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?

Berens' wife is equally concerned, saying her family makes sacrifices to accommodate her husband's quest. "He's trying so hard to find some help for all the suffering," says Patty Berens. "That's why we, as a family, put up with the long hours and missed weekends and canceled vacations."

To gain some industry perspective on Berens' research, we contacted a neurologist, a tumor researcher and representatives of brain tumor associations (Naomi Burkowitz of the American Brain Tumor Association; Robert Tufel of the National Brain Tumor Foundation; Mitchell Berger, chief of neurosurgery at UCSF; and John Henson, executive director of the Brain Tumor Center at Massachusetts General Hospital).

All have heard of Berens and the beagle study. All made a point to mention that Berens has an excellent reputation in the field of tumor research -- save one, who also noted that tumor research on beagles sounded "somewhat unusual." Two knew the specifics of Berens' protocol and affirmed that the research is valid. But both declined to say whether Berens should continue despite his failure rate.

Activists protest the beagle project outside BNI.
Activists protest the beagle project outside BNI.
Activists protest the beagle project outside BNI.
Casey McKee
Activists protest the beagle project outside BNI.

Berens' 10 years of frustration, some pointed out, is not necessarily a long time for a research study. A researcher must take a cool, collected dive at death, inflicting pain to potentially prevent it. Listening to Berens talk about his research, it seems animal rights activists are correct about his past failure driving his current determination to succeed, except they got it backward -- Berens doesn't press on despite the beagles' suffering, he presses on to validate the suffering that he has already caused.

"This is not fun. There is no thrill in this procedure," Berens says. "I wish I could have stopped nine and a half years ago. And I lose sleep over it -- 'Why did that litter abort?' -- and rack my brains and call other people. When things go well, we are excited and grateful. And when things go poorly, we are devastated."

Then why proceed with the same technique that has yielded so few results and so much criticism?

"I feel the next procedure is going to work," he says. "It would be real easy for me if we had been completely unsuccessful, because then I'd say, 'This doesn't work.'"

In a significant new development, Berens' grant manager, Dr. Tom Jacobs, says it's time for Berens to rethink the beagle project. Jacobs notes that funding will cease in April as planned, and predicts that Berens -- who has several ongoing grants and research projects aside from the beagle work -- will quit.

"Once he evaluates all the data, he'll be in a better position to decide what to do," Jacobs says. "He has not applied for additional funding, so the project, as I see it now, will end this spring."

Berens, however, is hopeful that his final batch of data will reinvigorate the project. Laying out a best-case scenario for the future of his work, Berens runs down his hopes:

"Year 2001, we develop a large-animal model for brain tumors. I have some wild, therapeutic ideas that are different than how we traditionally approach cancer therapy. I would like to test them in a large-animal model system for ways to change the behavior of tumor cells to make them much more responsive to therapy -- and I would do that in 2002. And in 2003, we take this to clinical trials. And the audience I need to sell this to is the oncologists . . . [who] will be interested because they know the outcome for these patients.

"That's the scope, and I could be wrong," he says. "Or, I could be something else. And that something else is pretty exciting."

That something else keeps him going, keeps him injecting and euthanizing, focusing on potential outcome rather than past failures. He's getting better, he says. The fetal injection procedure once took 14 hours; now it takes four. He's fine-tuning the lab animals, ordering beagles bred with certain genetic variables that increase his probability for success. Besides, about 40,000 animals are euthanized in Maricopa County every year. They die for no reason. At least his beagles have a chance -- however small -- of contributing to a cure for a lethal disease.

He's on the verge. He's sure of it. Except . . .

"I always feel like this one is going to be the one that's going to have a perfect outcome," he says. "And, of course, that hasn't been the reality."

And when fighting brain cancer, the disease that always seems to win, Berens will not allow that reality to burden him.

"I don't feel the weight of failure," Berens says. "Which amazes me."

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