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A Target of Violence

By Mona Gable, Photos by Diana Koenigsberg

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM

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Professor David Jentsch.

More than at any other university, UCLA faculty have been the targets of violent animal rights extremists. The work these scientists do saves lives, and the subjects of their research are treated humanely and with great compassion. But that hasn't stopped the bombs, the death threats or the predations of fanatics for whom no compromise is acceptable.

On March 7, the blast was so strong it shook J. David Jentsch awake at 4 a.m.

Jentsch, a 37-year-old Bruin neuroscientist, lives in a small, cottage-style house a couple of miles from UCLA. He had no idea what it was. But in the darkness he could hear his car alarm wailing. When Jentsch dashed to his bedroom window, he saw a terrifying sight: His 2006 Volvo was engulfed in flames.

Someone had shoved a bomb underneath it.

A half-hour later, some two dozen FBI agents and officers from the LAPD, UCLA P.D. and Santa Monica P.D. swarmed through his house. Jentsch, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences who uses animals in his research on schizophrenia and drug addiction, had never heard from extremists. Yet the bombing was the third crime against UCLA researchers by militants since the previous November and followed a long series of similar incidents. Two days later, in a "communiqué" riddled with typos and profanity posted on the Web, a shady group called the Animal Liberation Brigade took credit:

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Jentsch gives a treat to one of his subjects. Members of the team bond with individual vervets and, as shown here, must "suit up" severely to ensure the animals are protected.

Jentsch is a piece of human s--- who addicts monkeys to methamphetamines and other street drugs at the University of California at Los Angeles … David, here's a message just for you, we will come for you when you least expect it and do a lot more damanage (sic) than to your property.

Proof of Life

Despite a history of undeniable achievements, not everyone appreciates the role of animals in medicine. In the 1950s, it gave us the polio vaccine. Treatments for diabetes, heart disease and depression came from animal studies. If you've had a blood transfusion, a TB vaccine or an organ transplant, those were made possible by animals. If you're a survivor of breast cancer or AIDS, the drugs you're taking were first tested in animals.

"Everything we know about how cells work, how bodies work, has come from animal research," says Dr. Lynn Fairbanks, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the Vervet Research Colony, who has been a frequent target of extremists.

Animal research at UCLA

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.

"A lot of young people you'd talk to will think the Iron Lung is a rock group. They won't remember polio. They don't remember smallpox," P. Michael Conn, associate director of the Oregon Health and Science University's Oregon National Primate Research Center and the co-author of The Animal Research War, told NPR science reporter Joe Palca in 2008. "Those are some of the major triumphs of animal research."

Still, animal research is not undertaken lightly. In fact, researchers must satisfy a huge number of requirements to get funding. When scientists at the National Institutes of Health review a proposal, their first concern is the welfare of the subject. Is the simplest model, like bacteria or yeast, being used? If the investigator wants to study monkeys, could she learn the same thing by studying mice? Is the researcher doing everything he can to minimize the impact on the animals? If not, a grant can be rejected solely on animal welfare concerns.

If NIH finds the grant acceptable, the investigator submits an application to a university committee. (At UCLA, it's called the Chancellor's Animal Research Committee and is composed of scientists, veterinarians and community leaders.) In it, the researcher must justify the study in elaborate detail. Is it important for human health? Is it different from other research that's been done? Are the fewest number of animals being used to achieve the researcher's goals? Could the research be done with computer models instead? And that's only part of what the researcher must prove. Once the study begins, the animals are also routinely checked by veterinarians.

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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.

Domestic Terror

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Jentsch snapped this picture of his car ablaze in the driveway after the March firebombing.

For years, though, UC researchers have endured a campaign of intimidation and violence. Although laboratory animals are protected by a number of strict federal laws and university regulations, although labs undergo rigorous inspections, although 95 percent of lab animals are rodents and mice, that has not deterred the attacks. Once content to target biomedical labs, extremists are going after scientists literally where they live.

"In recent months, there have been more than 20 reports of damage to UC Berkeley researchers' homes," wrote UC President Mark G. Yudof in a letter to State Sen. Gloria Romero in August 2008, urging her to support AB 2296, a bill later passed to protect researchers against militants.

But UCLA scientists have been hit the hardest. They have received death threats, seen their homes and cars firebombed, had their names, addresses and photos splashed across extremists' websites. Even their families have been threatened. In August 2006, Dario Ringach, a UCLA neurology professor, was working on a device to restore vision to the blind. But Ringach had two young children and, after several incidents where animal rights activists targeted him at home, he stopped using animals in his research.

"My colleagues couldn't believe this was happening to me, to my colony," recalls Fairbanks of her own experience with extremist violence. "We watched them grow up," she says of the monkeys, a multi-generational family of grandmothers, fathers, teens and children. "They have names. The people who work for me are animal lovers."

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Anti-animal research extremists claimed responsibility for destroying a UCLA commuter van parked overnight at a park-and-ride facility in Irvine, Calif., in June 2008.

For Fairbanks, the attacks began one awful night in 2004. Demonstrators in black masks stormed her Bel-Air home, pounding on her front door and screaming obscenities. When she learned they were coming, she asked her son to spend the night because she was so frightened.

In July 2006, Fairbanks was on a rafting trip in Oregon when she got a call: Someone had left an incendiary device on her elderly neighbor's doorstep, mistaking it for hers. The device never ignited, but the message was clear. Not long after, Fairbanks, who had already put her house on the market, moved.

Dr. Edythe London is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at UCLA whose studies have led to critical insights into methamphetamine addiction and tobacco addiction. She doesn't do studies on monkeys or even rodents. But because she directs a research center in which animal studies are conducted primarily under the supervision of Jentsch, she has been deemed fair game.

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.

In October 2007, members of the Animal Liberation Front smashed a window in her Beverly Hills home, inserted a garden hose and flooded the interior. The damage was nearly $30,000. "One more thing, Edythe," the group said in a public statement to London, taking credit for the vandalism, "water was our second choice, fire was our first." Five months later, they firebombed her front door.

Researchers Respond

But after years of silence, the scientists are fighting back. A week after his car was blown up, Jentsch decided he'd had enough. Tired of harassment, assaults, myths and lies peddled by animal rights extremists, he launched UCLA Pro-Test, a support group for animal re-search. With the help of a young British activist, Tom Holder, who helped organize faculty and students at the University of Oxford after attacks on scientists there, Jentsch planned an event on April 22, the day animal rights groups would be demonstrating at UCLA.

That morning, when UCLA Pro-Test held its first rally on campus, 700 people turned out. There were nurses in scrubs, postdocs in lab coats, students wearing green and white T-shirts reading "Stand Up For Science." At noon, the crowd marched up Westwood Boulevard to the Court of Sciences, where several UC officials and scientists spoke. One was Fairbanks, who said she was there not as a scientist, but as the mother of a child who had juvenile diabetes. "Animal research saved my son's life."

"It felt so good to be standing up publicly," Fairbanks said later in her office at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Humanities. "We all need to do it. We're professional scientists."

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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.

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.