We were intrigued when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals blasted a taxpayer-funded Johns Hopkins experiment that involved skinned rat penises. "Mutilating and killing animals in twisted sex experiments is a colossal waste of animal life and public money," PETA Director of Laboratory Investigations Justin Goodman said in a letter to the National Institutes of Health the media-savvy animal-rights group made public. The group attacked five different NIH-funded experiments and launched a video likening the medical work to sexual assault and torture. Yeah, skinning a rat's dick sounds cruel, and the $2.8 million price tag sounds high, but what is this really all about?
contacted Hopkins' public relations department. A day later we got back an email full of boilerplate answers. "Johns Hopkins research aims to find treatments for debilitating diseases and their symptoms, and we take the care of our laboratory rodents seriously," Kim Hoppe, director of media relations and public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine, wrote. "Researchers abide by strict rules and regulations to ensure their humane treatment. Our committee for Animal Care and Use reviews all research and teaching procedures that involve live animals." We tried again. Please, we asked, tell us who is doing this and why, so we can get some perspective on the real human benefit of all this. More boilerplate. We dove into the NIH's online database and came up with the lead researcher's email. We sent him one, begging for some comprehensible insight into what he does all day and why it matters. Nothing came back. Now, we understand that scientists get jittery when animal rights people spotlight them. There are people in the movement who like to break into labs and set the mice and rats free, or even try to burn down the labs. This sort of thing has happened more than once. But really. Why not make the case for your work publicly? The grant documents indicate that the Hopkins experiments, which began in 2004 and are scheduled to continue until 2016, involve some basic molecular chemistry. Nitric oxide (NO) plays a role in making and keeping the penis erect, but the exact mechanism was mysterious—particularly after NO is transformed
from synthase. Since erectile dysfunction is a thing—both from age and non-specific other causes, and from post-surgical complications—understanding nitric oxide's role could be a step to drugs or other treatments that restore normal life to men whose prostate cancer or other disease rendered them impotent. And—or—the work could bring relief to men with the opposite problem—painful and uncontrollable erections, known as priapism. Apparently, sickle cell anemia can bring this on. "Continued action to address the health care administrative concerns of those most commonly affected by priapism, specifically individuals with sickle cell disease, is also appropriate," reads the abstract from one of the papers the study's principle researcher, Arthur Burnett, wrote. "All successes in these arenas ensure that afflicted individuals avoid the health burdens of priapism and preserve sexual function." So there it is. Mice and rats are being killed (though first they are anesthetized, then their genitals flayed, then they are chemically aroused, etc.) so that men can better understand how our junk functions, and how to keep it functional after trauma. It might sound like a bad tradeoff to animal lovers, or a joke to people not afflicted with any of the troubles this work aims to fix. The again, if you're among the estimated 15 to 30 million men who suffer from erectile dysfunction, maybe it's not so funny.