Here’s a recipe for academic controversy:
First, find dozens of hard-core teenage smokers as young as 14 and study their brains with high-tech scans. Second, feed vervet monkeys liquid nicotine and then kill at least six of them to examine their brains. Third, accept $6 million from tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay for it all. Fourth, cloak the project in unusual secrecy.
At UCLA, a team of researchers is following this formula to produce what it hopes will be a groundbreaking study of addiction. So far, the scientists have proved that the issues of animal testing and tobacco-funded research are among the most contentious on university campuses.
UCLA professor Edythe London, the lead scientist on the three-year study, said it could discover new ways to help people quit smoking and lead to innovative treatments for other addictions.
“We are doing this because we really want to save lives,” she said. “I am really proud of what we are doing. We have a track record for contributing to science, and we would like to bring that to bear on the problem of nicotine addiction.”
But even before she had a chance to select her first teenager for study, London paid a price for her research. In October, activists opposed to animal testing flooded her Westside home with her garden hose, causing more than $20,000 in damage. They struck again this week, leaving an incendiary device at night that charred her front door. A gardener discovered the damage Tuesday.
The activists, who have also targeted other UCLA researchers, accused London of using “sadistic procedures” and “torturing nonhuman animals to death” in earlier studies. No one has been arrested in the attacks.
At the same time, Philip Morris’ role in the study has drawn sharp criticism from anti-tobacco activists. They doubt that the company wants to help people stop smoking and question whether the study of teenage and monkey brains could help Philip Morris design a more addictive cigarette.
“It’s stunning in this day and age that a university would do secret research for the tobacco industry on the brains of children,” said Matt Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. “It raises fundamental questions about the integrity, honesty and openness of research anywhere at the University of California.”
London said that Philip Morris would not have any oversight or other involvement in the study. The suggestion that the company might use her findings to make cigarettes more addictive is “twisted,” she said.
“That is not something we ever considered,” she said. “The representatives of Philip Morris were very sincere.”
Roberto Peccei, vice chancellor for research at UCLA, said the company’s motives were immaterial.
“I have no idea why Philip Morris decides to fund this anti-smoking research, but they do,” he said. “As long as we do not feel that we are interfered with and that the research is done with the highest intentions, what’s in the mind of the funder is irrelevant.”
But critics say the UCLA study allows Philip Morris to sponsor research on adolescents that would prompt an outcry if the company did this work in its own laboratories.
“Edythe is a very good researcher, and frankly I’m shocked she would take the money,” said Michael Cummings, a senior researcher at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “I think she’s naive.”
Philip Morris, which is paying for 23 research projects at seven UC campuses, supports the UCLA study as part of the company’s effort “to reduce youth tobacco use and increase scientific understanding in the field,” said William Phelps, a Philip Morris spokesman.
He said the company has no intention of using the results or teenagers’ brain scans to develop more addictive cigarettes. “We would never do that,” he said.
Phelps declined to comment on the use of animals in the study.
Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who backed efforts by an activist to obtain a copy of the grant proposal, said UC has no business accepting money from tobacco companies.
“It is absolutely outrageous to see this kind of funding and this type of research within the UC system,” said Yee, a psychologist. “The fact that a piece of research is funded by the tobacco industry, and their singular issue is how to sell cigarettes, taints the results of whatever the findings might be.”
At UCLA, as at other University of California campuses, faculty members are free to accept money from any source. The only restriction is that studies involving animal and human subjects be approved by university review committees to ensure that they meet standards for the treatment of their subjects, university officials said.
For more than a year, anti-tobacco scientists and activists have pushed UC to prohibit faculty from accepting money from tobacco companies for research on tobacco. The Board of Regents, citing academic freedom, agreed instead to establish a committee that will review tobacco company research proposals.
UCLA officials say that the idea for the study of teenagers and monkeys originated with Philip Morris.
Phelps said Philip Morris began searching the country in 2006 for scientists who might be interested in conducting research on helping adolescents quit smoking. The search led the company to London, a noted UCLA professor of psychiatry and pharmacology who had studied addiction at the National Institutes of Health.
Philip Morris invited London to submit a grant proposal, which she did, said Carol Stogsdill, senior executive director of UCLA’s media relations office. The company awarded London $6 million to establish the Adolescent Smoking Cessation Center at the school and conduct the study on teenage and animal brains.
The smoking-cessation center is modeled on one at Duke University in North Carolina, which also receives money from Philip Morris. London said she hopes the UCLA center will receive additional funds for related research from Philip Morris or other donors.
UCLA has attempted to keep quiet about London’s study out of fear of attacks on its researchers.
Animal rights activists were suspected in June of placing a bomb under the car of a UCLA ophthalmologist who had conducted tests on monkeys. In 2005, another UCLA researcher who conducted animal studies was targeted by a bomb at a residence. Neither device went off.
In September, UCLA responded to a Public Records Act request from anti-smoking activist Kimberlee Homer Vagadori by releasing a heavily redacted copy of London’s grant proposal. There were so many deletions from the document that tobacco foes charged that the university was trying to hide work for Philip Morris.
In response to a subsequent Public Records Act request from The Times, UCLA provided more details but released virtually no information on the animal studies, citing the danger to its staff if specifics were made public.
Officials said it was the first time UCLA had withheld research information on the grounds of public safety. Peccei, who oversees research at the campus, acknowledged that UCLA could face a legal challenge but said that protecting researchers comes first.
“It’s not like we are trying to protect this Philip Morris center because we have some secret to hide,” Peccei said. “We will probably wind up in court, but we don’t want firebombs in the backyards of people who work on animals.”
In interviews, London and Peccei discussed some aspects of the study, which will include research on rats as well as monkeys.
In the first phase, researchers will test smoking-cessation techniques on 200 smokers between 14 and 20, an age when the brain is still developing. London said one focus is to understand why young people smoke, including whether depression or attention-deficit disorder contributes to the habit.
For the second phase, researchers will recruit 40 hard-core smokers, most of them from the first study group, as well as a control group of 40 nonsmokers, London said.
They will undergo functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of their brains while they take psychological and personality tests.
The third phase will focus on animals. Researchers will administer liquid nicotine to adolescent and adult vervet monkeys, London said. The monkeys will undergo different behavioral tests and have PET (positron emission tomography) scans of their brains.
Eventually, six to 12 monkeys will be killed and their brains studied, Peccei said.
London, who has been at UCLA since 2001, hopes that the research will lead to a new understanding of how addiction works.
“It’s very important to do animal studies,” she said. “The animal studies are very focused on the effects of nicotine during development and the ability of the brain to do its work.”
After the first attack on her house, London took the unusual step of standing up to the activists. She wrote an opinion piece for The Times contending that animal studies are a necessary part of research, saying it would “be immoral” to turn down the Philip Morris money and “decline an opportunity to increase our knowledge about addiction.”
UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block, a research scientist who generally uses mice for his own laboratory tests, defended London.
“All the evidence leads me to believe that the research supported by Philip Morris is independent research of high quality,” the chancellor said. “Edythe London’s program is celebrated. She is studying addiction, important issues, human issues, that have an enormous effect on people’s lives.”
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Philip Morris’ grants
Tobacco company Philip Morris is sponsoring 23 tobacco-related research projects at seven University of California campuses. Here are the grants, by school, as of June 2007.
UC San Diego...$1,537,813
UC Santa Barbara...$647,815
Source: University of California