Tag Archives: genetics

A dog’s life: Bred for the laboratory

Life in a laboratory is the only life Colin has ever known.

The tan-and-white Maltese-beagle mix has lived in the University of Florida’s kennels since he was 2 months old. Colin has had all his teeth removed, gotten into fights with other dogs, suffered from anxiety and has been forced to wear a specially designed shirt for months at a time to help with the stress of living in enclosed, cramped quarters.

Colin was born predisposed to a deadly disease that prevents the body from using sugar stored in the body. For over four years, researchers have subjected the dog to gene therapy to combat the disease, which occurs in one in every 100,000 humans.

During that time, he’s developed serious kidney and bladder infections, a prostate condition, conjunctivitis and chronic vomiting.

At 4 years old, Colin exhibits health conditions of a dog twice his age.

“From what I’ve seen, this kind of life is sadly typical for a dog being used in experiments,” said Jeremy Beckham, coordinator of the Identity Campaign, a comprehensive nationwide effort to get the public records of lab dogs and cats at 17 public research universities and laboratories.

The campaign was started by the The Beagle Freedom Project, which enlisted over 1,000 volunteers to virtually “adopt” dogs and cats and request the animals’ veterinary records, treatment and progress reports and other data.

Their goal: to shine a light on animal treatment at public research institutions, make those institutions more transparent and accountable, and ultimately push for tougher regulations and mandatory adoption of lab animals.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Janet Skinner, a Palm Shores grants writer for the Clearwater Police Department who requested Colin’s records.

Researchers say using animals is a necessary part of creating scientific breakthroughs in medicine that ultimately can save human lives.

“We have outstanding animal research care, and researchers doing incredible things, and we see people who come here every day for treatment,” said David Norton, vice president of research at UF.

People can receive state-of-the-art treatment not possible 20 years ago because of basic research that began with animal models with propensities for certain diseases being used in developing vaccines, drug therapies and other treatments, Norton said.

Two-thirds of the $705 million in research money UF received last year came from the federal government. Much of that _ $251 million — came from the National Institutes of Health and Health and Human Services.

“Their focus is on improving health care,” Norton said.

Obtaining specific information on animal research is difficult. A veil of secrecy has been drawn over much animal research because of the actions of radical animal rights groups. Researchers have been harassed, had their addresses and phone numbers published, and their homes vandalized.

UF successfully campaigned to get the Florida Legislature to exempt the names of researchers from public records requests about research. Access to labs and animal housing is restricted.

Getting access to animal research requires massive public records requests and patience, especially when UF alone has more than 1,000 experiments going on at a given time.

Animal research is governed by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Act and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

The USDA covers all warm-blooded vertebrates. The NIH OLAW covers rats, mice, birds, and cold-blooded critters.

Animals used in agricultural research are not covered by any federal agency, and therefor no public information is available on cows, horses, pigs and other animals being used at UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Each researcher who wants to use animals in their experiments has to go before the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a panel made up of scientists, veterinarians and fellow researchers and at least one member of the community.

These panels review research protocols, and have the researchers explain why a particular animal is the correct model for their research, describe the project in detail and explain how it advances science, Norton said. The key is providing a “scientific rationale” for their research. UF currently has 1,200 active protocols, according to Karl Andrutis, UF director of Animal Care Services.

“Our job is not to tell you how to do your research, but to approve or not approve based on the welfare of the animal,” Dr. Lyle Moldawer, vice chairman of research for the College of Medicine and an IACUC committee member, told one researcher over the summer.

Animal rights activists counter that much of the research on animals is unnecessary or redundant, and even harmful. The FDA reported that 106,000 people each year die from adverse effects of drugs that had been found safe on animals.

“People want to have careers, publish papers and get grants. Money drives a lot of animal research,” said Jeanne Stuart McVey, spokeswoman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting non-animal research.

The organization found that Wayne State University in Michigan, for example, was conducting research on dogs that does not lead to therapies that benefit human patients.

It isn’t the only example, Beckham said. “Researchers are getting rats addicted to cocaine at universities around the country,” he said.

The Beagle Freedom Project’s Identity Campaign has led to a complaint with the NIH alleging that Ohio State University is doing unnecessary heart testing on dogs that is killing them.

Both groups would like to see an end to the use of dogs altogether. The Texas Health Institute just announced that it would no longer be using dogs in its experiments, McVey said.

Last year, just over 59,000 dogs were used in research nationwide. Sixty-eight percent of the dogs used in lab studies were being used for product and drug testing, Beckham said.

The “scientific rationale” standard is pretty low, he said. “There is so much duplicative work you can use scientific rationale for anything,” he said, even if it is just to validate the results of someone else’s previous research.

About 1,700 animals were used in research, education and experimentation at UF in 2014, including 278 dogs.

Not all those animals are housed at UF. For example, some scientists use shelter animals for their research.

Not all are used on medical research targeting human diseases, either. Many are used in clinical research to help cure diseases in animals, such as feline AIDs and degenerative spinal disease in dachshunds.

As of the most recent federal inspection report, June 23, there were 52 dogs and one puppy at UF.

The Identity Campaign sought the records of 48 animals at UF: 27 dogs and 21 cats.

Under state law, UF provided the veterinary records and daily cage charts for each animal, the protocol’s title and description of the research project and the source and amount of funding.

UF has been more responsive than other universities, Beckham said, only charging $66 per request for hundreds of pages of veterinary records. Some universities, like the University of Missouri, are charging hundreds of dollars.

Still others, like Texas A&M University, have denied requests claiming veterinarian-patient privilege, and got an opinion from the Texas Attorney General backing them up. Beagle Freedom Project is suing Texas A&M over the records and hopes to reach an agreement soon.

The organization has filed complaints against the University of Missouri and Stony Brook University in New York.

San Diego resident Julie Radcliff requested the records of a 10-year-old female tri-color beagle named Kahlua. Records show the dog was born at the UF kennels, has been used for breeding purposes, and has been subjected to no fewer than 9 experiments.

“I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that in this day and age with so many ways to test, we are still using animals,” Radcliff said. “Animals and humans are not the same.”

Radcliff doesn’t consider herself the kind of activist who would throw buckets of red paint on people wearing fur, but she doesn’t believe that research to save human lives should come at any cost.

“My stance is tax dollars are paying for these experiments, on some stuff that has been proven already. Why make dogs inhale cigarette smoke to see if it is addictive or causes cancer. That’s proven.”

Some of UF’s dogs come from USDA-certified breeders around the country.

“These dogs are largely bred for the purpose of experimentation,” said Ainsley Niemkiewicz Fillman, a medical physicist from Fort Myers who treats cancer patients with radiation therapy and has two beagles of her own.

“I can’t imagine them living in a lab and being exposed to things that caused pain and harm,” Fillman said. “The dogs in lab probably think the humans are helping them.”

Fillman received records of a dog purchased through Covance Research Products, a company criticized by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Records show her dog was tested several times for different types of anesthesia.

“She is only 2 years old and I am hoping that she will be adopted out.”

UF does have an adoption policy and application process for adopting research dogs, Norton said.

UF also has several dog colonies selectively bred to be predisposed to getting certain diseases for gene therapy research. Sometimes, dogs succumb to the disease and have to be euthanized.

Currently, 11 dogs, including Colin, are being used in glycogen storage disease gene therapy research.

Dr. David Weinstein has been conducting research on glycogen storage disease for nearly a decade at UF, using dogs bred to be genetically prone to the disease. When he and his collaborators began their research, a dog with the disease lived about 28 days.

Today, a dog with glycogen storage disease can live for years. In June, Weinstein announced he is working out a deal with Dimension Therapeutics to begin clinical trials on people.

Colin, the dog Skinner requested records for, is one of those dogs.

No explanation was given for Colin’s teeth removal, and there was no explanation why he was kept in a special shirt 24 hours a day. Also, the daily cage card showed constant problems with temperature and humidity levels.

“The way they’re doing this is not encouraging,” Skinner said. “Most people would not be happy to know what they’re doing.”

Published through the AP/Newsfinder member exchange.

What do you know about the sperm bank industry?

Sperm banking is a huge industry that has been around for decades but one that is relatively loosely regulated in the U.S.

Here are some things to know about the industry:


While anecdotal evidence might suggest that the use of sperm donors to conceive a baby is rising because of improvements in technology and its popularity among lesbian couples and single women, there is no way to know for sure. No federal agency or professional organization tracks the number of children born from sperm donations.

The last time a count was done was in 1988 by the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, said Rene Almeling, a sociology professor at Yale University who has done extensive research on sperm and egg donation.


Sperm banks generally tell clients about a donor’s family medical history; physical traits like hair color, eye color, height and blood type; some educational and professional information; and some personal social preferences.

Additional information that might also be available for some donors, possibly for an extra fee, includes childhood and adult photos, audio interviews and other personality attributes.

Much of the information comes from surveys that the donors fill out.


It depends on the sperm bank and various options the recipient can choose from. Georgia-based Xytex Corp., one of the bigger players in the industry, provides free profiles with basic information including medical history, genetic testing results, physical traits, and limited educational and professional background. There is a tiered pricing structure to see more extensive information.

A single unit of sperm from Xytex costs between $395 and $795, depending on a variety of factors, including the method of insemination the recipient plans to use and whether the recipient wants her child to have access to the donor’s identity once the child turns 18.


Sperm donors are generally anonymous when the recipient buys the sperm and is inseminated. Some sperm banks, including Xytex, allow a donor’s identity to be disclosed with the mother’s permission once the child turns 18. The child could then use the information to seek out a relationship with the biological father, or simply contact the donor with questions about family history.


Donors are screened over a period of four to six weeks. The screening generally includes a blood test, a genetic test, a physical and collecting sperm samples. Donors are asked to provide three generations of family medical history, including mental health, as well as some social background and preferences.

Because of the expense of screening, donors are frequently asked to donate once a week for at least a year. To keep up their sperm count, they’re advised not to engage in any sexual activity for at least 48 hours prior to donating, to try to limit alcohol consumption and stress, and to exercise regularly and eat healthily. If the sperm count is too low, the sperm bank will throw out the sample and the donor won’t be paid.

Communities enact bans on GMO crops

Two Oregon farmers are defending a local ordinance in federal court in a campaign to protect their harvests and create a zone free of genetically engineered crops.

The Center for Food Safety and Our Family Farms Coalition joined the farmers in the defense of the Jackson County ordinance approved by voters in May 2014. Campaigns are underway to enact similar measures in other parts of the country, including in Wisconsin.

In the Oregon county, the ordinance passed 66-34 percent, despite opposition from the chemical industry, which spent nearly $1 million on its campaign against the local law that now faces a legal challenge.

“Across the United States today, family farmers growing traditional crops are being threatened by crops that have been genetically engineered to survive heavy pesticides or produce their own insecticide,” said Elise Higley, a farmer and director of Our Family Farms Coalition. “Monsanto, Syngenta and other chemical giants have created a product they simply cannot control and which puts the livelihood of family farmers everywhere at risk.”

Tom Buchele, an attorney with Earthrise, which is involved in the legal defense of the ordinance, said their case is about a farmer’s right to protect crops from contamination and valuing a democratic vote.

Transgenic contamination is the transfer of genetically engineered crops to conventional, organic or wild plants. When contamination occurs, traditional farmers can lose the opportunity to sell in GE-sensitive domestic and foreign markets or to customers who avoid genetically modified foods. 

“When I learned that Syngenta was growing genetically engineered sugar beets close to my farm, I had little choice but to tear up the crops I was already growing that were likely to be contaminated,” said Chris Hardy, one of the farmers defending the ordinance. “No farmer should have to worry about whether a patented product of Monsanto is going to drift onto their property and threaten their farm.”

Other communities with zones restricting the use of genetically engineered seeds or plants include Boulder, Colorado; San Juan County, Washington; Montville, Maine; and Marin County, California.

Some states, including Wisconsin, have limited laws addressing the use of genetically engineered plants or organisms. Other states, including Iowa and Indiana, have laws against local control of GMOs.

Activists are engaged in at least two related campaigns in Wisconsin. Right to Know GMO is promoting GMO labeling in the state and a petition is circulating on MoveOn.org to declare La Pointe and Madeline Island in Ashland County a zone free of genetically engineered crops.

Climate, genetics affect how long virus-carrying mosquitoes live

It’s just math: The longer a mosquito lives, the better its odds of transmitting disease to humans or animals.

But as it turns out, factors such as the mosquito’s own genetics and the climate it lives in have a big — albeit complicated and not wholly understood — role to play in its lifespan.

University of Florida researchers, hoping to better understand how West Nile virus affects mosquitoes, set up an experiment they outline in the Journal of Vector Ecology’s current issue.

Mosquitoes can transmit any number of pathogens to humans, including protozoan malaria, West Nile, dengue and chikungunya viruses. Malaria cases range between 350 million and 500 million each year, with 1 million to 3 million deaths every year.

In the experiment, UF researchers examined survival rates for mosquitoes from two laboratory-reared colonies, one from Gainesville, Florida, and one from Vero Beach, Florida.

Half of each of the mosquito colonies was fed West Nile virus-infected blood, the other half kept as a control population, and fed blood without the virus.

They divided the groups once more, this time keeping the mosquitoes at two temperatures, one group at 80.6 degrees, the other at 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit — a rather large difference in temperature for cold-blooded insects.

Their findings were unexpected and illuminating, said Barry Alto, a UF assistant professor of arbovirology based at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach.

“Our results indicate that interactions between mosquitoes and arboviruses are really complex … these things that haven’t really been taken into account previously might make a difference,” said Alto, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The researchers found that warmer temperature shortened survival. Also, for the most part, the Vero Beach mosquitoes lived longer than those from Gainesville, indicating that some groups, or strains, of mosquitoes might just be genetically hardier than others.

They found that in general, the mosquitoes fared better at cooler temperatures.

But they also found that the West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes from Gainesville fared worse than their counterparts at the hotter temperatures, and to their surprise, that the Vero Beach-bred mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus lived longer than all other groups at the cooler temperature, including control-group mosquitoes not exposed to the virus. 

Ingesting virus-infected blood may take a toll on the mosquito’s health, Alto said, but it’s clear that other factors: immune response, genetics and the environment, are also at play and need more study.

“It’s quite complex, there’s a lot of stuff going on here,” Alto said. “But I think the take-home  message is that these viruses, when they’re in mosquitoes, not only can they alter parameters like survivorship that are really important to disease transmission, but they can alter them in non-intuitive ways — sometimes enhancing, sometimes decreasing survivorship, and that those situations arise when you start considering other factors of the environment, like temperature.”

Adding to scientists’ knowledge base of how disease affects insects is key to finding the best ways to limit its spread, Alto said.

“In the most general sense, in order for humans to control disease, we really need to know how the mosquito interacts with these viruses,” he said. “In the absence of a human vaccine, the best way to control any sort of mosquito-borne virus is to control the mosquito. Simply put, if the mosquito doesn’t bite you, you’re not going to get the pathogen.”

Besides Alto, the research team included Stephanie Richards, an assistant professor at East Carolina University; Sheri Anderson, a former graduate student at the Florida Medical Entomology Lab and Cynthia Lord, an associate professor in modeling of vector-borne disease transmission, also of the FMEL. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and UF/IFAS.

‘Bigfoot’ hair samples from wolves, cows, bears

DNA testing is taking a bite out of the Bigfoot legend. After scientists analyzed more than 30 hair samples reportedly left behind by Bigfoot and similar mythical beasts like the Himalayan Yeti, they found all of them came from more mundane creatures like bears, wolves, cows and raccoons.

In 2012, researchers at Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology issued an open call asking museums, scientists and Bigfoot aficionados to share any samples they thought were from the legendary ape-like creatures.

“I thought there was about a 5 percent chance of finding a sample from a Neanderthal or (a Yeti),” said Bryan Sykes of Oxford University, who led the research, the first peer-reviewed study of Bigfoot, Yeti and other “anomalous primates.” The study was published online Wednesday in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Sykes and colleagues tested 36 hair samples from Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia and the U.S. using DNA sequencing and all of them matched DNA from known animals. Most were from bears, but there were also hairs from a Malaysian tapir, horses, porcupine, deer, sheep, and a human.

While Sykes said they didn’t find any proof of Bigfoot-related creatures, he acknowledged their paper doesn’t prove they don’t exist.

“The fact that none of these samples turned out to be (a Yeti) doesn’t mean the next one won’t,” he said. The scientists did find two samples from ancient polar bears in the Himalayas, who are not known to live there. That suggests there could be a new or hybrid bear species out there, Sykes said.

Others said proving that Bigfoot is real requires significantly more than a mere hair sample.

“I would want visual or physical proof, like a body part, on top of the DNA evidence,” said Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology at New York University. He warned Bigfoot enthusiasts not to make assumptions when they find weird things in the forest. “Every mammal in the forest leaves hair and poop behind and that’s what we’ve found,” he said. “Just not the big guy himself.”

Some experts said that if Bigfoot existed, there would be a lot more to find than just a few errant hairs.

“Those who believe in the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster need basic instruction in sex,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, in an email. “Each Yeti has two parents, four grandparents and so on,” he said. “There should have been herds of (Yetis),” he wrote. “Where were they hiding?”

Environmental scientists warn of health risks for men

Toxic substances in drinking water, food, food packaging and personal care products, as well as exposure to harmful UV rays have all been linked to serious health problems that affect many American men.

new guide from Environmental Working Group offers simple steps that men can take to reduce the risks.

“Most men understand that smart lifestyle choices — such as exercising regularly, eating a healthful diet and not smoking — make a big difference in staying healthy,” said EWG research analyst Paul Pestano, author of the new guide, “Men’s Health: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You.”

“However, what many men might not know is that research in the last few decades has shown that environmental exposures may contribute to major diseases and health concerns that especially affect men, including heart disease, prostate cancer and infertility,” added Pestano.

Mercury from certain seafoods, Teflon chemicals in non-stick cookware, bisphenol-A (BPA) in hard plastic containers and canned foods as well as the arsenic and lead present in much of the nation’s drinking water — all have been linked to risk factors for heart disease.

The plastics chemical BPA, certain agricultural pesticides common on some fruits and vegetables and polychlorinated biphenyls that build up in meat and dairy products have all been associated with prostate cancer.

Also, several studies have linked sperm deficiencies to a variety of environmental factors, including exposures to lead, chemicals in personal care products and pesticides.

EWG’s guide also features a section on skin cancer, because many men don’t know that they are at a higher risk than women of developing it and dying from its most fatal form, melanoma.

“While genetics can predetermine certain health outcomes, there are a number of ways men can dramatically reduce their potentially harmful environmental exposures,” Pestano said. “EWG’s new online guide gives men a series of helpful and easy tips to steer clear of these potentially troublesome risk factors.”

EWG’s tips for men include:

• Invest in the right in-home water filter system to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic and other drinking water contaminants.

• Avoid canned foods and plastic containers with the recycling code #7 to dramatically lower exposure to BPA.

• Choose conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the fewest pesticide residues and buy the organic versions of produce on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, which consistently have the most.

• Consult EWG’s Skin Deep database of nearly 80,000 personal care products to find deodorants, soaps, lotions and shampoos that are free of toxic chemicals.

• Learn more about skin cancer and melanoma, use proper sun protection, get regular skin checks with a dermatologist. And use EWG’s online guide to sunscreens to find the safest, most effective sunblock products.

Study: Genetics influence liberal, conservative views

Genetics might not determine who you will vote for, but people might be born predisposed to liberal or conservative views, according to two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that John Hibbing’s and Kevin Smith’s research suggests genetics predict political attitudes to some extent, although they say life experience plays a big role in shaping beliefs.

“We think part of what’s going on is people literally feel what’s right or wrong in their gut,” Smith said. “That raises the question: How can genes influence something as complicated as your ideology?”

Smith said the link between politics and genetics shows up in studies of identical twins and fraternal twins. The identical twins are more likely to share political views later in life, suggesting a genetic connection.

Smith and Hibbing published research on the subject in the December edition of the Political Psychology journal, and they hope their latest research will quiet their critics. The article is based on a 2009 survey of nearly 600 sets of twins in their 50s and 60s.

But prominent genetics researcher Evan Charney remains skeptical. The Duke University professor said studies of twins fail to account for differences in the way different types of twins are treated.

Charney said that identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to be treated alike by their families and they are more likely to dress alike and spend more time together.

And Charney said studies of twins, including this one, tend to oversimplify how genetics works.

“I think this is just completely pseudoscience,” he said.

But Hibbing and Smith said their latest study still suggested a genetic link even when factoring in things like the common environment identical twins grow up in.

Even if the professors can’t identify a specific gene for conservative or liberal views, they say the research still supports a genetic link.