Marco Tamietto was aware that animal rights activists might target him after his team won ethical approval for an experiment in monkeys on blindness. But he hadn’t anticipated the threats of violence. “I found photographs of my face, my mobile phone number, and home address on Facebook posts,” he says, “with messages like: ‘We will find you and kill you.’”
Tamietto, a neuroscientist at the University of Turin in Italy, is under police protection. Now, his colleagues may face similar threats. He learned this month that the Italian Ministry of Health, which approved the experiment in October 2018, has released the names and university affiliations of others involved in the study to Lega Anti Vivisezione (LAV), an animal rights group in Rome.
“It’s unpleasant that a public office would do such a thing,” says Roberto Caminiti, a neuroscientist at Sapienza University of Rome whose monkey lab was filmed by undercover activists in 2014. “And paradoxical that the ministry that authorized the research would actually expose those doing the research to danger.” Lawyers at the University of Turin and University of Parma—where the monkey experiments will be carried out—say they are considering civil proceedings in relation to the leak of sensitive information and intellectual property associated with the experimental protocols.
Animal research regulations in Italy are already the strictest in Europe. Yet in the past few years, activists have pressed their advantage. Tamietto’s case is a sign that they have a sympathetic ear in government: Minister of Health Giulia Grillo, a member of the populist Five Star party and a declared friend of animal rights groups.
“The case is very worrying,” says Elena Cattaneo, one of Italy’s six citizen “senators for life” and a neuroscientist at the University of Milan. “It’s a serious problem in Italy that science and politics have little understanding of each other.” (Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned on 20 August amid political crisis; whether Grillo will remain in a new coalition or interim government is unclear.)
The planned primate experiment is part of a broader effort, led by Tamietto and funded by the European Research Council (ERC), to develop treatments for patients who suffer damage to their brain’s visual cortex, for example following a stroke. In such cases, the eyes continue to send visual information to the brain, but the damaged tissue cannot process it. As a result, the patient remains unaware of—and thus blind to—part of, or all of, the images. About half of stroke victims suffer some vision loss.
The primate experiments, set for 2021, involve making a small lesion in the visual cortex of up to six macaque monkeys to generate a tiny blind spot in their field of vision. The researchers plan to monitor electrical signals in and around the lesion to learn how visual training and external stimulation could help restore function. The blind spots would not interfere significantly with the animals’ general vision or their ability to interact with each other.
The ERC ethics committee gave the green light in July 2018, after assessing whether the potential benefit to humans outweighs the suffering of the animals, and whether the research could be done on a nonprimate species. The ethics boards of the University of Parma and the Italian Ministry of Health also gave their approvals. This prompted animal rights groups, including LAV, to request that the health ministry provide documents relevant to the approvals. Officials are required to balance the right to information against the right to privacy; in the end, the ministry rejected eight information requests.
Things changed this summer after LAV launched an online petition, addressed to Grillo, that attracted nearly 350,000 signatures. It called on her to stop the monkey experiments and incorrectly claimed they would fully blind the animals—and would begin this year. Grillo met with members of LAV on 17 June. According to a LAV press release 1 week later, she encouraged them to resubmit their request to the ministry, which they did on 18 June.
Tamietto and the universities only learned that the ministry had handed over documents to the group from a LAV press release this month. They were upset to learn that the documents included the full experimental protocols along with the ministry ethics board’s authorization. Email and physical addresses in the documents had been blanked out—but not names and affiliations.
“This seems wrong,” says Amedeo Santosuosso, a judge in Milan who is also scientific director of the European Centre for Law, Science and New Technologies at the University of Pavia. “Clearly [LAV has] a justified interest in understanding whether approvals were made appropriately, but there cannot be a justified interest in knowing the names.” The ministry did not respond to questions about why it changed its mind in releasing the information. LAV members did not respond to requests for comment.
A ministry letter says the released information may only be used to support LAV’s legal right to challenge the experiment’s compliance with European and Italian regulations. But Luca Bonini, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma who will lead the monkey experiments, is worried the names might be shared more widely.
Bonini’s name was already revealed last year, when the ministry approved the experiment. On 26 June, he returned home to find a banner hung from his driveway gates reading “Vivisector! Executioner!” signed by the Animal Liberation Front, an animal rights group with a more aggressive reputation than LAV. Now, he has installed security cameras around his house.