Sexual Eugenics. Is OHSU spending millions to make gay sheep straight?
When news crept down from the hill that researchers at Oregon Health & Sciences University found biological roots for homosexuality, they were met with a backlash from both animal rights and gay rights activists.
Since 2000, principal researcher Charles Roselli of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at OHSU's School of Medicine and Fredrick Stormshak of Oregon State University's Department of Animal Sciences have been conducting research on rams (intact male sheep) to identify their sexual orientation.
Every year more than 200 sheep are given "preference tests," then coded "female-oriented" for straight and "male-oriented" for gay. The project, which is funded through 2008, then exposes the sheep to a variety of hormone manipulation experiments in an attempt to alter their sexuality.
Almost immediately, animal rights activists from national and local groups began speaking out against Roselli's work, some calling his research "sexual eugenics." Shalin Gala, a gay research associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), finds Roselli's intentions insulting. "Roselli is attempting to apply his homophobic research on sheep to humans, and we find that completely offensive," he said.Roselli also said that his research, which is designed to better understand principles of mammalian sexuality, could lead to cures for a variety of medical conditions resulting from variations in sexual development. "A greater understanding of biological underpinnings of partner preference, a key component of psychosexual development may greatly assist in providing affected individuals with effective medical services and psychological support that they may desire."He continued: "The bottom line is that our research is basic in nature. It is not aimed at 'curing homosexuality,' as some detractors have suggested."
In January, PETA released a list of the "10 Worst Laboratories." Of the academic institutions on the list, OHSU ranked No. 8. Laboratories landed on the list for the "worst Animal Welfare Act violations, the largest numbers of animals killed and the most painful and invasive experiments, and they are the least willing to make humane improvements," according to PETA's Web site, www.stopanimaltests.com.
OHSU earned its spot on the list mostly for accusations concerning its Regional Primate Center. The center is home to more than 4,000 primates and uses more than 900 of them in experiments, including tobacco and nicotine research, maternal deprivation and pregnancy studies, according to the site.
The university laboratory also uses nearly 2,000 other nonrodent animals, including pigs and Roselli's sheep.
"OHSU's steady stream of useless and cruel research has earned it a spot on our list," the site stated.
Roselli contends that sheep in his study, which are housed at OSU's Sheep Research Facility, are well cared for and monitored on a daily basis by personnel with training in sheep husbandry. "We strongly adhere to the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act and the animal care practices dictated by the National Institute of Health," he said.
Matt Mongiello, a research associate for PETA in Norfolk, Va., compiled the list. He said undercover investigations at OHSU have revealed filthy housing, poor veterinary care and a lack of enrichment for the animals, resulting in neurotic behavior.
But it isn't conditions alone that Mongiello objects to. He considers many experiments at OHSU to be wasteful and cruel.
"Beyond the way they keep their primates, the experiments they put them in, we find to be ridiculous. The tobacco research is particularly galling. These pregnant mother monkeys are being injected with nicotine, and their baby monkeys are being cut out and killed, to make smoking safer. It's basic research that's never going to translate into anything, and monkeys are dying for it," said Mongiello.
Prompted by animal mistreatment accusations from former OHSU primate center technician Matt Rossell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted an investigation. Despite the 50-page complaint filed on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund the previous August, the USDA announced in January 2001 that allegations of mistreatment in the Primate Research Center were unfounded.
"If you look at the criticisms of OHSU, there's little to no content there. There are no mentions of legal violations because they don't have any information to put there regarding violations," said Jim Newman, a spokesman for OHSU who has worked with Roselli. He noted that six of the eight institutions on PETA's list have primate centers, which he says automatically makes them a candidate for the list of worst labs.
OHSU also earned its spot on PETA's list for what Mongiello calls its history of being "closed and reclusive about their treatment toward animals."
"OHSU has historically fought legally to keep any of this information about deaths of animals and the way they treat animals out of the public eye. It's very difficult for animal protection groups to look at them without an undercover investigation to determine whether they're treating their animals right," said Mongiello.
Rossell is the Northwest outreach coordinator for In Defense of Animals (IDA), an animal rights group that has embroiled OHSU in lawsuits for more than a decade. IDA's most recent lawsuit against OHSU is in remand from the Multnomah County Circuit Court of Appeals while lawyers representing both parties come to terms about disclosing what IDA calls public records. IDA members are seeking behavior and health records for monkeys at the primate center. This is the second such lawsuit, the first in 1995, involving videotapes of monkeys involved in a breast milk study. The current lawsuit, which was filed in July 2001, is requesting documents dating back to 1995.
"We're confident we're going to win this, but OHSU's strategy seems to be to do everything they can to roadblock watchdog organizations like ours to disseminate public documents to the public," said Rosell.
The university has asked IDA for an amount between $12,000 and $150,000 to cover the cost of redacting proprietary information from the documents. IDA's lawyers argue that a component of the Freedom of Information Act states access to public information cannot be prohibitively expensive.
"This thing has been dragging on for years," said Dave Bahr, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, representing IDA. "The parties are evaluating the appropriate steps to take next."
In March 2004, OHSU released a statement to the media claiming, "Biology Behind Homosexuality in Sheep, Study Confirms: OHSU researchers show brain anatomy, hormone production may be cause."
An article by Roselli and Stormshak in the February 2004 issue of the journal Endocrinology states that approximately 8 percent of rams are exclusively "male-oriented" or exhibit same-sex mate preference. The article further delves into the brain structures of these rams, finding differences in groups of cells controlling sexual behavior between "male-oriented" and "female-oriented" rams.
According to the article, the researchers also say that brain anatomy and hormone production may determine whether rams prefer other rams over ewes.
Roselli's study consisted of 27 adult sheep, including eight rams exhibiting a female mate preference, nine "male-oriented" rams and 10 ewes. The researchers discovered an irregularly shaped, densely packed cluster of nerve cells in the hypothalamus of the sheep brain, which controls reproductive functions. This cluster, called the ovine sexually dimorphic nucleus (oSDN for short), was similarly shaped in ewes and male-oriented rams, both smaller then the cell clusters in rams that preferred ewes. Straight sheep oSDN clusters also contained more neurons than in male-oriented rams and ewes.
"When we looked at the brains of rams that were exclusively attracted to other males vs. those attracted to females, we found differences in the size of a brain area that has been implicated in the control of sexual behaviors, including sexual partner preferences in a variety of animals including humans," said Roselli.
In another study, the researchers exposed fetal sheep to a drug that inhibits testosterone's cellular action through the aromatase pathway that converts testosterone into estradiol, which acts through estrogen receptors to alter brain development in the male. Findings suggest that the cell cluster of the straight rams expressed higher levels of aromatase.
According to an OSU newsletter dated May 23, 1997, Stormshak explained that in some species, the hormone estrogen brings about mating behavior in which males seek females for copulation. Aromatase expression was no different between male-oriented rams and ewes.
According to the OHSU, Roselli's study was the first to demonstrate an association between sexual partner preferences and brain structure in nonhuman animals.
Roselli's study is part of a five-year effort funded through 2008. The team continues its experiments to further characterize the rams' behavior and is attempting to identify when, during development, these differences arise.
"We have unpublished evidence that shows the brain is already sexually dimorphic in the third trimester of gestation in fetal sheep," Roselli said.
While OHSU was basking in the excitement of linking brain chemistry and sexual behavior in sheep, critics cried foul, objecting to the researchers' methods and findings.
"These are terminal studies," said Mongiello. "After they identify the sheep that are male-oriented, the first step for Roselli is to kill them and take their brains out and study the different parts of the brains. The next thing that he does is he injects different hormones into the pregnant sheep to see if he can alter the different areas of the brain. To measure that, he has to kill the next generation of sheep, so generation after generation are being bred, manipulated and killed so he can play God with their orientations and attractions."
The OSU newsletter states the researchers' intention to make gay sheep straight with the use of an estrogen implant.
According to the 1997 newsletter: "Stormshak and his colleagues are following up the study with another project that will analyze the possibility of altering the male-oriented behavior of rams by placing an estrogen implant in the body of the animal. 'Because it is the estrogen level in the hypothalamus region of the brain that may determine the sexual behavior of the ram, it may be possible to restore tissue levels of estrogen comparable to those of heterosexual rams and affect sexual behavior accordingly,' said Stormshak."
Yet Roselli claims this is not the intention of his research. He said, "This research is aimed at understanding the biological causes of sexual preferences and the timing of these biological events—not influencing them."
The sexual minorities community and its allies have been particularly vocal in expressing concern about the implications of Roselli's and Stormshak's findings. Some have said this publicly funded study is the government's way of funding homophobic studies meant to "cure" future generations of queer people.
"To me, this experiment is based in homophobia, not homosexuality," said Todd Brown, an animal rights activist and gay Oregon native. "It's sexual eugenics."
Brown sees the study as a thinly veiled investigation into changing the sexual orientation of gay people. He is particularly troubled that Roselli's research is funded by the NIH. According to the agency's Web site, the NIH's mission is to fund research that cures human disease. It states, "Helping to lead the way toward important medical discoveries that improve people's health and save lives, NIH scientists investigate ways to prevent disease as well as the causes, treatments and even cures for common and rare diseases."
Brown said: "I think it's another very troubling example of nonacceptance of gay people. The government is still looking at it as a disease. It's another attack on us because it's still OK, socially, to attack us as a minority."
Medical experts say the study sends the wrong message to society: that homosexuality can be biologically explained and altered.
"I don't like the fact that a government organization that theoretically studies diseases is giving money to someone to study homosexual behavior. I don't see anything in this study that would cure any diseases. I don't know of anyone who practices medicine today that considers homosexuality a disease," said Ray Greek, a physician and president the California-based nonprofit organization Americans for Medical Advancements, which advocates for alternatives to animal testing.
Malgosia Cegielski, a Portland-based clinical psychologist, calls this research "frivolous" and "frightening." She said, "I don't see any clinical utility or human benefit with what he's doing."
Greek and Cegielski reference a sophistication in technology that they say makes animal research both ineffective and obsolete.
"The gene expression and biological differences at a cellular level between animals and humans is so huge," said Cegielski. "To draw conclusions between animal behavior to humans is a joke."
Roselli disagrees. He says "mountains of evidence" show how animal research translates to humans. "In reality, nearly every medical advancement we have today relied on animal testing at one point. Suggesting that this is not the case would be rewriting history."
Greek, whose organization runs the Web site www.curedisease.com, said advancements in technology, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scans, allow experts to look at not only the structure but the physiology of the brain, without the need to gather data in animals.
"This study actually tries to replicate something that has already been done in humans using these scans, and that's another reason this is a waste of time and money. If you only want to learn about sexual behavior in sheep, God bless you, but you cannot look at something that is happening in an animal and find out why that is happening in a human," said Greek. "Just because he's found some portion of the brain that is different in sheep that exhibit homosexual behavior doesn't mean it has any correlation to human behavior."
For that reason, Greek, too, has a problem with the experiment's source of funding.
According to the database Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects, Roselli's study will receive between $2.9 million and $3 million in total. Since 2000, NIH has awarded his study grants totaling $2,495,021. PETA researchers speculate that Roselli will likely apply for another five-year grant for the 2008-2013 cycle.
"Not only does [Roselli] get to repeat redundant, useless research, but OHSU gets a lot of money to keep the lights on. But why do they need to engage in this frivolous research when there are serious human health issues to deal with?" asked Cigielski.
Activists and professionals believe they could put Roselli's $3 million in grant money to better use.
Activist Alyssa Collins, who is queer, has been protesting OHSU's alleged mistreatment of animals for five years. The 20-year-old said: "Since 2001, we've been making cuts in health care and education, and now [Roselli] is doing research for something I don't think is a public problem. The gay sheep epidemic is not something the taxpayers need help to solve, and the fact that he wants to move that over to humans—human queers aren't asking for a cure. Most people I know that are gay don't feel they need to be cured. They feel that it's part of us as individuals. The only reason it's harder for gay people is because of things like discrimination. The funding needs to go to teaching society to accept queer people."
Greek sees funding Roselli's research as a missed opportunity. "This is research that could have gone to funding breast cancer, and it didn't," he said.
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