt: Martha Neuringer has conducted a series of maternal deprivation studies. She deprived infant monkeys of their mothers from the day they were born, fed them diets deficient in specific amino acids, and now her claim to fame is that her research was cited in the changes that were made in the baby food industry. At least one major company changed their formula, and Neuringer claims that her research is one of the studies that made this possible. But when you look more deeply, there were 80 different studies cited. Only four of those studies used animal research. So my question is, "If the vast majority of the data that initiated the change in formula was human data collected about humans, by humans, for humans, why does she feel that her monkey study has any significance? Even though her work was cited, couldn't it have been discovered without animal research?" I believe, and the critics of animal research believe, that if data is available from a more accurate, more reliable source there is no value to reproducing it in animals.

Q - This seems obvious to you and me, and yet this kind of research continues. Why?

Matt: I think the reason that animal research continues is because people are making money from it. A juvenile rhesus monkey that is specific pathogen-free used to go for $3,500, whereas now you can spend as much as $10,000 on a single monkey.

Q - Do you think that the people who are conducting this fallacious research truly think they're doing something good for humankind?

Matt: I don't think that Judy Cameron is sadistic - that she just likes to torture monkeys for fun. In my experience working there, they don't really think about it much. It's just a job for many of them. They come to work every day and it's just what they do. Some of these people are just conducting science for science's sake. It's interesting to them. That's what basic research is: knowledge for knowledge's sake. The claim is that somewhere down the road, someone will use this data as the final piece of some scientific puzzle. They think that this scientific tinkering has a value. Their view is never to discourage or control science.

This place has been here for more than 40 years. We've been investing hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into these labs and my feeling is that if it's not yielding any results we have much better uses for that money. Do we really care how much a rhesus macaque pees? Is that going to be valuable someday? Do we really need to addict pregnant monkeys to heroin and cocaine? Don't we already have a lot of data about how drugs affect people by observing people who are already addicted to these drugs? It seems blatantly obvious that we need to start redirecting some of these resources.

Q - Cameron stated in her appearance in KATU's three-part series "Inside the Cage" that the biggest thing we're going to miss out on [if we stop conducting animal research] is learning about our brain. What do you think of that?

Matt: Cameron's argument is often that you can find humans to participate in these studies, that parents aren't willing to offer their children to science over the course of several years. We can't ethically cut the heads of human children and examine their brains. But the reality is that with modern technology, we can look inside a human patient's brain while he or she is still alive. We can put them in an MRI, in a cat scan. We have all this sophisticated brain mapping technology. So why are we wasting time dissecting monkey brains? It's just kind of ridiculous.

Q - Speaking of ridiculous, I heard something about a monkey study on divorce. Can you talk about that?

Matt: When I left the primate center, they were remodeling one of the runs of the colony building to accommodate these social cages. They converted a room that was all individual cages into (I think maybe six) separate cages that several monkeys could live in. The whole purpose of this was for Judy Cameron to do this study on divorce. This was a variation on the maternal deprivation studies that have been going on for years. In these studies, the mother is usually taken away from the baby monkey and then they observe the detrimental impacts that occur as a result of a baby not having its mother, which is obvious. So this divorce study was a new twist on this. This time she wanted to model the structure of human divorce by creating a monkey model of the human nuclear family unit - which includes a mother and father and an infant. She wanted to take the father away, which she felt would better replicate a human divorce scenario. Because in humans, usually the child grows up with the mother and the dad is the one who leaves. But what's so bizarre about trying to extrapolate this from a non-human primate to a human primate is that monkeys do not have nuclear families. Monkeys do not live together with their moms and dads and sisters and brothers and then grow up and go off on their own to start their own little nuclear family unit. Rhesus macaques live troops and females of the same bloodlines stay together for life. In nature it's normal for the male figure to leave and move on.

Q - So, the main purpose was to observe the infant monkey's reaction to the loss of the father figure in order to better understand the human child in a parallel situation?

Matt: Well, yes, but whatever stress or anxiety that Dr. Cameron might observe has more to do with how these monkeys are living. They're living in a cage and human lab workers are essentially their predators. They have no escape, and any anxiety they're experiencing has much more to do with the way in which they are being held. It's totally preposterous to think that anything is going to be learned from a study like that.

Q - Not to mention that it's entirely possible to study the effects of divorce on human children without inflicting any harm on them.

Matt: Right, and not only is it possible to study divorce in humans, it's already happening. There are plenty of divorce studies happening in clinics with willing human participants. To think that her monkey model has any value in terms of helping kids deal with the stress of having dad leave is absurd. Human culture is so different. You can't imitate all the nuances and intricacies of a human family. The circumstances of each individual family are so different from one another, that to try to extrapolate data from a monkey model in hopes of learning something about human divorce (laughs) - it's laughable. It defies common sense. I think almost anyone could look at that and see that there is no value to it.

Q - What were the results of this study?

Matt: Since I left I don't know if that study was actually carried out, but they did actually build and remodel a space for it and that process is expensive. The grant was probably already approved because they usually don't invest until they already have the money up-front. So I'm assuming that study was carried out or is being carried out right now.

Q - How could one find out?

Matt: I don't really know. It's not easy to find out what's happening in there right now. Because of the freedom of information act, we are supposed to have access. If it's public money, it's in the public interest for the public to know what's happening with their money. There are state and federal laws that are supposed to allow us some transparency in how this money is being spent. And yet it's so hard to find out what's going on in there.

Q - Where does the grant money from these studies initially go?

Matt: The base grants for these studies cover the nuts and bolts expenses of keeping the place in operation - building repair, paying the maintenance guy to unplug the drain, buying monkey chow, our salaries in the division of animal resources, cleaning out the cages every day, etc. And if a new building is getting built it would come out of the base grant. And then the researchers would get grant money for their study and the division of animal resources would bill them per piece. For example, a specific type of blood draw would cost, say, $7.50. So every time some monkey's blood was drawn, this department would charge a lab $7.50. Injections were the same way.