(This is the second of a two part series addressing the science of the HSUS and Dr Andrew Rowan. Part 1 is available here. Dr Rowan recently delivered a lecture on the use of animals in research and testing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The video is available here.)
If there is one thing science is noted for, it is being anti-authoritarian. Science challenged the church in the form of Galileo and Copernicus and Darwin (among others). It challenged the state in the form of Einstein (Nazi Germany rejected his theories because he was Jewish) and in the form of Mendelian Genetics (the Soviet Union rejected this, which contributed to its downfall). Science even challenges the authority of scientists. When Lord Kelvin, one of the most noted scientists of all time, said the sun was too young for evolution to have occurred on earth. [(Pigliucci 2002) p21]. Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of descent with modification and natural selection, opposed the smallpox vaccine and was a spiritualist. [(Milner 2009) p348.] [(Rachels 1991)p58-9] Martin Blaser, then-director of the Division of Infectious Medicine at the Vanderbilt University called Barry Marshall’s claim that bacteria caused ulcers, “the most preposterous thing I have ever heard.” (Monmaney 1993) They were all wrong.
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Science does not advocate “dialog as opposed to confrontation,” respect for the opinions of others, or “informed common ground.” Science is concerned about one thing and one thing only—the facts of the material universe. One interesting thing about this position is that when it comes to controversies about the material universe—science always wins. Regardless of one’s political agenda, if he crosses science, he will eventually lose. One of the Republican presidential contenders that said he believes in creationism over evolution may win the nomination and the presidency, but he will always be wrong about creationism.
Can you imagine the evolution community seeking common ground and dialog with the creationist community by saying that some parts of the creation myth are true? Or physicians that specialize in infectious diseases seeking common ground with the anti-vaxers by saying that vaccines do more harm than good? How about physicians and pharmacists respecting the opinions of practitioners of homeopathy and seeking common ground by saying that water really does posses secret energy? There are some positions that are simply so anti-science that there is no common ground unless the science side lies. Which brings us back to HSUS and Dr Andrew Dr Rowan.
As I have mentioned here once or twice, the best science currently available, in the form of empirical evidence, reveals that animal models do not predict human response to drugs and disease. This position is supported and explained by the best scientific theory currently available, in the form of evolutionary biology and complexity theory. (For a brief review of the science, please see our most recent article, our review of the Bateson Report, which is available here. A much more in-depth article about the science will be available in January in the journal Personalized Medicine. Of course, one can also read the numerous articles and books frequently mentioned in past blogs.)
The productiveness of basic research that relies on animal models has also been evaluated. Crowley states: "Of the 25,000 [basic science] articles searched, about 500 (2%) contained some potential claim to future applicability in humans, about 100 (0.4%) resulted in a clinical trial, and, according to the authors, only 1 (0.004%) led to the development of a clinically useful class of drugs (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors) in the 30 years following their publication of the basic science finding. They also found that the presence of industrial support increased the likelihood of translating a basic finding into a clinical trial by eightfold. Still, regardless of the study's limitations, and even if the authors were to underestimate the frequency of successful translation into clinical use by 10-fold, their findings strongly suggest that, as most observers suspected, the transfer rate of basic research into clinical use is very low." (Crowley 2003)
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For more on the track record of animal-based basic research see Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable?
The above is science, not my opinion.
Dr Rowan, in his lecture at Madison, in response to the question of whether scientists can stop using whole animals in research because we have better methods, stated: “I would argue that we are getting there. I am not saying that we are there yet.” He went on to say that various high throughput methods would soon be better at predicting toxicity than mice and rats. Dr Rowan then turned to basic research where, he stated, “the challenges are considerably larger. . . . One can do this sort of stuff in careful ways and come out and say ‘I don’t think this is a fact’ and that's the sort of thing that is going to be challenging because it is has to be done bit by bit by bit.”
There are a few problems with this. 1. Animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease. So to claim that, “we are getting” to the point where they can be replaced, defies both logic and science. What would you think of someone that said: “We are getting to the point where we can replace bloodletting, used in order to prevent infection with HIV, with a real vaccine but we are just not quite there yet so we must continue bloodletting.” Yet, that is exactly what Dr Rowan is saying about animal models as used in drug development and disease research.
2. Dr Rowan claims that high-throughput is better at predicting human response than rodents. This is an old canard in new wrappings. It is true that highthroughput gene-based testing will someday be able to predict human response to drugs. To the best of my knowledge, it is not currently there for most drugs. The reason this is an old refrain is that wealthy charities that want society to believe that they are trying really, really hard to get animals out of labs (so keep those donations coming!) need something to show for it. Therefore, every remotely related advance in in vitro or in silico technology that might someday be so used is heralded as a success made possible by the pressure said charity placed on society via your charity donations (so keep those donations coming!). I am unaware of any national group, whose primary agenda involves vivisection that does not use this scheme.
The reason animal models should be abandoned is because they do not predict human response in areas where they are touted to do so. (For other ways animal are used in science see my blog: The 9 Ways Animals Are Used in Science.) The propaganda put forth by people who rely on donations should not be confused with the very real science going on in this area. I often blog about gene-based medicine, personalized medicine, and hi-tech advances in research and drug development. These are real and will be used to predict how you personally will respond to a drug. (Some already are being used.) But if the wholesale replacement of animals in drug development has to wait until personalized medicine, based on high-throughput technology, is on-line and functioning, then it will be a very long wait indeed. Even very specific areas of testing, such as toxicity, actually involve many organ systems and many variations of toxicity. Technology does not yet exist to predict the response of individual humans. Nevertheless, as I stated, animal-based testing should be abandoned because of lack of efficacy.
3. The abandonment of sentient animals in medically relevant basic research could also happen tomorrow and without harm to humans. In reality, this would greatly help humans, as basic research would return to focusing on using human-based areas like research with human tissues and the basic sciences of chemistry and physics. (For more see Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable?) What could not happen tomorrow is the replacement of animals in research that is done to benefit other animals but such research could be conducted just like human-based research, using the same ethical guidelines. Research conducted for knowledge sake alone could also be accomplished without sentient animals and the use of animals as a heuristic could be replaced with nonanimal methods. In this case, Dr Rowan is defending the use of animals in research that has about the same probability of leading to cures as randomly combining atoms to form molecules. (In fact this is almost what happened in the development of salvarsan and it only took 606 attempts to find something useful for humans. Salvarsan was an arsenic-based compound used to treat syphilis and other infections before penicillin was developed. 0.004% is much less than 1 out of 606.) So when Dr Rowan defends the use of sentient animals in basic research, based on future human benefit, he is on even shakier ground than using them for prediction. Yet defend it he does.
4. The use of animals in basic research does not have to be examined “bit by bit” any more than patent applications for a perpetual motion machine (PMM) need to be examined “bit by bit.” There will never be a PPM because the 2nd law of thermodynamics prevents it. Likewise, complexity theory explains why isolated subsystems of two different species, where the level of examination is relevant to disease and drug response, should not be expected to respond the same way to perturbations. This has been empirically confirmed ad nauseam. Note that this does not mean that subsystems will never respond similarly, just that one will not be able to predict in advance whether the white New Zealand rabbit is similar in its response to humans or whether it will be the woodchuck. Moreover, even after similarities have been noted, you are not any closer to useful knowledge about humans as the cascade response to the perturbation will, in all likelihood, diverge after the single similarity. The mechanism of action of thalidomide’s teratogenicity is a good example, as it appears the drug may cause similar response via different mechanisms. The only reason to examine animal models one at a time or “bit by bit” is to prolong the process and perhaps, therefore, one’s job. Scientific incompetence would also explain the position but, as I have already established. Dr Rowan and the SAC of the HSUS are not scientifically incompetent.
There are numerous other scientific problems with the position of HSUS and Dr Rowan but I will briefly examine only two more. In the August, 1993, edition of Vegetarian Times, Dr Rowan stated that thalidomide was not been tested on enough animals before being marketed. (Althoff 1993) In his book Of Mice, Models and Men, Dr Rowan went further saying that “animal welfare protagonists should not base their arguments on the thalidomide case.” (Rowan 1984)p27 I refer the reader to our article, The History and Implications of Testing Thalidomide on Animals for a complete refutation of this claim. Very briefly, thalidomide was tested on animals although whether it was tested for teratogenicity is controversial. However, even if it had been tested for teratogenicity on numerous species of animals the results would have been what the results are from testing chemicals today. Some species demonstrate birth defects while others do not. If every drug that caused birth defects in one species were not allowed on the market, society would have no drugs. The reason society has not suffered a repeat of the thalidomide incident is because physicians rarely prescribe drugs to pregnant patients. Animal testing has nothing to do with it.
In his lecture, Dr Rowan referred to the Olson study (Olson et al. 2000) and cited a 40% predictive rate for animal models in terms of predicting drug toxicities. He also stated that some models had 70% predictive rate for some toxicities. The 70% figure is the one that is usually cited in the literature. We examined the Olson study in-depth in Animal Models in Light of Evolution. Please see it for more details. Briefly, the Olson study did not measure predictive rate but rather correlation or sensitivity. To report that correlation equals predictive rate demonstrates either complete scientific incompetence or a willingness to convey untruths. As I said in my first blog, Dr Rowan is smart and very well educated. He is not scientifically incompetent. Moreover, even if the Olson study had demonstrated a positive predictive value of 70%, such a value would be very inadequate for medical science and drug development. Saying 70% qualifies as predictive is like saying that the results from a coin toss are predictive. The Olson study is classic in that it reveals: 1) how bad animal models really are in terms of predicting human response; and 2) how the vested interest groups use words, that have very precise and standard meanings in science (like predictive rate), in such a way as to convey almost the exact opposite meaning. The Olson paper should be required reading for anyone interested in how vested interest groups use and abuse language. (See Trust Us, We’re Experts! for more this.) Yet, Dr Rowan holds the paper up and makes the exact same claims (and mistakes) that vivisection activists make. Why would he do that?
Cooperation, in terms of using animals in science, means complete capitulation and dishonesty for HSUS and Dr Rowan. Dr Rowan repeatedly stated that the science community wants to see the end of viv. Granted, almost everyone in the very small percentage of the science community that uses animals does indeed say this. But barely scratch the surface of these faux protests and you will find a very different scenario. The metric used by universities for promotions and ranking is NIH funded grants that bring money onto the university. Grants from the NIH for clinical research and other human-based research do not accomplish this. Only animal-based research puts money in the coffers. See (Rice 2011; Nathan and Schechter 2006; Begley 2008; Nathan 1998; Rosenberg 2003; Dorsey et al. 2010; Boat 2010) for more on this. To claim that the vivisection community does not want to cause harm and suffering in animals demonstrates wishful thinking, naivety, or perhaps another motive. Dr Rowan and HSUS are anything but naïve. But if you are committed to complete capitulation on this issue and do not mind spreading untruths even about verifiable scientific facts, then attributing positive thoughts and emotions to vivisectors is apparently not difficult.
Organizations that profit from animal use have labelled the HSUS a “radical animal rights group.” (Center for Consumer Freedom 2011) This is a brilliant strategy on their part. If they can convince society that a wealthy animal protection organization that routinely discards science so it can exhibit cooperation with the vivisection community is radical, they should have no problem convincing society that anyone that actually disagrees with animal-use enterprise is a terrorist.
I have been told that HSUS does have departments that try to be an advocate for animals and that use science in the process. I have not had contact with HSUS for a number of years so will give these other departments the benefit of the doubt. But there can be no doubt that the Animals in Research department is about as anti-science as anti-vaxers, creationists, and deniers of the Germ Theory of Disease. I understand why the animal experimentation community distorts science. They have a profit motive. Unfortunately, HSUS and Dr Rowan distort science for the same reason. In 2010, Dr Rowan’s salary from Humane Society International was over $240,000.00 and that beats teaching biochemistry by a long way.
I have said similar things about many people in the Three Rs community and will end the same way I ended those previous essays. I maintain that HSUS and Dr Rowan are guilty of all of the above. If they can find errors in my science and want to discuss the issue publicly, I welcome such an opportunity. If they claim that I have misrepresented their position, all they need do is post on their website that:
- Animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease and that abandoning such use will harm society not at all.
- The rate of return from using sentient animals in basic research is so low as to be indistinguishable from random chance and therefore the practice should also be abandoned immediately.
- Animal models, as currently used, result in far more harm to humans than any good that might come from them.
These points are supported by the best science currently available.
But the above position offends vested interest groups, it does not get one invited to fancy dinner parties, it does not respect people that convey pseudoscientific concepts in order to claim the opposite, and it certainly does not allow for common ground with those same people.
It is simply unassailable science.
There are many in the animal protection movement that are very smart and highly educated in science. Yet, they buy into the nonsense from HSUS and Dr Rowan without a seconds thought. The reason this anti-science drivel passes for wisdom can be placed squarely on the shoulders of those that are too lazy to check the facts for themselves and or too cowardly to stand up to authority when they have discovered the truth. Moreover, there are a number of animal activists that consider themselves amateur scientists despite having no formal scientific training. They too, buy into the propaganda and subsequently spread it. As I have said many times, loving animals does make you a scientist. This theme will be continued in my next blog
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Begley, Sharon. 2008. Coddling Human Guinea Pigs. Newsweek, August 18.
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Rowan, Andrew. 1984. Of Mice, Models, and Men: A Critical Evaluation of Animal Research (Suny Series, American Social History). Albany: State University of New York Press.