Screwing the Pooch

Dr. Michael Berens has been vilified by animal rights activists for drilling holes in beagle puppies. Is he on the path to curing brain cancer?

"I can't think of doing an experimental surgical procedure on my pets," he says.

Then what does he think about when injecting cancer into the pups?

"I get one or two phone calls a month from friends of friends whose wife/sister/cousin/uncle has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. So before every procedure, I look my research assistant in the eye and say, 'Last Tuesday I got a call from a 38-year-old mom with two kids who's just been diagnosed. And by all statistics, she won't be here next year. Let's do this as well as we can.'"

A diagram of the "Introducer," Berens' fetal injection device, on file at the U.S. Patent Office.
A diagram of the "Introducer," Berens' fetal injection device, on file at the U.S. Patent Office.
They call it puppy love: Protesters at BNI.
Paolo Vescia
They call it puppy love: Protesters at BNI.

And when the experiment does not yield the desirable results, Berens reassembles his staff to try another batch.

"I ask my staff, 'Are you willing to help me try again?' What a horrible question to ask. Everybody wants it to go well, everybody has tremendous tension, everybody has pets."

Berens has received support from BNI, a longtime proponent of animal research studies. In one notable breakthrough, a BNI researcher used baboons to develop a dramatic brain surgery technique called Cardiac Standstill. In that procedure, a patient is chilled and his heart is stopped. The patient lies clinically dead on the operating table for more than 20 minutes, allowing an unprecedented degree of surgical intrusion. Then the patient is resuscitated.

"Yes, 11 baboons died," says Shapiro. "But 89 people have walked out of here totally cured. No one else would touch these people."

Cardiac Standstill was introduced in the early 1990s. About the same time, Berens seemed to be on the verge of a similar success. One of his beagles had produced a tumor. The tumor was transplanted to its brain. And it grew.

Berens was ecstatic. He had proven his model could work.

Then, over the years, the elation turned to frustration. And his short-lived success turned into an animal rights controversy.

Dr. Patricia Haight is at Orbit Restaurant to talk about the beagles. The meeting is for lunch, but she does not eat. Haight is very intent, very determined. Her tremulous voice rises and falls as she practically vibrates with outrage. She quit teaching at Paradise Valley Community College last semester to concentrate full-time on protesting Berens' project, yet objects to being called a "protester," or her efforts being called a "campaign."

"I don't consider this a campaign," she says. "I consider myself a psychologist with some concerns."

Haight has performed animal research studies herself, and says she even worked at BNI as a research assistant some 25 years ago. She does not object to all animal research, she says, just the beagle project. When Haight first heard about Berens' research from a student in her Abnormal Psychology class, she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for more information.

By any standard, the documents she received raise serious concerns.

Only three successful tumors out of 138 puppies in 10 years. Unknown numbers of aborted dogs and birth defects because of trauma suffered during the fetal implant procedure. Admissions by Berens that, because of the difficulty of successfully injecting cancer cells at such an early stage of development, oftentimes it was impossible for him to tell which pups were injected and which were not. And in 1998, BNI's animal labs were cited for a number of noncompliance issues; a Department of Health and Human Services director harshly summarized, "It was the opinion of the site visitors that [Barrow] has placed itself and the research community as a whole at risk by operating in the manner in which it is presently proceeding."

BNI brought itself into compliance with most of the complaints six months later, Haight says, but still . . .

"I'm tired of this," she says. "They should have planned well ahead of time for the possibility that these puppies wouldn't develop tumors. They should have had a control group that was never injected. They never did that. They never thought it through. They should have thought it through!"

And then, there was the criticism from ASU's animal research oversight committee.

ASU received a portion of Berens' $200,000 annual grant to house the beagles. The committee repeatedly urged Berens to change his protocol, and Berens refused. The school veterinarian said the pups were confined in pens for "much longer than is necessary or justified."

One crucial difference between the institutions, say observers on both sides, is that BNI staffers have daily exposure to cancer patients.

"If our dogs were at the University of Arizona, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation," says Shapiro. "Because they have a cancer institute, their thought patterns are different. While ASU has very good animal facilities, and does good animal research work, their questions are different."

ASU's animal oversight chairman, Edward Castañeda, says BNI is willing to "go further" than the university in its use of animals, and he does not think ASU is being too squeamish or setting the bar too high.

"The use of the animals and the basic research, I think, is totally valid," he says. "Now the problem starts when you're not collecting any valid data, then it becomes difficult to justify using the animals. If he had come to us with a proposal to change his approach -- and by that I don't mean so much to improve the success rate as to try to improve the success rate -- we would have been delighted."

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