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Council Rejects Lease to Science Corp Over Animal Ethical Concerns

On October 17, City Council rejected staff’s recommendation to lease Building 11 at Alameda Point to Science Corporation (Science Corp), a biotechnology company working to develop treatments for blindness by combining gene therapy with an eye implant.

Alameda Post - Lease denied for Science Corp at Alameda Point Building 11. Illustration based on image from Google Maps.

The proposed lease was controversial, with forty public members speaking and hundreds from all parts of the Bay Area submitting correspondence. At issue was the ethics of leasing public land to a company engaging in animal experimentation, including primates, and that the company’s founder had previously co-led another company federally investigated for animal welfare issues.

Background

Science Corp is currently in a small Atlantic Avenue building in the Marina Village Business Park. It is working to develop an implantable brain-machine interface that targets extreme disabilities, most notably blindness. They hope to adapt their treatment for other neurological diseases such as ALS, spinal cord injury, and stroke. The company’s work requires a vivarium for observing live animals used in its research and development, including mice, rabbits, and non-ape primates (e.g., monkeys).



Base Reuse and Economic Development Department (BREDD) Director Abby Thorne-Lyman argued that leasing to the growing company would provide high-quality employment opportunities, complement the community of advanced technology businesses at Alameda Point, and be consistent with City economic development objectives.

Public comment

Public comment was sharply divided, with the majority opposed. Ryan Merkley, Director of Research Advocacy for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), argued that implanted devices like the one being developed by Science Corp come with many problems, “including difficulty of repair and a high potential for severe medical complications.” He argued instead for the development of promising non-invasive treatments.

PCRM also organized a letter-writing campaign in which hundreds of participants sent identical emails to Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer asking the Council to vote no on the lease. The letter noted that Science Corp was founded by Max Hodak, former president and co-founder with Elon Musk of Neuralink. Neuralink is a neurotechnology company developing implantable brain-computer interfaces. It was the subject of a WIRED exposé describing how Neuralink lab monkeys had died painfully due to research conducted on them.

In a Letter to the Editor of the Alameda Post, six Alamedans noted that Hodak had written in a blog post that the experiments at Science Corp “will not be non-invasive.” Speaker Almira and others argued in emotional testimony that lab animals are sentient beings who don’t consent to invasive treatment.

By contrast, Science Corp employees spoke glowingly of their company’s potential to make a difference. Jose, a Ph.D. researcher, said, “Every day, I wake up feeling inspired, knowing we stand on the cusp of profoundly impacting lives.” Kiley said she is committed to social causes and was drawn to Science Corp to serve unmet medical needs. Seton said he knows the cost of degenerative vision and works at Science Corp to have a positive impact. Ashley conceded that working with animals in a research setting is “draining” but called animals “heroes” for advancing human medicine.

The final community member to speak was a man named Joe who had lost his son to cancer. When he paused to gather himself between tears, Mayor Marilyn Ezzzy Ashcraft told him to take his time while the two-minute community member speaker clock ticked down. He urged the City Council to approve the lease so medical technology can continue to develop—technology that can save people like his son.

Council comments

“You were the perfect last speaker,” Ashcraft said of the community member after he exited the podium. “You bring it home, and it is personal.” Ashcraft went on to speak on her “pro-science” stance regarding the lease.

“We’ve heard people say, ‘What are your values in Alameda?’ I think that our values are that we do believe in science,” she said. “We’re not science deniers. I had the pleasure—it was a challenge but it was a pleasure—of being the mayor during the height of the COVID pandemic. […] What I was so proud of in Alameda was that my community got behind the vaccine. Of the 14 cities in Alameda County, we had among the lowest death rates, among the lowest disease rates, and we did it because people didn’t deny science. Rarely did we have comments at City Council from anti-vax folks. And the community stayed safe.”

Alameda Post - Alameda State of the City 2022 Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft
Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft speaks at the State of the City 2022. Photo Adam Gillitt.

Ashcraft said the people who spoke at the meeting who oppose “any animal testing” helped to inform her position.

“We also value education,” she went on. “We value our students and our schools. We want our students to excel in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. And I do believe it in my heart—I am also an animal lover—we aren’t at the place yet, but I want us to be as soon as possible where we don’t have to do any animal testing. But if we can cure and address diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and more… I would imagine everyone in this room has either been affected or knows and cares about someone who’s benefited [from medical advancements resulting from animal testing]. Just this summer I’ve lost two women friends to cancer and another one is in hospice as we speak. So I think in Alameda there is room to do this. I think we do it carefully. I think we put whatever safeguards we want in place. But I feel that there is a place for this science.”

Councilmember Malia Vella objected to using public property for an animal testing facility, arguing that she preferred the City join Biocom lobbying efforts pushing the industry to improve because in “other places in the world, there’s far less testing on sentient beings.”

Similarly, Vice Mayor Tony Daysog said that the City values no killing of animals. He cited the no-kill policy of the Alameda Animal Shelter, where euthanasia is a last resort, rarely employed.

Councilmember Herrera Spencer objected to Hodak’s past work with Neuralink. She expressed concern about Science Corp not being required to share their work publicly and her inability to see the existing vivarium when she toured the company, or even pictures of it.

Councilmember Tracy Jensen voiced strong support. She said she had received vaccinations and valuable treatments for her disability which were developed using animal experiments. Jensen noted her degree in public health and said her research satisfied her that Science Corporation is meeting federal guidelines and the requirements of its overseeing organizations. She noted the letter submitted by PCRM supporters cited a single news article about a different company (Neuralink), and she added that the American Medical Association had in the past charged PCRM with manipulating public opinion. Neal Barnard, founding president of PCRM, has said the disagreements between PCRM and the AMA are in the past and that his articles are published by AMA journals.

Council votes

Councilmember Herrera Spencer moved to reject Science Corp as a tenant. Herrera Spencer, Vella, and Daysog voted in favor of the motion, Ashcraft voted against, and Jensen abstained. Without the required four votes in favor, the motion failed, 3-1.

After further discussion, Vella made a new motion to not go forward with the lease but to return for a study session to direct staff as to what types of businesses would be suitable for building leases at Alameda Point. This time, Mayor Ashcraft joined Vice Mayor Daysog and Councilmembers Vella and Herrera Spencer in voting in favor of the motion. Councilmember Jensen dissented. The motion passed 4-1.

Other Council Business

In other business, the Council:

  • Executed an amendment to the lease with Park Street Wine Cellars, allowing them to terminate their lease in the Alameda Theatre Complex on January 30, 2024.
  • Executed an amendment to the lease with Project Burger, also in the Alameda Theatre Complex, to lower their monthly rent to market rate, relieve outstanding rent due to inability to pay, and modify the lease term to a period of one year with the potential to renew if they meet provisions requiring them to hire staff and operate for longer hours. The business has been in distress, but considering their rent has been above market rate, and they didn’t receive COVID relief when their neighbors did, the City is offering them a chance to make their business viable.
  • Received a progress update [link will download presentation] on the 2018 Zero Waste Implementation Plan (ZWIP) strategies and approved the next ZWIP consultant. Alameda is achieving an 81% waste diversion rate (diverted to recycling).

Contributing writer Karin K. Jensen covers boards and commissions for the Alameda Post. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at https://linktr.ee/karinkjensen and https://alamedapost.com/Karin-K-Jensen. Additional reporting provided by Kelsey Goeres.

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