Screwing the Pooch

Dr. Michael Berens and his research colleagues at Barrow Neurological Institute are hunkering down, trying to defend themselves from the barrage.

Outside the BNI building, marching protesters accuse them of torture. Sporadic death threats pop into their e-mail inboxes or get funneled through the hospital switchboard. There are incoming questions from concerned public officials, reporters and grant-funding agencies -- questions they are tired of answering.

So they stay in the bunker, under siege from all sides and seeming rather resentful about it. They're trying to save lives, after all.

In his federally funded research project, Berens operates on pregnant beagles. Around day 36 of each dog's pregnancy, Berens makes an incision into its swollen abdomen and, using ultrasound to guide his hand, injects cancer cells into the hind legs of the fetal puppies. If a puppy develops a tumor after birth, Berens surgically removes the lump and places it into the pup's brain through a drilled hole. The idea is to develop a tumor model on which researchers can test potential treatments for human brain tumors. But after 10 years of study and a couple hundred euthanized and aborted dogs, only three pups have successfully developed cancer. So in 1999, the Arizona State University animal research oversight committee told Berens to remove his dogs from their kennels and house them someplace else.

As a target for an animal rights crusade, the beagle project could hardly be more ideal. Here is a study with a documented failure rate, criticism from an otherwise research-friendly university and subjects that are a particularly adorable species of man's best friend. It's like blood in the water. The founder of the Bay Area group In Defense of Animals calls the beagle study the "Achilles' heel" of animal research. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has issued an "Action Alert" against Berens, dubbing him the "Beagle Butcher." Animal rights Web sites urge protesters to call the sheriff's office (charge Berens with animal cruelty!), Berens' grant provider (take away his money!) and his employers at BNI (make him stop!).

"If I was running gerbils down a maze, and it wasn't working after 10 years, I would change it," says Dr. Patricia Haight, a psychologist who is leading the protests. "All of the killing of these puppies is never going to give him the information he is looking for."

Through it all, Berens and his colleagues have remained defiant, yet they confess they are privately alarmed.

The vice president of research at BNI, Dr. Joan Shapiro, received an e-mail with a description of her car, her license plate number and a message remarking that she drives home late at night, alone. Undescribed "things" have been left at Berens' home, and threats have been made against his family.

"I'm in the crossfire," says Berens. "Their mind is already made up: 'Don't confuse me with the facts.' There are people who are steeped in the effort to move forward with challenging diseases, and there are people who say, 'Yeah, we should have better opportunities for treatment, but nobody should get hurt in the process.' Well, that's not going to happen."

Shapiro, thinking about how she tenses up every time a driver pulls alongside her car, speaks a bit more aggressively.

"People could be very seriously injured by me because I will do something first and ask questions later," she says.

But beyond all the noise and exclamations and claims and threats from both sides, there has been little real examination of Berens and his study. Berens' critics see him as the Captain Ahab of animal research -- an unstoppable menace plunging on regardless of the cost, obsessed with an impossible outcome. To fellow cancer warriors, however, his passion is understandable, even admirable. Sometimes it takes an Ahab determination to fight the most clinically frustrating and lethal disease on the planet.

"To give up is not acceptable," declares Berens. "[The research is] not going nowhere; it's having labored success. If you want to see a real lack of success, come on over here to our brain tumor clinic."

Half of American men and a third of American women will get cancer in their lifetimes. It's the plague of all centuries with a different variety named after every organ it attacks. Cancer of the brain has one of the most dire outcomes. A tumor, either a spontaneous development (primary) or a growth inspired by cancer cells spread from another organ (metastatic), takes up residence in your gray tissue. The cancer cells quickly infect and mutate neighboring cells. It's what researchers call "walking," as in, "His tumor has already started walking." The multiplication is exponential as cell after cell is conquered, each transformed into something that's deathly dysfunctional yet maddeningly unique, like diseased snowflakes. A photo of cancer DNA even looks villainous -- schizophrenic clumps of broken chromosomes. Since the brain has no pain receptors, a tumor can grow for years without symptoms. After a while, there are little things: headaches, dizziness, blurred vision. If diagnosed with a primary brain tumor, as 16,500 Americans are each year, the patient most likely faces toxin treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Both have been significantly refined over the years, but they are still physiological sledgehammers. Speech, motor control and mental faculties deteriorate. You lose your ability to recognize loved ones. It's a horrific way to die.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd