Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chimps Are People Too

Advances in science can be a little like politics or sausage-making: Sometimes you don’t want to know the details of how the final product is produced. This is particularly true in medicine where progress has often been made by invasive tests on animals including primates like ourselves. The federal government has just taken a step away from that decades-old paradigm and as with just about everything else in national debate—whatever the subject—the result of the policy change whether it’s abortion or gun control, or medical research, will be best highlighted in Texas.
Last week National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins announced that his agency is phasing out support of chimpanzee use in research. This was not a surprise. The government took steps two years ago that retired 310 chimps from the lab but left 50 in reserve for emergencies. The animals have been used in AIDS, ebola and other experimental disease treatments. (Chimpanzees are for example the only other species in addition to man that suffers from Hepatitis C.) Collins’ most recent edict sends those last monkeys to Chimp Haven, a government run rest home in Louisiana where they can live out their final days licking their wounds in peace. Pressure for this decision had been building recently with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granting research chimpanzees endangered species status, earlier this year, and requests to use chimps for any kind of scientific endeavor practically non-existent in recent months.
According to Nature, the big losers in this policy change will be a facility in Bastrop, a few miles outside Austin, owned by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center which houses 139 chimps owned by the federal government, and the private Southwest National Primate Research Center outside San Antonio which has 20 of the government’s animals. Next, the NIH must decide what to do with yet another 82 of the primates also at Southwest, whose room and board is paid for by Uncle Sam. Christian Abee, director of MD Anderson’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop told Nature that the NIH ruling will for all intents and purposes end research in Bastrop since all the animals used are owned by the feds. Collins went out of his way to praise the Bastrop center, which is said to do only behavioral and observational research. The approach in San Antonio apparently involves a more invasive touch.
The federal decision also casts an unaccustomed light on one of the most secretive non-governmental organizations in a state known for secretive non-governmental organizations: the Southwest Research Center aka the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research aka the Southwest National Primate Research Center, whose origins date back to 1941, founded by polymath Tom Slick, cattleman, oil wildcatter, explorer and presumed spy. Slick’s career is too varied to do justice to here but suffice it to say he was a successful energy entrepreneur who also dabbled in the occult. The center he founded has, however, done serious science, its methods being more the issue, particularly animal experimentation. The privately-owned San Antonio center does research for both the federal government and industry; it was once also said to have the only private Level 4 Biosafety Lab in the country. As regards animal health and safety Southwest has been repeatedly dinged by the federal government for poor treatment of primates. PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) has previously placed former Southwest director Dr. John VandeBerg on its “Vivsector of the Month” list because of the treatment of chimps.
The federal decision sends the chimpanzees into retirement but does little to assuage the lot of baboons of which, once again, the center outside San Antonio is said to be the biggest player in terms of medical research: more than 1400 of these animals were reported residing there in February of this year. According to provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, labs must report a census of lab animals to the Department of Agriculture each year. According to last year's figures almost 1800 non-human primates were being held but not experimented upon at Southwest's campuses, while almost 1300 were the subject of experiments. In fact Dr. VandeBerg has written a book about the subject of baboons in the lab. 
            “The baboon is a relative newcomer to the repertoire of nonhuman primates used in biomedical research,” he wrote in the appropriately-titled The Baboon in Biomedical Research. “However, in less than 50 years since its first use in the U. S., it has become one of the most popular laboratory primate species. It is larger than the other widely used monkey species, making it advantageous for many types of experiments and technological developments. It is extraordinarily hardy and highly fecund in captivity. It closely resembles humans in a variety of physiological and disease processes, such as cholesterol metabolism, early stages of atherosclerosis, and alcoholic liver disease. Its chromosomes closely resemble those of humans, and many genes of the two species lie in the same chromosomal order. Among all primates, baboons are the most widely used models for the genetics of susceptibility to complex diseases and they are the first nonhuman primate for which a framework genetic linkage map was established. In addition, the baboon genome is currently being sequenced, and as a result the utility of this species for biomedical research will be dramatically increased.” In response to the federal decision VandeBerg wrote in an email asking for comment: "I am no longer director of the SNPRC, although I can assure you that the cessation of research with chimpanzees does not mean the end of the primate center. The research done with chimpanzees was only a small fraction of the research conducted at the SNPRC." Contrary to what you may think the decision to give chimps a reprieve from the scalpel, needle and electrode had nothing to do with an outbreak of humanity at the scientific establishment in Washington. Instead, such research is just no longer deemed necessary. Hepatitis C for example now has a cure. The national Institute of Medicine reached the conclusion a couple of years ago that other means exist to get what scientists require, including computer modeling, mice, and using human volunteers. One of the modalities that was not mentioned but apparently also applies is increased use of human DNA for study.
              PETA maintains a kind of rogue’s gallery of worst labs in the country for animal research abuse and a usual suspect high in the rankings is the University of California San Francisco, an exclusively medicine-related research institution belonging to the state of California. UCSF has also been cited by the federal government for animal welfare abuse in its labs, the last time in 2010 resulting in severe fines for behavior like failing to give pain medication to animals that have undergone surgical procedures. UCSF scientists invented the Hepatitis B vaccine used worldwide, required of all healthcare workers in the U.S. and developed with animal studies. But just last year UCSF took a step in a different direction, taking over Oakland Children’s Hospital in San Francisco’s East Bay in order, the university said, to have more African-American kids for study, especially their DNA, due to wider variability in African ancestry individuals’ genetic makeup. The NIH decision may reflect a trend in which we as a society are moving back to humans as primary study subjects, with the only difference being less invasive procedures than what has been done to monkeys. What this all means for the Southwest center is unclear but the likelihood that it may no longer be cutting edge is a genuine risk.
              In a letter to the New York Times two years ago Dr. VandeBerg argued that chimpanzee science should continue if only to aid ape health in the wild, an argument that did not strike the federal regulators as particularly persuasive. Dr. VandeBerg was recently relegated to performing an experiment in which opossums had sun block applied and microwave radiation shined on their skin in order to see if the block really worked in preventing cancer. You’ll be happy to know it did. Overall animal studies may be falling on hard times except in places like the military (again in San Antonio, at the base that includes Brooke Army Medical Center) where training often includes use of animals for practice in procedures and wound treatmentcausing the injury and then treating it, although the subjects are said not to be primates. However it's done it’s an ugly business that has, up until now, been deemed in humanity’s best interests. "The primate center directors as a group were not happy with the decision," Dr. Warner C. Greene director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at UCSF, who served on the original Institute of Medicine committee that decided to move away from chimps as research subjects, wrote in an email yesterday. "However it garnered wide support throughout the scientific and lay communities. Previously only two countries in the world had essentially no limitations on biomedical research with chimpanzees: Gabon and the United States."
             “We successfully trained 12 male marmosets [a South American monkey] for treadmill running,” according to a paper detailing another recent Southwest-related primate experiment. “The entire process – from training subjects to enter a clear plastic capture container to running at speeds of 1.2mph for 30min duration – was accomplished with daily sessions (including weekends) in 4 weeks. Furthermore, marmosets were able to maintain this rate of exercise for 3 days per week for 3 months. Our use of positive reinforcement techniques to train the marmosets to this procedure provided a safe environment for both marmoset and experimenter. Alternative procedures, such as putting a harness on the marmoset and tethering him to the treadmill for exercise, could potentially be unsafe particularly when putting the marmoset in a harness which increases handling time and increases biting risk.” This may be science, but it doesn’t seem far removed from torture.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Who Shot Judge Kocurek?

            Thirty-odd years ago when federal Judge “Maximum John” Wood was shot by an assassin in San Antonio the killing was met by genuine shock on the part of the public. The assassination was seen as an attack on the judiciary, on the system, on the Constitution, on the very fabric of our lives as Americans. In the intervening years a lot has happened to put the judge’s killing in perspective. There’s been 9-11, the Iraq War, the corruption/meltdown of Wall Street, to say nothing of global warming, AIDS and ebola. It’s not that Judge Wood’s killing wasn’t important. Instead, we just learned that a lot worse things could happen, and have. But just recently, this weekend in Austin, another shooting took place that may actually come closer to spelling an end to society as we know it than the demise of U.S. District Judge John Wood, who it turned out was killed by a drug dealer afraid of a heavy sentence.
            Today in the Texas capital a lot of theories are circulating about who could have possibly wanted to shoot Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek, for many years the presiding officer of the state criminal courts in Austin. The possibilities are not endless and generally break down into three lines of suspicion: a personal grudge, involving a scorned lover or a betrayed friend (not to question the judge’s morality or sense of loyalty, but some motive involving the day to day personal interactions we all have as human beings, even judges.) Or the trigger was pulled by a “crazy” who did not know she was a judge or was responding to her on some level other than as a member of the judiciary—a commonplace example, offered here not necessarily because it’s likely but just because it’s illustrative, someone she quarreled with about a parking space or a neighbor who didn’t like her lawn. It can happen, again even to judges. The third and most obvious likelihood regards her work in the courts, and here, in the Travis County Courthouse, there are two lines of thought, one that the authorities would prefer to believe than the other.
            Current speculation involves the wide range of heavy cases she has handled including high-profile murder trials. We could mention any of those defendants but as of this moment, knowing nothing else, it seems unfair to people who already have enough to worry about in terms of getting a fair trial, without adding public suspicion that they tried to cap the judge. Suppose however it’s not an individual case but cases in general—or Travis County cases in general—and the approach to handing out justice at the Thurman-Blackwell Criminal Justice Center that made someone draw a bead on Judge Kocurek. Since the shooting there have been interviews and statements about what a great jurist Julie Kocurek has been, her switch from the Republican Party of then-Gov. George W. Bush who first appointed her, and her efforts to introduce, for example, a working system of indigent defense in the county. There’s no point in arguing any of that here. The question is not what kind of person she is nor even what kind of judge she has been but how she and the system she has led have been perceived by someone who happened to have access to a gun, which in Texas means a lot of people. In that respect, like it or not, as leader of an unfair and discriminatory system she makes a good target. Especially for minorities and the dispossessed. It’s not something anyone wants to talk about in the liberal Mecca but it’s true.
            You may argue, but this is Austin, and we don’t do that here. We don't kill people in order to settle arguments. Sure we do. The police do it all the time. There have been some recent cracks in the city’s liberal veneer, certainly, the growing feeling that perhaps the Texas capital is not quite as progressive as people like to think—and that the police have been a little out of control, sure, but no worse than anywhere else. That the performance of the courts in particular might be cause for violence is just so much hogwash, right? Is it, though, really? The police will eventually produce a suspect in the judge’s attempted murder and it will likely not involve social discontent, and to the degree it has anything to do with her work on the bench it is much, much more likely to involve justice in one case than justice writ large. But the judge has been shot or shot at. She’s lying in a bed in Brackenridge Hospital, apparently no longer in mortal danger from her wounds. You may believe it does her a disservice to consider her service at a moment like this but it’s actually the best moment possible. This community has a problem and Judge Kocurek has been a big part of it, whether that led to the attack on her or not. Likely not. Yet you can bet that investigators are considering her record—without the social context—so it behooves us to, as well.
            What you see below are figures released by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice earlier this year. Travis County, despite its reputation for liberalism, continues to send a higher percentage of blacks to prison than many major municipalities in the state. Look at just two figures, for example, comparing Harris County and Travis County in terms of those sent to state prison, Huntsville, i.e., the Big House. About one half of the people Harris County sends to state prison are African-Americans, while a quarter of the population of that county is black; so the Harris County courts send blacks to prison at a rate twice the black population of Houston. About one-third of all prisoners from Travis County are African-Americans while blacks represent about 9 percent of the Austin population. You do the math. This is the judicial equivalent of racial profiling and it’s been like that for a while in Austin. It may be getting better, but better is not the same as good.

County of Conviction
Other and Unknown
El Paso
State Jail
El Paso
State Jail Total
El Paso
SAFP Total
El Paso

Just as there’s growing disenchantment with economic equality in the country, and black disenchantment with the criminal justice and police forces nationwide, there’s a growing unease among blacks and the dispossessed in Austin. On the economic front there has been the gentrification of East Austin. In the Travis County Courthouse it’s business as usual. Judge Kocurek made headlines last year by warning then-Gov. Perry about a subliminal threat he may or may not have made to those pursuing a criminal case against him. Good for her, one supposes. To believe the police unions, cops are getting killed across the country as part of social unrest. The directors of the FBI and DEA both claim a “Ferguson effect” in which the police are now afraid to do their job for fear of being called out as racists. BlackLivesMatter is pushing the envelope, too, per many candidates for public office, even Democrats. If that’s true it’s not such a big jump to believe that judges and prosecutors are now being targeted as well.
But in Austin, you may ask?
This is a town after all in which people save their excitement for booze, music and the lake. Pussy, dick and good weed are the major motivators in local society. So, obviously, the idea that something might happen had never occurred to anyone in authority before Judge Kocurek parked her SUV in the driveway Friday night. So, too, you can be sure there will be a U.S. Marshal’s car outside Judge Yeakel’s home for the foreseeable future.
The argument is also made that Austin has a large number of highly-placed minority officeholders, including a black sheriff and a Latino police chief, which makes unrest unlikely—but so did Baltimore, where rioters argued that they weren’t taking to the streets despite black officeholders but because of them. As a witness to issues of race and privilege in the city there would seem to be no one better than Marc Ott, the city manager, another black in power, and his testimony on the subject, although brief, is direct: a grainy six-minute video on YouTube from five years ago, filmed at Austin’s historically-black college, Huston Tillotson. The video has been summoned up recently, to make the rounds, as part of the general minority rumbling in town, and in it Ott is seen sitting on the dais next to State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, another African-American officeholder, as he starts a brief description of what Austin is really like. It’s not a Chamber of Commerce view nor is it a pretty picture he paints, at least as regards relations between the Caucasian majority and minorities in town. Ott begins by citing a 1920s-era consultant’s report on how the city should control the “Negro population.” He calls out what he describes as “the hardest demographic division” he has seen as a public servant, I-35, and liberal hypocrisy in a community in which everyone is super-conscious of the ecology, for example, and other liberal markers, but when you raise the issue of treatment of blacks and Hispanics, faces go slack and the subject is changed.
           “When I first came here,” Ott begins his discourse, and it’s hard to catch every word because of the video quality, but there’s no missing his meaning, “I was invited to receptions and different kinds of things as people were trying to get to know me, and invariably people would ask, ‘What do you think of Austin?’ In Austin as a newcomer there’s lots of good stuff to talk about. The climate is nice here . . . ‘It’s a very vibrant, thriving community,’ those are the kinds of things I would say back. ‘I love Austin, it’s great, I’m glad to be here,’ which was true. But as time passed, I began to learn more.” There’s no point in repeating the city manager’s complete comments, he’s more articulate in expressing his own views of the city he administers than any quick synopsis would be. It’s important to note though that Ott was in his third year in office when he made these observations so there’s no doubt that his opinions had time to take shape. He ends by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., about the nature of two evils, doing wrong and being silent about wrong which, basically, he ascribes to white Austin although he doesn’t use the color-word. 
          The bottom line is that this isn’t the city white people think it is, especially in regards criminal justice, and Julie Kocurek has been a part of that. It’s hard to believe that anyone among the dispossessed would go gunning for her, but if they did, should we really be so surprised?