Sunday, December 23, 2012

On animals first!

(Bulgarian readers can read the same post in my Bulgarian blog.)

During the Socialist era, there was rich folklore of political jokes in Bulgaria. One of them was about an old woman who went to the dictator Todor Zhivkov with a personal request but, because of age-related cognitive decline, couldn't immediately remember what it was. Zhivkov tried to help:

"Is your pension too small?"

"Oh no, it is quite OK. I buy bread and yoghurt every day and sausages "Dog's joy" every week."

"Then perhaps you have a housing problem?"

"Oh no, I own a one-bedroom flat. I share it with my son and daughter in-law and my grandson, and we are very happy together. I wanted just to ask you something, Comrade Zhivkov, but what was it? Oh, I remembered. Who has invented socialism as a system - politicians like you or scientists?"

"We, the politicians, have invented it."

"Thank you! This is exactly what I had guessed."

"How did you guess it?"

"Because, if it were the scientists, they would test it on animals first."

I remembered this joke today after talking with a young man who claimed to have been successfully treated with stem cells after a backbone injury. (The experimental treatment of neurological conditions with stem cells was subject of my 2008 post On the stem cell controversy. For more in-depth discussion, see Prometheus's post Stem cell therapy for autism.)

The former patient claimed that his arms, completely immobilized by the trauma, recovered fully after the "treatment". (I am calling him patient, although some more suitable words are crossing my mind, such as "survivor" or "victim".)

I pointed out that, although I had searched the scientific literature for stem cell treatment of neurological conditions, I had never found any such papers. Moreover, I had not found even reports of successful animal experiments of this sort.

The young man's reply was amazing. He didn't deny that nobody has so far done successfully on animals what had been done on him, but gave a good reason for this fact - there was allegedly no way to test the treatment on rats and mice because they had a different nervous system!

I said that it is not so different. I added that there is a the general rule: to be taken seriously, any experimental treatment must be first tested successfully on animal models.

My God, I would never guess that in the 21st century I'd have to explain time and again to intelligent and educated people what even the demented grannie from the old joke had understood! Namely, that before starting an experiment on humans, the same experiment must have been done on animals and must have produced excellent results that must be shown to the entire scientific community by publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Friday, December 21, 2012

National pride

The image is a painting by present-day Bulgarian artist Ognian Kouzmanov. As far as I know, it has not been inspired by actual people or events.

Bulgaria is infamous for violating the most basic human rights of foreigners seeking refuge or immigration. It still keeps the detention facility featured in my post Prison by any other name published in 2010. In the same year, an innocent pregnant young woman from Armenia was released from the said prison only after a hunger strike, plus a nationwide solidarity campaign.

A year later, in August 2011, I learned from other Bulgarian bloggers about the outrageous treatment of a mixed family by Bulgarian authorities. The case became widely known in Bulgarian public space, but because I am not sure the family would want international publicity, I shall keep them anonymous in this post and have used an artwork instead of their photos for illustration.

A young Nigerian Christian man, after coming to Bulgaria with the intention to seek refuge, found love and married to a Bulgarian woman. His record was clear, so you could think that he would easily become a legal immigrant. However, Bulgarian bureaucrats had a different opinion and refused to legalize his stay in Bulgaria for no apparent reason. So they forced the man to return to Nigeria, separating the young couple.

This absurd situation lasted more than a year. The wife, pregnant by the time of her husband's expulsion, gave birth to a girl which the father could not touch. Finally, she decided to reunite the family by moving to Nigeria with her daughter. There was another little problem - the young mother could not afford the plane tickets. At this point, her blogger friends started a fundraising campaign.

I contributed something which my family budget could bear and wrote a post on Aug. 22, 2011 to alert the readers of my Bulgarian blog. As days were passing, blogger Svetla Encheva, who knew the family personally and had initiated the campaign, wrote that concerned people would do well to donate urgently because plane tickets were expected to double their prices in late September. Thinking of some other couples which all the gold on Earth could not reunite, I decided that our family budget could bear another small donation. Svetla with other activists and friends organized  a fundraising party, an event still uncommon in Bulgaria.

For all this time, not a word about this story appeared in my English blog which you are reading. While I generally avoid appeals for donations here, I have made some exceptions. For example, in early 2010 I wrote a post about how to support Haitian earthquake survivors (though I actually have heavy doubts that money is what Haitians need). However, I decided that the separated family would not be one of these exceptions. The reason was a strange feeling of national pride. I thought that we Bulgarian citizens had been unable to force our government respect the basic rights of people like  this father and his loved ones. If we had proven unable also to collect about 2000 leva (EUR 1000) in real time to reunite the family in exile, this would be eternal shame and solid proof that Bulgarian civil society is nonexistent and the country is just a spot on the map to be avoided at any cost.

The money finally were collected and the mother flew to Nigeria with her baby. Svetla wrote in her post, "First, I miss ... (the mother's name)... Second, I am not sure whether I did the right thing by advising her to depart to Nigeria, instead of encouraging her to continue the struggle here. It was easier for me to raise funds for her travel expenses than to watch her literally collapsing... The fact that we succeeded in reuniting a Bulgarian family outside Bulgaria does not mean that the problem has been solved. Because Bulgarian government continues to separate with impunity families that include Bulgarian citizens..."

I felt proud that we had collected the money. However, similarly to Svetla, I didn't feel quite well about this dubious happy end because it did not solve the principal problem, neither for mixed families in general nor for this family in particular. I was also unhappy that the young mother had been forced to choose between her husband and her country. I was unhappy that the little girl, a EU citizen by birth, had to go to a place like Nigeria, the homeland of murder victim "Adam", in order to be with her dad. Though in this case Nigeria turned out to be more civilized than Bulgaria - it allowed the foreign-born spouse to stay with the native partner. I wondered, what happens to mixed families if bureaucrats of both countries refuse to let the foreigner stay? Where should such families live - on Mars? With an effort to be optimistic, I wrote, "Let's hope that we shall have an occasion to help the family return to Bulgaria one day!"

After that, I often wondered what was happening to them. The mother's e-mail had become known to me during the fundraising, but I didn't want to invade her privacy and preferred to check Svetla's blog for updates. Finally, in July, I saw what I wanted: a post reporting that the family was finally back in Bulgaria and the father had obtained a legal status. Of course they are likely to have further troubles with bureaucracy. Moreover, people like this father and his daughter are in the role of trailblazers forced to endure and fight the racism of our backward society. But for now, we have a true happy end and I hope that after all they will have a good life in Bulgaria.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Dark Ages of scientific ethics

In modern scientific research, a lot of time, efforts and money is used to satisfy ethical requirements. Much of it seems to me pure waste, especially concerning the humane treatment of animals. However, when we feel annoyed by the unreasonable obstacles and neverending paperwork, it helps to remember the dawn of modern science when ethical constraints were nonexistent and realize that today's situation is progress after all.

The best-known example of ethics violation is Edward Jenner's work with smallpox vaccination. I remember how at university, hearing that Jenner deliberately innoculated first his baby son and then another man's child with smallpox in order to prove that they were immune, and was later awarded a life pension, a friend commented that he should have been given life imprisonment instead. Now, for the purpose of this post, I have learned some ghastly details about Jenner's work on his baby. Quoting from Tom Kerns's article Jenner on Trial, part 2:

"In 1789, when Jenner was 40 years old and married only a little more than a year, there was in Gloucestershire an outbreak of swinepox, a disease very like cowpox except that it attacked pigs rather than cows. Jenner decided (just after he had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society) to try immunizing his ten month old son, Edward, Jr, and two of his neighbor's servants, by inoculating them with swinepox. He had learned well from his famous teacher, Dr John Hunter, that one will learn more by "trying the experiment" rather than by just speculating about it. So Jenner performed the experiment by making a small scratch on the servants' and the baby's arms with a lancet and then infecting the scratch "with matter from a pustule of the baby's nurse, who had caught the swinepox infection." Eight days later baby Edward took sick and developed sores, but then (as anticipated) later recovered. Some months after that his father attempted to deliberately infect him (and the nurse also) with smallpox itself, not just once, but five times, in order to test the efficacy of the immunization. No smallpox symptoms of any sort ever developed. The porcination - dare we call it - "took." The protection was effective. Then, two years later, Jenner again challenged his son with smallpox, this time, however, with unhappy results.

This time there was a reaction, and a severe one, but not [probably] from the smallpox. The inoculation material turned out to be contaminated - a constant danger that later threatened to undermine Jenner's work altogether. Young Edward contracted a fever and his arm swelled all the way to the armpit. But he quickly recovered, and a year later Jenner inoculated him with smallpox once again. And once more there was no reaction. Apparently, the Swine-pox protected against smallpox.

Unfortunately, however, in the years following these experiments, young Edward "became a sickly child and exhibited signs of mild mental retardation," though there is no direct evidence that these sequelae were related to the inoculation experiments. Young Edward unfortunately died at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. His father's grief was severe."

I think no comment is needed.

Jenner's Wikipedia page gives a little known detail about the later experiment on 8-yr-old James Phipps: Phipps was the son of Jenner's gardener. So we have all reasons to think that Jenner abused his position of employer to press his gardener into surrendering the boy for dangerous experimentation.

Another example of ethics violation (or plain nonexistence) is the story of "closing" the life cycle of pork tapeworm Taenia solium. The quote below is from Hunter's Tropical Medicine (ed. G. T. Strickland), 7th edition (1988), p. 843, chapter 101. Larval cestode infections (by P. B. McGreevy and G. S. Nelson):

"In 1850, Von Siebold suggested that "bladder worms," which were found frequently in animals and occasionally in humans, were the larval stages of adult tapeworms. He confirmed this in 1852 by feeding hydatid cysts to dogs and recovering adult Echinococcus. The most dramatic demonstration of this alteration of generations was provided by Friedrick Kuchenmeister in 1853 when he fed bladder worms from a pig to a convict who was "scheduled to be dispatched from this life to death by the Guillotine." At autopsy, the adult tapeworm Taenia solium was recovered from the intestine."

While the prisoner's fate was hardly much worsened by forcing him to eat tapeworm larvae, my gut feeling is that it is deeply wrong to do this.

Moreover, in the described form, the experiment doesn't prove much. It is quite possible that the poor man had been host of the adult tapeworm all along. To prove anything, you must feed bladder worms to a group of convicts and later to compare their autopsies to those of a control group. In fact, Kuchenmeister's Wikipedia page reports that he did the experiment on a group of convicts on death row, but again, no controls are mentioned.

How do you think, did Kuchenmeister try to obtain any sort of informed consent from his subject(s)?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Justice for Amir Jennings

Amir Jennings shortly before his disappearance, photo copied from

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the disappearance of then 18-month-old Amir Jennings from South Carolina. His mother Zinah did not report him missing and when questioned, refused to reveal what had happened to him. To me, and not only to me, the entire case chillingly resembled the story of Casey Anthony, unreasonably acquitted for the murder of her 2-yr-old daughter Caylee. This was what I, and not only I, had feared: another mother wishing to get rid of her unwanted toddler had been encouraged by Anthony's "not guilty" verdict and emulated her, hoping to get away with her child's "disappearance".

This post is a tribute to Amir Jennings and therefore shows his picture. My first post did not include such an image. Even if my blog was popular among Americans, I knew the photo would be of little use for the search, because by the time Amir would be found, he would have lost all resemblance to it. He hasn't been discovered yet, and most likely will never be. Caylee's remains were miraculously spotted months after her disappearance, in a swamp - a bag of bones carrying marks of gnawing by wild animals. Just try to look at the world through the eyes of a detective and you will see vast and unaccessible spaces hiding bodies of victims and weapons of crime.

As months were passing, I periodically checked the Web for updates. And the autumn brought them. While everybody was sure that little Amir was no longer among us, prosecutors didn't dare to press murder charges in the absence of a body. So Zinah Jennings was charged with "unlawful conduct toward a child", an expression in US law apparently used for parents allowing or making their children disappear. On Sept. 7, the jury agreed on "guilty" after less than three hours of deliberation, and the judge gave Zinah the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Let me praise the jurors who kept their duty and made the right decision. Of course, a decade behind bars is too little for a monstrous crime like this. Still, the sentence will serve a purpose. Zinah Jennings was pregnant when arrested and later gave birth to a girl. I don't know what will happen to this baby, but at least she will be spared her brother's fate. And at least, as long as Zinah is imprisoned, she won't be able to deliver and kill more babies. Most importantly, other potential child murderesses may be taught a lesson: precedents may be precedents, but Casey Anthony's acquittal does not necessarily mean open season on US children. If you follow her footsteps, you may get a different verdict at the end of the day.

Rest in peace, Amir. On behalf of all who cherish human life, and all who have suffered from evil: We miss you.