Humanity in Research: an Interview with the Dr Hadwen Trust

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Humanity in Research: an Interview with the Dr Hadwen Trust

I had a chance to interviews Dr. Kay Miller, Head of Operations for UK-based charity The Dr Hadwen Trust, a biomedical research charity that funds alternatives to using animals in research. I took the opportunity to ask her some questions relating to the work they fund and and gain some insight into the future of non-animal models in biomedical research. I was interested to find out how Dr. Miller sees the DHT and their work situated within the scientific community, and in a landscape of advocacy that includes diverse and sometimes controversial tactics. I also addressed some of the concerns we may, as vegans, have about charities that focus exclusively on one area of animal exploitation.

Hi Kay, how did you get involved with the DHT and what is your role there?

During my PhD studies I was made aware that there was a requirement to use animals in my research. I was not at all comfortable with the concept of being involved in animal experimentation, and I was fortunate to have a supervisor who supported my decision to commit to conduct my research using methods that didn’t involve animals. I’ve always questioned the need for animal experimentation, and thus was very interested in working for the DHT when the opportunity arose.

I have worked in the scientific charity sector for over a decade, and at the DHT I manage the Operations Team, which includes supporter services and fundraising. I have overall responsibility for the operational aspects of managing the DHT, including governance and compliance. In addition, HR, publicity and PR fall within my remit, as do all aspects of strategic development and review that relate to fundraising, supporters and engagement.

When researching your charity I was impressed to find that you present the ethical argument against animal research as your chief concern*. Could you tell us a little about the history of the Dr. Hadwen Trust and the guiding principles of your work?

The Trustees of the charity, founded in 1970, wanted the DHT to play a leading role in funding non-animal replacement research. Their vision was to make a major and practical contribution to advance medical science without harm to animals.

The ethical argument against testing on any animal species is as important to the DHT as the argument that any biomedical research conducted should be relevant to humans, not animals. The DHT advocates that animal replacement technologies should be the focus of modern research. As more and more scientists agree that much of the research conducted on animals has not been proven to translate to the human condition, there is a double ethical consideration at play – not only is there the issue of the suffering of animals involved in research, but this is even more concerning when this animal research is actually wasted research if it does not advance medicine. In addition, there are often risks to the humans involved with clinical trials. Relying on animal derived data (even from multiple species) to initiate the clinical trial phase of a new drug, procedure or device may inadvertently increase those risks.

Anti-animal testing groups like SHAC** have become infamous for their direct action techniques that range from picketing to raiding labs and staging intimidating protests at researcher’s homes*. The DHT obviously takes a completely different approach. Is that because funding alternatives is a more effective strategy, or because you have concerns about the direct action model?

In order to increase the uptake and support of animal replacement technologies, we need to engage with the scientific community. This includes research scientists and pharmaceutical companies. Whilst the scientific community on the whole appreciate the clear benefits of more human-relevant approaches there is still much work to be done. Not only in developing the desperately needed technologies but to also instil a willingness to consider their research in a different way to further utilise the current battery of approaches.

Some direct action groups have taken an approach which has been threatening and intimidating to individual scientists – this has not been helpful. It has led to many of the science community jumping to the conclusion that organisations concerned with the ethics of animal experimentation are extremist and to be avoided.

I have heard and read a lot about animal research from animal activists and from scientists defending the practice of animal testing. Many animal advocates claim that animal research is useless. For example, PETA accuse scientists of conducting animal testing out of curiosity*, and some scientists argue that in the past many scientific advances would have been impossible without using animal models – and that animal models are still the most accurate and useful way to conduct medical research*. Given that we are in agreement that experimenting on animals is ethically unjustifiable, what is the DHT’s position on the efficacy of animal testing? Is there a constructive debate to be had with scientists who claim animal testing is productive?

Yes, there are constructive conversations to be had with scientists who claim animal testing is productive. This is because many of these scientists state that animals must be used because replacement technologies do not currently exist. The DHT actively seeks to fund research projects that will provide the solution to this problem by developing new non-animal models for researching human conditions. We are here to help scientists find solutions to using animals. Irrespective of animal research that has been conducted in the past, the DHT is concerned with funding future research which will allow scientists to continue their research without animal use.

Animal research is governed by what scientists have termed ‘The Three R’s’ which are:

  • Reduction (reducing the amount of animals used)
  • Refinement (refining experiments to minimize suffering)
  • Replacement (replacing the use of animals with alternatives)*

The DHT focus exclusively on replacement, but is mere ‘replacement’ the ultimate goal? Has the DHT funded projects that could improve on animal models and can you speculate on what the future of medical research will look like based on these emerging technologies?

The DHT only funds research that aims to completely replace the animals currently used in the particular field of research specific to the project being funded. We fund research to improve human relevant models and whilst genetically altered animals may offer some benefits over their wild-type counterparts their usefulness may be overstated.

At the present time, animal replacement technologies do not yet exist for all areas of research, but we are developing an extensive ‘tool box’ of technologies. These include cell culture, molecular methods including genomics/proteomics and metabolomics, using microorganisms, population studies and post mortem studies. Many of these technologies may not be able to completely replace animals in isolation, but they have the potential to when used in conjunction with other methods. Replacing the animals currently used is extremely challenging, and the DHT encourages the research community to not only take up the challenge to develop new methods, but also to use those methods that already exist. It is an important point to note that any ‘artificial’ experimental system, this includes both animals and the myriad of non-animal approaches, that are used to predict human outcome is likely to suffer from limitations. The scientific community are trying to emulate the human physiological condition and this is an incredibly complex challenge.

As a species, humanity has finite intellectual and material resources that can be devoted to improving human lives. When we step back and assess the problem of human suffering it seems to me that we should be concerned chiefly with preventing malaria* and diarrheal diseases* because both are preventable, curable and account for such an incredible quantity of premature deaths. The use of resources to research cures for diseases such as cancer* seems like an indulgence when faced with these figures. Is there an ethical case to be made that all medical research (whether using animals or not) is irresponsible in light of these facts?

On a humanitarian level, there are some diseases that (on the surface) are more easily prevented than others. However, the DHT does not select research projects based on the preventability of the disease under study; rather applications are judged on their potential to replace the animals currently used and their potential to advance our knowledge of human disease.

I understand that the animals most used in research are mice, rats, birds and fish* and yet a lot of anti-animal testing groups focus on primates, dogs and the ‘cuter’ rodent species (such as guinea pigs). What accounts for this discrepancy in representation and which animals are the DHT most concerned about, if any?

The vast majority of animals used are rodents, and the reason for using them include the fact that they are mammals, small, easy to keep in the lab environment and because they are accepted by the scientific community as a ‘model’ species. Sadly, most people do not consider all animal life to be of equal importance, and a news article about primates or dogs that are used for research purposes is much more likely to resonate with the general public. The DHT is concerned about the human-relevancy and predictive capacity of using animals to investigate human conditions.

Compared to most other countries, the UK has strict regulations that govern animal testing. This is usually thought to be because of the public concern which has dramatically heightened in the last fifty years*. The justification for animal testing seems to rely on our speciest attitude that animal suffering is acceptable if it provides benefits for humans. Does the DHT view informing and educating the public about speciesism* as an important feature of anti-animal testing advocacy?

Educating the public to question animal research is worthwhile. Many people are unaware of the issues that surround the validity of using animals for research purposes. The very fact that in many cases animal research has not actually been proven to translate to humans* undermines any speciest attitudes. It is interesting that you ask about ‘benefit to humans’, this is one of the key and often contentious points for discussion.

I was surprised to find that fish are frequently used for as animal models*, but we kill and eat many more fish than are used for medical testing*. This highlights how the DHT’s work is addressing only a small (but unarguably deplorable) aspect of animal exploitation.

How do you see the DHT’s work fitting into a broader animal liberation movement? And are you concerned that focusing on this relatively small issue implies that other animal use such as animal agriculture is defensible or morally unproblematic?

As a charity, the DHT must focus on its charitable objectives which are primarily to fund research that replace animals used in medical research.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the DHT a vegan organization?

No, the DHT is not a vegan organisation although many of our supporters and staff are vegan or vegetarian. The issue of animal use in medical research should (of course) be of concern to the population as a whole, irrespective of lifestyle choice.

If you’re interested in supporting the DHT or finding out more about them, check out drhadwentrust.org

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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