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?

To Haight, such infighting simply underscores her belief that there are some serious divisions in the scientific community over the validity of the beagle project. To further illustrate her point, she whips out photos of painful-looking surgical restraints and an autopsied dog.

"You want the bottom line on this? Every night I go to bed and I know that those 22 puppies are at risk. I know that they're going to be killed. We know that there's very little chance that they're going to give them any more information than they got from the rest of the puppies."

The release of the remaining beagles, currently housed in an undisclosed Tucson kennel, is one of the main goals of the anti-Berens contingent. On an animal rights Internet discussion board, Haight described a tour of the beagles' ASU kennels as "like visiting Treblinka or Dachau."

Dr. Shapiro shows cancer growths in Petri dishes.
Paolo Vescia
Dr. Shapiro shows cancer growths in Petri dishes.
Dr. Patricia Haight, "a psychologist with concerns" about the beagle project.
Paolo Vescia
Dr. Patricia Haight, "a psychologist with concerns" about the beagle project.

Wanting to see the BNI research labs, and speak with Berens about Haight's concerns, New Times arranged to take a tour of Barrow.

Shapiro says she is a firm believer in freedom of the press, notes that the beagle study is funded by taxpayers and says BNI has "nothing to hide." She gladly arranges a tour of BNI's labs, a tour that plays out like an elementary school filmstrip.

There are spotless labs full of beakers and computers. There are introductory "What Is a Cell?" diagrams on poster board and cancer DNA models. There are researchers in white coats and peeks through microscopes. There's even some scripted patter. ("In this room, you might say we're all working in the dark -- it's a dark room!")

Which is all fine and interesting, but . . . where are the animals? Animal research is the reason we are here, yet the animal kennels and veterinary surgical suite are not part of the tour. The vivarium is downstairs, and, apparently, off limits. Yet Shapiro repeatedly asks if we would like to meet cancer patients, the visceral counterpart to Haight's research-roadkill dog photo.

Later we are told media are not allowed in the vivarium out of concern for "the safety of the animals." This is not quite as bogus as it sounds, but it's close. The potential for animal infection is a genuine concern for researchers, and so are fears of security details being leaked to animal rights activists. Media are allowed on tours at other animal research labs, however. ASU, for instance, allows tours in all but its primate labs.

Even more problematic than being denied access to the one area that's under protest is some of the conflicting information from BNI.

Shapiro insists Berens has patented only his discovery of when beagles become immune tolerant, but records at the U.S. Patent Office show he has actually patented his entire fetal implant procedure. There is nothing illicit about patenting your work, but protesters insist one reason Berens continues his project is to make it commercially viable to sell to pharmaceutical research companies. Berens wholeheartedly denies this, and a BNI media relations representative says Shapiro simply misspoke.

And though Shapiro also comes clean about the study's failure rate -- "Do we have all the answers? Are we perfect? Has this thing been a great success? We're perfectly willing to say no, no and no" -- she stresses that Berens' beagle research can be used for learning about early genetic detection for brain tumors.

Berens himself dismisses this possibility. "Early detection is not where the project is going," he says.

Then where is this project going?

Michael Berens is tall, with white hair and compact glasses. He wears a lab coat to our interview and talks with kindly passion. He's not only a doctor, he could play one on TV. But his warm composure cracks when he talks about animal activists.

"Ascribing the term 'torture' to me is inappropriate," he says. "It's very inaccurate. If you read [protester] literature, everything is the most derogatory, aggressive kind of adjectives, and that's not what I'm like. I'm not a torturer. I'm not cruel. That's wrong, wrong, wrong. I'm compassionate from the get-go."

Berens is initially hesitant to permit an interview, and outright refuses to sit for a photo. Each news story about his research has sparked more death threats, and he has developed a Pavlovian dread of the press.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Berens is not very First Amendment-friendly. He declares that activists should have to go through a peer-review panel before they're allowed to protest, just as he does for his research grants, and at one point says that by interviewing him, New Times has "set back cancer research by several hours."

He retracts that last statement when challenged, but the sentiment feels genuine. Berens is frustrated at having to defend his work. Berens is frustrated with his project. Most of all, Berens is frustrated with being afraid of unseen threats, threats that may or may not be real.

"When you have a reaction in the press about this research, you feel exposed to the last 10 to 15 years of press that talks about [activist violence]," he says. "When I think about my kid walking to school, it scares the hell out of me. Now, how much of [the threat] is real? Well, when you have those feelings, it's real. And how do you get that out of your head?"

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