Animal advocacy group PETA called Tuesday on the National Institutes of Health to stop animal experiments related to sexual health, including Johns Hopkins studies of erectile dysfunction using rodents.
In a letter to the NIH director, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked that it cease funding for what it called the "cruel and sexual-behavior experiments on animals" at Hopkins and at least four other institutions across the country.
Hopkins, which performs a wide variety of animal experiments in the interest of human health, said in a statement that its researchers "take the care of our laboratory rodents seriously," following strict rules to ensure humane treatment.
NIH officials said the agency requires instutitions like Hopkins to justify the use of any research involving live animals, a process one research advocate called extensive and routine.
About 47 percent of NIH funding goes toward studies that involve animal research, but the agency is already exploring limits on animal testing, saying earlier this year that it planned to "substantially reduce" use of chimpanzees in research.
PETA officials said they want to push the NIH as it moves forward.
"It is shocking that taxpayer dollars have been, and continue to be, squandered on such cruel and trivial studies when public opposition to medical testing is greater than ever and life-saving, human-relevant research has been having funding slashed," wrote Alka Chandna, a senior laboratory oversight specialist for PETA, in the letter to the NIH.
PETA cited cuts to NIH-funded programs like the Framingham Heart Study, cardiovascular research on three generations over 65 years, that is losing $4 million of its $9 million contract because of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
The five sexual health studies involving animals that PETA highlighted received $12.7 million since 2000, including the $2.7 million Hopkins has received for its ongoing studies since 2005.
The Hopkins studies, according to grant documents, explore the role of certain enzymes in disorders related to the male erection, seeking to treat erectile dysfunction as well as disorders including penile fibrosis, a hardening of tissue in the penis, and recurrent ischemic priapism, or frequent unwanted and painful erections.
Kim Hoppe, a Hopkins spokeswoman, said the research "involves investigating ways to improve outcomes from surgery for prostate cancer."
Hopkins scientists described anesthetizing rodents before electrically stimulating their skinless genitals before removing and freezing the tissue in a study published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Other studies cited by PETA took place at institutions including the University of Michigan, Texas Women's University and the University of California, Berkeley.
The NIH said in a statement it funds science with the goal of extending healthy life and reducing the burdens of illness and disability. It added that it has a legal and ethical obligation to ensure the welfare of all participants in NIH-funded research and its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare oversees the animal research.
Deborah Runkle, a senior program associate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the NIH's review mechanisms are robust. The group supports use of animal research when appropriate, she said.
"It is vitally important that we continue to use animals in research," said Runkle, who was not familiar with the Hopkins study that PETA highlighted and declined to comment on it. "They're not perfect, but we learn a great deal. For the foreseeable future, we're going to have to continue."