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A Target of Violence

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By Mona Gable, Photos by Diana Koenigsberg

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM


Saving Science: How Humane Research Helps Human Beings

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Ensuring that the animals live in a safe and stimulating environment is one of the criteria upon which grants are evaluated.

On an overcast morning in June, Jentsch is sitting in his office high atop Franz Hall. Just two days before, two dozen demonstrators con-verged on his house and shouted through bullhorns. Burn in hell! How many monkeys did you kill today? Despite a permanent injunction the University of California won in May 2009, prohibiting animal rights extremists from coming within 50 feet of researchers' residences during the day and 150 feet at night, despite the recent arrests of Linda Faith Greene and Kevin Olliff, who have been indicted on charges of conspiracy, stalking and other charges against UCLA researchers and are awaiting trial, the militants were still at it.

"How can you have a discussion with people whose tenet is we will never compromise?" asks Jentsch softly. "I find that very chilling."

This morning the so-called "monkey killer" is wearing what he usually wears: faded jeans, a casual button-down shirt and a pair of loafers. Shy and sensitive, he seems an unlikely activist. Jentsch, who earned his Ph.D. in neurobiology at Yale University, has devoted his career to understanding what causes schizophrenia and other crippling mental disorders.

One of Jentsch's projects is an attempt to map genes for traits related to schizophrenia so better treatments can be developed. Recently, he and other UCLA scientists have been studying DISC1, a gene linked to difficulties in memory and planning. Initially, "we didn't know what it did," says Jentsch. They discovered its role by developing a mutant mouse model with a version of the gene.

He is also looking at the gene in monkeys, whose lifespan and cognitive processes resemble those of humans. But there's an ethical reason, too. "People ask me, why don't you study humans? Because people with schizophrenia are very sick. There's a significant argument about whether they can't consent. The animal model is the only alternative."

One test Jentsch designed involves three boxes, each with a different picture. The monkeys initially learn that only one of the pictures means that there is a treat inside the box, and they begin to choose that picture over and over. After mastering the rule, however, the reward is switched to a box with a different picture. The question is, can the monkeys figure it out? Some monkeys are unable to adjust and keep selecting the same picture, a behavior that resembles schizophrenia. "So it's true you cannot study the syndrome of schizophrenia," he says, "but you can study the genes that program poor or good cognition."

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Ninety-five percent of all the lab animals are rodents and mice.

Jentsch is also studying the biochemistry of methamphetamine addiction and tobacco dependence in teens. Specifically, he has been looking for genes involved in impulsivity and risk-taking — behaviors that inevitably cause such heartache in addicts' lives. "We have these adolescents, we say they're impulsive and take risks, but what does that mean? At a biological level, you want to be able to identify high-risk kids and know what the proper interventions are to stop them from taking drugs."

He has already discovered a lot. In 2007, in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, he and his colleagues reported that a gene known to influence impulsive behavior in people did the same thing in nonhuman primates. In ongoing work using imaging, they also showed that when you expose rats and monkeys to tobacco or meth, a circuit in their prefrontal cortex goes haywire. "We now think this is an area of control for what makes addictions so difficult to overcome," he says.

London works closely with Jentsch's lab so that knowledge from animal experiments can be used to help people suffering from nicotine dependence and meth addiction. In a disease that afflicted 1.3 million Americans in 2007, meth's gravity as a public health problem is hard to overstate.

London also consulted with journalist David Sheff, who wrote the bestselling Beautiful Boy about his son Nic's meth addiction. Nic, a middle-class student from the Bay Area, also wrote a book, Tweak, a harrowing account of his life as an addict.

Support and Science

Visit UCLA's info page on animal research on campus.

Learn more about animal rights and research from pro-research sites: Americans for Medical Progress, the California Biomedical Research Association and the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Find out more about the benefits of animal research.

Get more of the Bruin perspective at UCLA Pro-Test, the grass-roots organization for students, faculty and staff.

Learn how animal research allowed UCLA scientists to create a way for paralyzed rats to walk again. See the video from the Today Show.

Read about Pro-Test founder, UCLA Professor David Jentsch, and his efforts to save lives in his guest column at Speaking of Research.

The researcher's interest in addiction is personal. When London was in her teens, her father died of complications from cigarette smoking. In the 1980s, as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, London helped write the Surgeon General's report on smoking. She also ran the brain imaging center at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where she did groundbreaking studies on the effects of a little-understood drug called cocaine.

She is making great progress in her research on meth. When London gave the same tests to meth users that Jentsch used in animals, the results were strikingly similar. They acted impulsively and could not adjust their behavior. When London peered at their brains through PET imaging, she saw something remarkable. Just like the animals, the meth users had lost some key dopamine receptors — ones linked to flexibility and control.

Recently, London has had encouraging results with the drug modafinil. "We had this wonderful finding that it reduced the positive effects of meth, so it might have some potential for meth dependence."

She was also getting ready to test the compound atomoxetine. In other human studies, the drug has had promising effects in improving self-control. London believes it could help people stop craving meth.

"I think we're in a good time," she says of her colleagues' efforts. "Clearly, the tremendous advances started with animal studies that led us to looking at the dopamine system."

Since the threats and vandalism, London's life has irrevocably changed. "We have armed guards at our house. We have video cameras. I have a tremendous loss of privacy."

She pauses. A few minutes before, she was asked if she'd ever considered giving up. Now she answers.

"No," she says firmly. "This is what I do. I've invested over 30 years of my life to try to do a good job. I can't let them do that." Her eyes fill with tears and she excuses herself to get a Kleenex.

"We really can't let some uninformed anarchists hurt the world by stopping the progress of research," she says when she returns. "It's all about helping people. Real people."

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In the interest of ongoing dialogue, UCLA Magazine will post substantive comments about the use of animals in research but will exclude personal attacks.

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