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Animal RFID Chip Implants Linked to Cancer

This weekend the Associated Press broke a story suggesting a link between VeriChip's implantable chip technology in animals and the formation of cancerous tumors. The story has been picked up widely, from the mainstream media to pet publications to tech blogs. Following is what the RFID industry needs to know.
Sep 10, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

September 10, 2007—This weekend the Associated Press broke a story suggesting a link between VeriChip's implantable chip technology in animals and the formation of cancerous tumors. The story has been picked up widely, from the mainstream media to tech blogs to pet publications. Following is what the RFID industry needs to know.

From 1996 to 2006, a handful of studies reported incidences of tumors in lab mice and rats that had been implanted with chips. Specifically, malignant tumors (sarcomas) developed near and around the chips, in some cases completely enveloping them. A 1998 study in the US found the incidence of cancer to be higher than 10 percent in a group of 177 tested mice. A 1997 German study revealed a cancer incidence of one percent in a group of over four thousand, with the researchers noting that the tumors "are clearly due to the implanted microchips." And just last year a study in France saw 4.1 percent of 1,260 chipped mice develop cancer.

The significance of these findings is not just the potential danger to chipped pets, but the fact that the technology in question is essentially the same as that used in the VeriChip product for humans.

Note, however, that the findings are preliminary and do not definitively condemn the technology as a cause of cancer in animals or in humans. One study said as much, cautioning, "Blind leaps from the detection of tumors to the prediction of human health risk should be avoided." Ohio State University veterinarian oncologist Dr. Cheryl London commented, "It's much easier to cause cancer in mice than it is in people. So it may be that what you're seeing in mice represents an exaggerated phenomenon of what may occur in people." Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that millions of pets have been chipped over the last fifteen years, and no widespread problem has surfaced. (Although after the attention this story will bring, new cases might well be uncovered.)

Still, the studies warrant further investigation, according to a number of cancer researchers whom the AP asked to review and interpret the research. Dr. Robert Benezra, head of the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told the AP, "There's no way in the world, having read this information, that I would have one of those chips implanted in my skin, or in one of my family members." Others were less dramatic. National Cancer Institute veterinary oncologist Dr. Chand Khanna acknowledged that the studies "suggest some reason to be concerned about tumor formations" and advocated further investigation. Forensic pathologist Dr. Oded Foreman of the Jackson Laboratory in Maine said that there "might be a little hint that something real is happening here."

One curious wrinkle to the story is how the studies have gone relatively unnoticed, even by VeriChip itself. In response to the AP story, the company stated that it was "not aware of any studies that have resulted in malignant tumors in laboratory rats, mice and certainly not dogs or cats." It seems strange that a company would be unaware of published scientific research, especially damning research, that directly addressed its technology.

As for the US Food and Drug Administration, which in 2004 officially approved VeriChip for humans, it would not comment on the information reviewed during the approval due diligence. The AP story intimates that there might be some suspect behavior on the part of Tommy Thompson, who was head of the Department of Health and Human Services (overseer of the FDA) when the VeriChip approval took place. The AP reports that within five months of the approval, Thompson had stepped down from his HHS post and stepped up to be a VeriChip board member. However, Thompson indicated that he had no personal relationship with VeriChip as the approval process was underway and that he was not involved in the process anyway.

The back-story to the AP report is also worth noting. Anti-RFID activist Katherine Albrecht was contacted by a pet owner whose dog had reportedly died of a tumor induced by a chip implant. Albrecht's subsequent research into the scientific literature uncovered the studies in question. She brought those studies to the attention of The Associated Press, which embarked on a four-month investigation and found additional studies.

Albrecht distributed a victorious email today, elated by the extensive national coverage the story received over the weekend. "As you can imagine, bringing this story to light was a long and arduous process involving many people -- and much work. If you have a copy of the newspaper, read it slowly and savor our victory. It's a victory for us all," she gushes. "As the war on our freedoms heats up and begins raging around us like a wildfire, keep the faith and remember this day."

It's not certain that this development will mean the undoing of VeriChip, as Albrecht predicts, but it certainly doesn't bode well for the recently-public company.

What is of obvious concern to the greater RFID industry is that this news will associate RFID with cancer in the minds of the general public. Look for media-savvy Albrecht to facilitate such misconceptions; she has already supplemented her preferred epithet "spy chips" with the even more scathing "cancer chips".

The question is whether people will make some sort of psychological association between cancer and human implantable chips, or cancer and the term "RFID". For the sake of broader acceptance and adoption of the technology, hopefully it will be the former.

Read the story from The Associated Press
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