ASHLAND, Mass. — The foreskins, eyes, lungs, and bits of breasts arrive at the old clock factory in rush deliveries.
These surgical leftovers, which patients have donated to science, provide some of the building blocks to grow model human tissues in lab dishes.
But creating new kinds of lab-grown tissues is expensive, so the project gets a little financial help from a surprising source: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
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The global animal rights network is both reviled and feared by many scientists, who worry their labs — or their homes — will be the next target for protests and lurid street theater. Yet PETA also funds a science organization that expects to spend more than $200,000 this year supporting academic researchers and biotech companies working on alternatives to using animals in science and medicine.
All told, PETA groups around the world have contributed $4 million to science since 1998.
Funding science is still hardly PETA’s top priority: The $4 million is practically nothing compared to the $47 million that the American affiliate alone spent on its operations in 2014. But the projects it does support provide a window into the weird world of recreating the human body in the lab.
There’s TraumaMan, a dummy whose layers of synthetic skin and fat look, feel, cut, bleed, and suture just like human flesh. Since 2013, PETA has helped purchase a small fleet of these guys — worth over $2 million — to distribute among medical training programs in the developing world so that doctors-to-be can practice their moves on TraumaMen instead of pigs and goats.
The animal rights group has also backed the development of computer models that predict how different shapes of molecules will affect our bodies. It has supported academics in Europe who are trying figure out if it’s safe to inhale tiny particles commonly used in manufacturing electronics.
“I say bravo to any organization, even an animal rights organization, that funds alternatives” to animal testing.
J. David Jentsch, neuroscientist
And then there are the model human tissues, including a model of the sacs in our lungs, made with the cells isolated from surgical leftovers. They’re being developed by MatTek, a small biotech company headquartered in a repurposed clock factory in Ashland, Mass.
PETA has paid an outside lab to work on the complicated, and expensive, process of validating that MatTek’s lab-grown skin performs as well as animal models in biomedical research. That validation is needed to secure regulatory approval for drug companies to use the MatTek tissue in preclinical trials.
“We can’t produce an endless stream of tissue for a validation study without getting compensation for it,” said Mitch Klausner, MatTek’s vice president of scientific affairs.
PETA says it’s doing this work not just to save animals, but also to help humans. Mice and rabbits don’t react to chemicals and drugs the way we do, so it’s important to find alternative ways of testing these substances, said Jessica Sandler, director of the PETA International Science Consortium.
“PETA is known for caring about the animals,” she said. “But this is also an issue of good science.”
The statement has some backing within the scientific community.
“Ninety-five percent of drugs fail when they get into human trials, either because they were toxic and it wasn’t predicted in the animal tests, or they have no efficacy despite the fact that the animal test said it worked,” said Dr. Thomas Hartung, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.
But many scientists aren’t so sure. They support the goal of using fewer animals in research and testing.
They just don’t trust PETA.
To them, trying to end all animal research is too extreme. Without animal testing on experimental drugs, many diseases that are now easily managed with medication would still be killing hordes of people, said J. David Jentsch, a neuroscientist at State University of New York at Binghamton, and founder of the pro-animal research group Pro-Test for Science.
He called some of PETA’s tactics dangerous, citing the group’s campaign in October, when it accused two researchers at the National Institutes of Health of animal abuse — and sent a letter with the scientists’ names and home addresses to hundreds of residents in the Washington, D.C. area. The group has targeted both academic researchers and biotech companies in the past.
Juan Carlos Marvizon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the pro-animal research group Speaking of Research, wonders whether scientists should believe PETA’s claims — or trust the research the group supports. “PETA is full of ideologues, and we are going to worry it’s biased in some way,” he said.
But scientists who have received PETA grants aren’t concerned about being funded by an activist organization.
“I’m not influenced by them. I’m still free in research, and can communicate all findings,” said Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, a professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In September, her research team received a $140,000 grant from the PETA International Science Consortium to use MatTek tissues to study how inhaling small particles might damage people’s lungs.
The animal rights organization isn’t funding every step of the long process to develop alternative models for testing drugs.
“These methods take many years — decades — and many multimillions of dollars to create, and then millions of dollars more to get them validated,” said Sandler. But PETA will step in if an alternative test needs “a final push in order for it to be approved internationally,” she said.
Even PETA’s staunchest opponents hope that this is a step in the right direction.
Jentsch, for example, has good reason to be wary of animal rights activists.
His car was firebombed outside of his house in 2009, when he was a professor at University of California, Los Angeles. A year later, he received a package of bloody razor blades, with a letter that imagined his murder in graphic detail. The extremist group Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Jentsch says he’s disgusted that PETA continues to release scientists’ home addresses, given that such violence has been committed in the past.
Yet he grudgingly supports the group’s work to fund research.
“I say bravo to any organization, even an animal rights organization, that funds alternatives” to animal testing. “But they’re the followers,” he said. “Scientists need to be given the credit for developing the vast majority of alternatives that exist.”