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Invasive medical research conducted on Navy bottlenose dolphins

Many people are aware the U.S. Navy keeps bottlenose dolphins in San Diego Bay for military purposes. However, not everybody realizes these same dolphins frequently are used for medical research.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS News 8) -- Many people are aware the U.S. Navy keeps bottlenose dolphins in San Diego Bay for military purposes.

However, not everybody realizes these same dolphins frequently are used for medical research, some of it quite invasive.

Veterinarian Stephanie Venn-Watson works for the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF).  The Shelter Island non-profit claims more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies involving both captive and wild dolphins.

Tax records show the NMMF received $11 million dollars in government grants last year, as well as $700,000 in service fees from the Navy Marine Mammal Program.

Navy bottlenose dolphins are trained to detect underwater mines as part of a military mission.  The medical research conducted on Navy dolphins, however, is aimed more at curing human diseases like type 2 diabetes.

“A few years ago we discovered that dolphins may have a switch that can turn diabetes on and off.  Imagine what this would mean to animals and humans with diabetes if we could simply turn it off,” said Dr. Venn-Watson in a 2015 NMMF promotional video.

Kept in pens on San Diego Bay for decades, the Navy dolphins have developed a number of chronic diseases similar to those in humans; diseases like kidney stones, liver disease, iron overload and prediabetes symptoms.

“The prevalence of these conditions in the Navy dolphin program is much higher than in the wild,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC.

Dr. Rose believes Navy dolphin research should be more about conservation than curing human diseases.

“If you're going to keep them in captivity then the research you do with them has to have a direct, positive input into their conservation in the wild.  It has to be of value to (the dolphins),” Dr. Rose said.

Some of the research the NMMF conducts does, in fact, focus on conservation.  It can also be invasive to varying degrees.

In a 2016 study, dolphins were given cortisone – a hormonal steroid – to determine what levels can be measured in the animal’s blubber.  The study required up to nine blubber biopsies, obtained from the dolphins’ backs over five days.

“A cold pack was placed on the skin of the biopsy site for several minutes just prior to the biopsy procedure in order the numb the site,” the study’s researchers wrote.

“Two to three needle punches were required per sample to obtain sufficient blubber,” the study revealed.

Scientists also obtained daily fecal samples using a 15-inch catheter tube inserted into the animal’s anus.

In a 2008 study and another study in 2011, the Navy dolphins were subjected to near freezing water, in part, to find out if the animals could live in the frigid ocean waters of a Navy sub base in Washington State.

Over the course of ten days, the dolphins were monitored for indications of cold stress, such as increased respiration rate and shivering.

“They basically forced these animals into temperature conditions that were completely outside their physiological norm. All to justify moving them to this submarine base,” said Dr. Rose, referring to the 2008 study.

In a 2010 study, NMMF scientists used a feeding tube it force a gallon of seawater into the stomachs of Navy dolphins.  The purpose was to monitor osmoregulation – water and salt levels – in the dolphin’s body.

A catheter was placed into the dolphin’s bladder to obtain urine samples over a period of 25 hours.

Some of the dolphins objected to the procedure and the study on those animals was halted, according to the published paper.

“The animal doesn't actually want to be part of it.  It's expressing that discomfort.  It shows reluctance to participate.  You've got an issue there,” said Dr. Rose.

The National Marine Mammal Foundation declined to be interviewed for this report.

Dr. Venn-Watson currently is on a leave of absence from the Foundation.

She is pursuing her own, for-profit venture – a company called Epitracker – under an exclusive research license from the Navy.

NMMF Executive Director Cynthia Smith issued a written statement.  Extended excerpts are below:

… the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) is contracted by the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program to provide veterinary care, research support, and animal training. The medical research that is conducted as a part of that agreement is squarely aimed at continuously advancing the health and welfare of the Navy’s marine mammals.  That’s our priority and we've been successful. The average Navy dolphin lives at least 50% longer than the same species in the wild.

From our work assessing the health of dolphins in the wild, we have found that wild dolphins actually have more chronic diseases, suffer from parasitism, and struggle to overcome environmental challenges.  Massive die-offs of wild dolphins have been caused by infectious diseases and algal toxins existing in nature.  Dolphins in the wild are also threatened by persistent pollution of ocean waters by human made chemicals and plastics.  We protect the Navy's dolphins from these threats, which helps us understand, monitor, and protect the health of wild dolphins.

At the same time, the NMMF has been dedicated to publishing and sharing its scientific knowledge to improve the health of marine mammals in the wild. This is exemplified by our work on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, our assessment of the endangered Cook Inlet belugas in Alaska, our support in evaluating the health of endangered fur seals in Peru, and our extensive work on acoustic effects of human-made sound on marine mammals in the wild.  

In particular, I want to emphasize the contribution our scientists and veterinarians made to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill investigation, in direct support of NOAA.  Our scientists, including Dr. Venn-Watson, were critical to uncovering the adverse impacts of the spill on wild dolphin health and survival in the Gulf of Mexico. We are continuing to study the long-term health impacts to wild dolphins, which is a story that often gets overlooked.

Important to note is that our experience caring for the Navy’s dolphins have provided us with the knowledge and expertise to carry out this important conservation work. You can learn more about our conservation work here.

Next, let me address your questions regarding Dr. Venn-Watson and her work. Although not our primary focus, while working to improve the health of dolphins, we discovered some intriguing parallels between dolphin and human metabolism that may also help to protect human health. This prompted us to stand up a Translational Medicine & Research Program, as a way to explore improving both human and marine mammal health. As the science advanced, it became clear that Dr. Venn-Watson may have discovered some major breakthroughs for new ways to treat metabolic conditions in animals and humans, including a potential treatment for diabetes.

We worked very closely with government and nonprofit lawyers to understand and follow the rules and requirements regarding biomedical discoveries and resulting patents.  Since developing new therapeutics to improve health is not in the NMMF's mission, we passed the rights to these discoveries back to the U.S. Navy to pursue patents as they desired. We relied on a very common and accepted model used at the Salk Institute and many other respected research organizations, where scientists can build startup companies to develop their discoveries while taking a leave of absence from their institutions. Today, Dr. Venn-Watson is currently on leave from the NMMF and pursuing her discoveries under her small business Epitracker, independent of the NMMF.

Based on our team’s extensive expertise, we have secured contracts for veterinary care, training, and research support of Navy marine mammals for several years.  We are truly honored to provide this service to the Navy and their animals, which we consider a national treasure.

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