|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
JP: John Pippin
BN: We’re pleased to welcome back Dr. John Pippin, who is the Director of Academic Affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He’s been at doctoring for some time in a variety of venues – board certified in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease. He’s taught at institutions you may have heard of like Harvard. He brings a variety of experience to his work with PCRM. We want to welcome you back to Animal Wise Radio, Dr. Pippin.
MF: Dr. Pippin, it’s been quite a while since you’ve been on the show, and my perspective is that the world conversation has changed dramatically in the years in terms of people’s attitudes about animals and where the line is. What is appropriate use and inappropriate use? I think the implications to our medical research have got to be profound.
Before we dive into that, can you first give our listeners a foundation for what is your mission, and what does the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine do?
JP: The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, or PCRM, or we go by really the Physicians Committee now, was founded in 1985 by Dr. Neal Barnard originally as a think tank to address a lot of issues in ethics and best practices in medicine. Our current mission is to advocate for preventive medicine, especially good nutrition, to conduct clinical research, which we do in conjunction with universities. We’ve had NIH funded grants. We advocate for higher ethical standards and better practices in medical research and in medical education. My role tends to focus on the areas of medical research and medical education.
BN: I do appreciate the variety of directions that the Physicians Committee comes at the ideas that your mission supports. I get the alerts about food and health, and as you try to follow research as it relates to diet and how we take care of our bodies. You go about it from a multi-pronged approach.
I also am so appreciative of the fact that there’s a group that’s trying to push our ideas of what is ethical practice in research, because that’s been a shifting mark in the history of research. Maybe you could walk us through that thought just a bit of how animals have been used in our research and maybe why. Could we start there?
JP: Sure. The first thing I’d like to do is disavow your listeners of this notion that animal researchers only do what they do because it’s absolutely essential to the advancement of human medicine, and that they treat the animals with the greatest possible respect. That’s crap. Pardon my language.
BN: Getting right to it.
JP: I’ve been an animal researcher myself. I like to think that I was as humane as I could be, but life for animals in laboratories and life for animals who are involved in research directed toward human disease is miserable. There’s a lot of suffering, no matter how much you try to prevent it. There are a lot of mistakes made. There’s a lot of unnecessary injuries. They live lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation, and they die in the end. It’s horrible on the face of it.
The ethical argument to me is a slam dunk that we should not be doing this to creatures who have sentience and who are able to feel and suffer and go through many of the things we do. All that being said, Beth, the approach we take, the approach I take, is also based very largely on the fallibility of this kind of research as it relates to human disease and human wellbeing.
Our argument is – and our actions pursue that argument – that no matter where you are on the ethical scale, no matter how you feel about using animals for our purposes, if I can convince you that it doesn’t work, that it causes more mistakes than good outcomes, that 96% of drugs tested in animals fail in people, that most medical research turns out to be false over the long run, then doesn’t that make the ethical question kind of moot? That makes the ethical foul egregious.
We try to take the win-win position that by getting animals out of research we do the ethically correct thing, and we also do the scientifically correct thing by focusing by human relevant research.
MF: That’s a whole lot to get into the first segment. We’re going to have to take a quick break. I would like to make sure everybody can find PCRM. Their website is www.pcrm.org. My brain just exploded with a whole bunch of questions.
MF: We’ll be back with those when we come back.
BN: I can't wait to get back to our conversation with Dr. John Pippin. He’s with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine at www.pcrm.org. On the break we had a chance to talk to him a little bit. Mike and I are having that phenomena of brains exploding. There’s so much to talk to him about.
MF: He gave us such good information in the first segment. I had a couple of thoughts that popped into my head. I want to remind people, we’re now looking at this idea of medical testing from a whole new perspective, a new paradigm. In recent years there has been just an explosion of research that’s proven animals have these really rich emotional lives. They suffer and experience pain just like humans do. They’re sentient. They have a sense of self. They have cultures and languages that they pass on amongst their families. They’re not really that much different than us. This whole idea of conducting medical research on these sentient beings that’s harmful to them brings up a whole suite of ethical problems.
Dr. Pippin, in the first segment, you were talking about how ineffective research on nonhuman animals is to validate medical things for humans. The thing that popped into my head is the conditions that those animals are in likely might be part of the reason for invalidating the research. Can you talk a little about that?
JP: Yes. That’s a subject you have to be careful with, because the implication that if the research was done better it would be more valuable is false, and there’s plenty of evidence for that.
But, you are absolutely correct that one of the factors that invalidates the usefulness of research using animals is that they are typically bred for this research, they’ve lived in sterile environments, they live in cages, and they don’t have the freedom or the exposures that normal animals do. They are often separated from their parents immediately after birth or shortly thereafter. Most of the genetically modified animals are killed, because gene insertion or gene deletion doesn’t take, and they get killed right away.
Simple things like turning the lights on and off, changing the food, changing the bedding in the cage, the fear the animals have when the researcher approaches them – all of those things alone create such biological and physiological changes in the animals it can be measured in the blood that it invalidates the research.
Beyond that, though, if the research was done absolutely expertly in as natural an environment as possible, genetics and biology would dictate that the results would be no better.
MF: Right. It’s just another layer of complexity.
JP: I’m glad you brought it up, because one of the things researchers who are getting backed into a corner are saying is, “We understand there are problems. We have to do our research better. We have to create more natural environments, and we have to do this and that.” That’s nonsense. That’s a superficial problem. The root problem is due to the inescapable effects of evolution and genetic differences between humans and nonhuman animals. These differences that block the translation of results in animals to humans cannot be fixed. There is no way that animal research can be made to work.
MF: Can you talk about what some of the alternatives are that are more effective?
JP: Sure. I have a cheat sheet here, because I hate to leave them out. For a while now, cell cultures, tissue cultures of human cells and organs have been a good way to obviate some of the early stages of animal testing, because they can obtain similar results, but specific to people rather than specific to a mouse or a dog or some other animal.
Tremendous databases have been developed now called QSAR databases, which is Quantitative Structure Activity Relationship. What you can do is use information that’s been gathered from people regarding the effects and side effects of drugs, and use those to predict the effects and side effects of new drugs without having to do animal research to try to test it, which it turns out doesn’t correlate with people anyway.
There are genetic methods that are used for testing safety and efficacy of different kinds of approaches like microarrays or pharmacogenomics, which is looking at the structure of drugs in terms of how it might impact animals or people with different genomic content.
Microdosing, which doesn’t use animals at all but can predict the toxicity of drugs.
Microfluidics, where you could put tissues from a series of organs on a slide that’s barely larger than a standard microscope slide and then put a toxin or a drug in on the end of it and as it moves through there, you can analyze the changes using a variety of imaging techniques.
There are a ton more, but I don’t want to take up all the time talking about that. The fact is, there are many methods available to replace animal research and animal testing of drugs, and many more are in the development stage. The quicker we get there, the better our results will be.
BN: Let me ask you this, because we know that while we seem to be fans of your work at the Physicians Committee, the Physicians Committee is not universally loved for this effort to move away from animal testing, yet you say, “We’ve got a message that’s a win-win. We can have better results if we use this other methodology.” If the animal laboratories, if animal testing isn’t working, the question that many people would ask is, “Why do we do it?”
JP: Great question. First of all, I’ll say if we didn’t have enemies, we wouldn’t be doing it right. We’re trying to change a long-term paradigm, and there’s tremendous resistance. I’ll explain as quickly as I can why.
I view the effort to improve the ethics and the science of medical research and drug testing as a three-legged stool. One leg is ethics. That leg is solid. We’ve won that argument. Even researchers acknowledge that the lives of animals in laboratories are miserable. They say they do the best they can. They say they’re humane, but you know, 90% to 95% of animals in laboratories are not even protected by the Animal Welfare Act. I think the ethical argument is won.
That leaves the only reasonable argument from the researchers is yes, it’s ethically troubling, but it’s necessary. That’s where the scientific leg comes in. We are pursuing that as hard as we can, and we hope within a reasonable amount of time to win the scientific argument. The research is no good.
The third limb, and the one that really pertains I think to what you’re asking, Beth, is the economic limb. The economics of research using animals goes very deep, all the way from the 14 billion dollars or so that our National Institutes of Health spends on animal research every year to the needs of the institutions who hire the scientists to work there – institutions that would lose in many cases hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding. Johns Hopkins, for instance, gets about 600 million dollars of your tax money every year from the National Institutes of Health to conduct basic science research, almost all of which is animal research.
There’s also careers built on it. There are entire brick and mortar institutes that have been built at the cost of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
The depth of the economic investment is tremendous. I think what will happen is having won the ethical argument and being on our way to ending the scientific argument, we’re going to have to overcome the economic argument. What about the jobs? What about the careers?
MF: It’s interesting, there’s another component to the economic piece that I’m making up in my head. Tell me if you think I’m completely off the rails or not. I think that much of this research is from big pharmaceutical companies who have an interest in getting patents. There’s an economic interest in getting those to market, so trying to take an alternative path is more challenging to them. They just want to do what they’ve always done and get a fast track to the market so that they can make it happen. Why rock the boat? That’s one aspect of what I’m curious about.
The other is much of this research is in the area of say antibiotics, and an alternative thing would be to reduce the need for new antibiotics. We could just stop overusing them. We know we are overusing antibiotics, which is requiring us to make new ones, which requires this research, and there’s an economic factor at every level of that equation.
JP: You’re right on both counts. I’m going to run through the antibiotic argument, because pharmaceutical companies will go where the money is. If we did manage to for instance stop giving 70% of the antibiotics in this country to the factory farmed animals, the need for new drugs would decrease.
BN: That would be a start.
JP: I’d rather focus on your first question. Pharmaceutical companies, you’re right, are all about the money. All they care about is getting their drugs approved by the FDA and on the market. They will do whatever the FDA wants. They’ll stand on their heads underwater if the FDA says that’s what you’ve got to do to get drug approval. Until the FDA comes to the realization – and they’re beginning to – that using animal tests should not be the default method as it has been for many, many years, using non-animal tests should be the default method, and we’re working on that as well, pharmaceutical companies will go in the direction the FDA tells them to go, because all they want is to get their drugs to market.
BN: I’m going to change directions just slightly, Dr. Pippin, and ask as you have been with the Physicians Committee since 2005, how have you seen research institutions and labs change the engagement? What did it look then, and what does it look like today?
JP: The terms of engagement have changed a bit. We used to have a good deal more trouble getting access to a lot of institutions and organizations. We have a solid track record now. For instance, we have virtually eliminated and hopefully within the next couple of years will completely eliminate the use of animals for training medical students, the use of animals in training pediatricians, and the use of animals in advanced trauma training sponsored by the American College of Surgeons. Those three areas, altogether it’s just under 700 programs, and as of right now only 10 of them are still using animals. We’ve almost knocked that out.
That has given us on the one hand credibility, and on the other hand kind of a fear factor. The institutions know us now. They can be less forthcoming than they used to be. They can get quickly entrenched and try to fight us off. We have dealt with things like threatened lawsuits that certainly wouldn’t hold up, and trying to block our access to faculty and students, and things like that. But that’s okay. Our motto is, “If you never quit, you never lose.” We stay on it.
We’ve had to develop some new techniques and approaches, and we’re seeing some success with that. The landscape, as you say, Beth, changes as you get deeper into these efforts and people know who you are.
MF: In my field in animal welfare and animal sheltering, I interact with a lot of veterinary students. I’ve noticed over my career there seems to be a new generation of veterinary student that seems to be less willing to engage in invasive learning on animals as part of their education. Are you experiencing that in other realms of academia?
JP: We don’t do a lot in the veterinary area because we’re not veterinarians. We do have an extraordinarily credentialed veterinarian on staff.
MF: I’m just curious about other fields, other students in other areas.
JP: Your veterinary point is good, because let me tell you what’s happening. There were at last count 27 veterinary medical schools in the U.S. More than half of them, 14 or maybe 15 now, did not do any terminal training using animals. That’s marvelous. It may be even higher than that by now.
Here’s the thing. There’s a natural answer for veterinary training, and that is that you do your training and you do your learning on animals who already have the disorder or the disease you’re trying to teach about with the permission and the consent of their guardians, and that way you’re both learning and saving lives. That’s a tremendous way to teach, and more and more of the veterinary schools are coming on line with that.
MF: Thank you so much, Dr. Pippin.
BN: I just have one more quick question for you, Dr. Pippin. I would like you to have a chance to tell our listeners who may be interested in how the public can engage in your work.
JP: In our nutrition area, you can be an example by pursuing a plant-based diet. People will see you do that, and they will ask you questions, and that gives you an opportunity. You can also educate yourselves through books and research, and you can find sources on our website.
You can be proactive in your communities when you see things like animals being used in high school biology classes and the sales of mass-bred animals in stores in your area. We’re closing down stores in the Dallas area now that are puppy mill stores.
Animal shelter abuse – we ended the use of gassing in some local shelters, and last year the Texas State Legislature passed a statewide ban on gas chambers. This is Texas. If we can get that done in Texas, you can certainly get it done in some more reasonable states. Those are things you can do.
I also direct people to our website, www.pcrm.org. You can go to different subsets of the website. I’ve got one here that I think people would want to go to, to see our action alerts and what they can do. If you go to www.pcrm.org, go to the “Research” section and go to “Action Alerts.” It’s got a whole list of what we have going on now and how people can help. I’m also going to encourage you while you’re there, join PCRM.
BN: I was going to say that. You guys welcome donations if people feel led to do so.
JP: We welcome donations, and maybe I shouldn’t say this, but we welcome even more people to join us in the battle. The membership fee is dirt cheap. You get a quarterly magazine that updates you not only on what we’re doing but on changes in the areas that we pursue as well. You’re kept up to date with action alerts and other things that we send out by email.
There’s a tremendous amount that people can do just by joining PCRM and keeping track of where we’re going, and jumping in and helping us with our campaigns.
MF: Thanks so much for all of your work, and thanks for your time today.