As a veterinary student in Australia, Andrew Knight campaigned for humane education — and succeeded!
He practices veterinary medicine in London.
Antidote Europe (AE): Could you describe your groundbreaking initiative as a veterinary student in Australia and what led you to think outside the box in the first place?
Andrew Knight (AK): In 1998, my university (Murdoch University) took the groundbreaking step of formally allowing conscientious objection by students to animal experimentation or other areas of their coursework. Murdoch was the first Australian university to formally take this step, which has since been adopted by several others within Australia and the US.
In 1999 I delivered a written submission to the university’s animal ethics committee, listing humane alternatives to our invasive animal physiology demonstration laboratories. These were subsequently cancelled. And in 2000, a classmate and I established the first humane veterinary surgical training program in Western Australia. Instead of practicing surgical procedures on healthy animals before killing them, as was the norm, we gained experience assisting with beneficial procedures on real patients, similar to the training of physicians. Our program was highly successful – we gained five times the surgical experience of our classmates who killed healthy animals to gain their degrees. Since then, student colleagues at every other established Australian veterinary school have done likewise, with the result that by 2005 students had graduated from each school without killing healthy animals during their veterinary surgical training.
AE: You have published many excellent scientific papers and articles that challenge “animal models” of human disease. Could you describe the usefulness of the “systematic review”?
AK: The key question in the debate surrounding animal experimentation examines the extent to which such experiments are useful in advancing human healthcare, or in predicting human toxicity. After all, if policy-makers believe animal lives can truly save human lives, they will always choose in favour of their human constituents.
Until recently, scientific debate about the human utility of animal experiments has relied on two approaches: expert opinions and case studies. However, the use of expert opinions is increasingly discredited, as conflicting opinions asserting both human utility, and lack of utility, abound. Opinions regarding the historical importance of animal studies during the development of various human therapies are similarly variable.
Lists of cases in which animal and human outcomes are either concordant or discordant are also problematic. The weaknesses inherent within this otherwise evidence-based approach are that relatively small numbers of experiments are typically reviewed, and – critically – their selection may be subject to bias.
Hence, to provide more definitive conclusions, systematic reviews of the human clinical or toxicological utility of large numbers of animal experiments are necessary. Experiments included within such reviews are selected without bias, via randomisation, or similarly methodical and impartial means. The reviews should be of sufficient scientific rigour and impartiality to achieve publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The evidence provided by such published systematic reviews represents the ‘gold-standard,’ or highest quality of evidence.
Since 2005 I’ve been conducting and publishing such systematic reviews, and now have 16 major and numerous lesser published papers on animal experimentation and related bioethical issues (available at http://www.aknight.info ‘Publ,ications’).
AE: Could you give our readers a brief overview of the topics you have covered?
AK: My first major series of studies examined the human predictivity of animal carcinogenicity studies. By examining toxicity data for 160 environmental contaminants of greatest public health concern within the US, and comparing human risk assessments conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency with those of the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, I found thatEPA assessments were frequently incorrect, and that over-reliance on animal test data was the probable cause.
More recently, I examined the human utility of invasive chimpanzee experimentation. By examining a large random sample, I determined that the majority of such experiments are never cited by any subsequent scientific publications, thereby making no obvious contribution to the further advancement of biomedical knowledge, in any field. A small proportion were cited by human medical papers. However, when with two colleagues I examined these papers, we discovered that contributions of the chimpanzee studies were small, compared to other sources of knowledge. No chimpanzee study made an essential contribution, and most failed to make any contribution of importance, to these human medical papers.
I also recently reviewed all existing published systematic reviews examining the human clinical and toxicological utility of animal experiments. Of 20 examining clinical utility, animal models demonstrated significant potential to contribute to the development of human clinical interventions, or consistency with human outcomes, in only two cases, one of which was contentious. Included were experiments expected by ethics committees to lead to medical advances, highly-cited experiments published in the leading scientific journals, and chimpanzee experiments – the species most generally predictive of human outcomes. Seven additional reviews failed to demonstrate utility in reliably predicting human toxicological outcomes such as carcinogenicity and teratogenicity. Results in animal models were frequently equivocal, or inconsistent with human outcomes. Consequently, animal data may not generally be considered useful for these purposes.
Regulatory acceptance of non-animal models is normally conditional on formal scientific validation. In contrast, animal models are simply assumed to be predictive of human outcomes. These results demonstrate the invalidity of such assumptions. The poor human clinical and toxicological utility of most animal models, combined with their substantial animal welfare and economic costs, clearly justify reallocation of limited research funding to more scientifically and medically justified research fields.
AE: Have you ever been subjected to institutional intimidation, or ever felt ostracised by your peers? What would you say are, or were, the biggest obstacles you have faced in trying to get your scientific views heard?
AK: I’ve experienced such reactions from the veterinary and animal research community ever since my first year of veterinary school. The environment within my school was quite unpleasant for students who dared challenge the curricular killing of healthy animals. I sometimes faced significant academic penalty, including the possibility of failing the veterinary course, because I would not kill healthy animals or use their bodies. Many students and staff were subtly, or occasionally openly, hostile. A surprising minority were supportive in private, but few dared express their support publicly. It is a source of profound shame for the veterinary profession that such environments remain the norm within veterinary colleges internationally, and at most schools – including all Australian schools – students choosing to use humane teaching methods must follow a path made far harder than necessary.
I campaigned much harder for humane teaching methods than I had previously dared. The result was that I won victories I never would have achieved, had the school been more accommodating. I also became proficient in a range of campaigning skills such as research, writing, public speaking and media skills, that I’ve continued to use to advocate for animals in ways some of my professors would never have desired.
Some of those skills have been sorely tested, however, when I’ve attempted to publish in biomedical journals scientific papers studies the poor human utility of animal experimentation. Although many scientists and scientific journals successfully meet the scientific ideal of minimising personal bias, far too many others exert marked bias against any who seek to criticise animal experimentation. Not only do we challenge the status quo, but an implication (usually unstated) is that those who conduct invasive experiments on animals commit profound moral wrongs. Unsurprisingly, this generates very strong psychological reactions, which those of lesser character are unable to overcome. This frequently results in significantly greater difficulty when seeking to publish such papers in scientific journals than would otherwise be the case.
However, there is a positive side to most things. Such harsh peer review has considerably strengthened my own ability to think critically, which I’ve come to value above most, if not all, other qualities. Additionally, my published papers have become significantly stronger than they would otherwise have been, because I’ve had to defend virtually every word an opponent could possibly object to. I’ve also become a much better scientific writer.
The strength and value of studies criticising animal experimentation that have successfully achieved publication within peer-reviewed biomedical journals should be viewed within this context.
Such bias also affects certain scientific conferences and meetings. Although my work has been honoured with a body of awards at several conferences, the same work has not even been permitted at others. Similarly, certain journals have speedily rejected scientific papers that I’ve subsequently published in others. Studies of the level and nature of bias within scientific journals and at conferences with respect to criticisms of animal experimentation would yield some very interesting results.