Adventures in Ethics and Science

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Americans for Medical Progress has produced a new DVD titled Veterinarians – Speaking for Research. (You can get your own free copy at the Americans for Medical Progress website.)

You might consider this DVD a follow-up of their previous DVD, Physicians – Speaking for Research (reviewed here). However, the two are pretty different, perhaps suggesting some differences not only in the intended audiences for the DVDs (veterinarians vs. physicians) but also in the concerns of the segments of the public each set of professionals is likely to encounter.

In this post, I’ll first discuss Veterinarians – Speaking for Research. Then, I’ll examine some interesting ways it differs from Physicians – Speaking for Research.


The DVD opens with interviews of four veterinarians working in different professional settings. They include Marilyn Brown, the vet in charge of animal welfare for Charles River Laboratories (the world’s largest producer of research animals); John Young, who runs the Department of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; Arnold Goldman, a vet in private practice; and Lisa Portnoy, a laboratory animal vet at the National Institutes of Health. In each interview, the veterinarian speaks to the importance animal research has in advancing medical knowledge and treatment options — for animal patients, not just human patients.

Brown discusses the humane care initiative at Charles River Laboratories that introduces all employees to the principles of animal welfare, the prevailing regulations, and the “three Rs”. She also gives some examples to illustrate:

  • Refinement – surgically implanting canulas in rodents to allow multiple distress-free blood draws (and thus more data) from the same animal over the course of a research project.
  • Reduction – breeding genetically defined rodents of a prescribed health status, thus minimizing variation and resulting in the need for fewer animals in an experiment.
  • Replacement – instead of testing products for toxicity by injecting them into rabbits, conducting the toxicity tests using horseshoe crab blood (drawn from crabs who are then returned to the sea none the worse for wear).

Horseshoe crab blood, it turns out, is a slightly milky translucent fluid that looks like it might come from an alien. (The crabs themselves are pretty darned cute.)

Young’s interview focuses on the interconnections between the development of treatments and cures for humans and those for animals. For example, the treatment of glial blastoma with gene therapy has proven itself in studies with mice and rats. However, these rodents had induced glial blastoma. Humans have spontaneous glial blastoma. Thus, a next research step on the way to delivering a human therapy is a trial of the gene therapy as a treatment for spontaneous glial blastoma in larger animals — a clinical trial enrolling companion dogs with the disease. If these trials are successful, they move us closer to human clinical trials and they also add an effective animal treatment to the veterinarian’s arsenal.

Goldman has the kind of veterinary facilities that I suspect would make a lot of human patients jealous, and his desk is piled with a stack of research articles from the recent literature with which he endeavors to keep up, better to treat his animal patients. He talks about trying to identify the best evidence-based treatments for his animal patients, as well as helping them find clinical trials in cases where the best available treatments might still be experimental. Goldman points to the veterinarian’s professional oath:

I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

He notes that public health involves populations of humans and non-human animals, and that medical knowledge encompasses biomedical research developments that impact humans and animals.

Portnoy speaks to the importance of animal studies on the way to human clinical trials of medical treatments. Indeed, her companion animal is a dog who was part of a canine study of a papilloma vaccine — a study that helped pave the way for the development of the recently approved HPV vaccine.

All of these vets display unmistakable affection for the animals in their care, and many of them have companion animals from rescue shelters or completed animal studies. (The animals in this DVD, whether dogs, cats, horses, rodents, pigs, zebrafish, or horseshoe crabs, are extremely telegenic.) As well, they understand that animal lovers may have qualms about the idea of using animals in biomedical research. However, they emphasize that these animal-lovers depend on the fruits of animal research in the treatment of their own companion animals (not to mention in their own medical treatment). Young notes that there are difficult moments in the lab, but that they do not leave him conflicted about the value and necessity of animal research. Goldman goes further, saying he feels like it would be wrong not to strive to achieve better treatments for patients — something we could not do without animal studies.

The DVD next features three short profiles of particular pets who have benefited from animal research. One of the interesting points that emerges from these profiles is that, in treating non-human animals, it is not sufficient to draw on our knowledge of human ailments and their treatments. Diabetic cats, for example, can be treated with human insulin, but it does not work as well for them as newer synthetic insulins developed through research with cats.

In the last segment of the DVD, John Young takes the viewer on a tour of the Department of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. As we meet the animals (all of whom seem to be well cared for, with enrichment in their environments and affection from their human caretakers), Young describes the different lines of research under way. He explains the scientific rationale for using particular species in particular studies, as well as describing how technological advances are being used to help pursue the “three Rs”. And he notes the layers of regulations governing the operation of the facilities and the research conducted within them.

Unlike the Physicians – Speaking for Research DVD, this one doesn’t go through the philosophical underpinnings of the animal rights movement, nor does it examine and answer specific talking points of groups like PETA. Possibly this reflects the assumption that the veterinarians who are the target audience for Veterinarians – Speaking for Research already have copies of Physicians – Speaking for Research to consult for this material. However, I suspect a more likely explanation for this difference in focus is that veterinarians are in daily contact with animal lovers who also keep pets. Pet owning falls under the umbrella of animal use, which means these folks probably won’t hold hard core animal rights views (e.g., that you can’t “own” another being with rights).

Vets are dealing with people seeking medical care for their companion animals. Those people care about animals and animal welfare. But they also care about getting the best available treatments for their pets. Thus, if vets can communicate the relation between animal research and animal treatments, they can help their human clients understand why animal research matters to them.

Both DVDs aim to help health care professionals communicate with the public, person by person, about the role animal research places in the growth of biomedical knowledge. It turns out that animals as well as humans are the beneficiaries of this knowledge.

Not only will Veterinarians – Speaking for Research help vets have those conversations with their human clients, but it strikes me that this DVD could communicate its message about animal research directly to pet owners themselves.