Professor Larry Hansen on ethical dilemmas

Professor Hansen provides a courageous and unique perspective on dealing with the ethical dilemmas he has faced in his career.

larry-hansen_260_347Lawrence Hansen obtained his medical degree in 1977 in Illinois. He then specialised in psychiatry and neuropathology before further specialisation in geriatric neuropathology and surgery.He has taught in the neurosciences since 1988 at the University of California in San Diego and has received several awards of distinction throughout his career as professor of medicine.He is the author of more than 150 peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature and has authored several book chapters in his specialised field.

He is a board member of Americans for Medical Advancement (http://www.curedisease.com external link), whose president is Dr Ray Greek (interviewed in June 2010).

Antidote Europe (AE): Could you give our readers an insight into the ethical dilemmas you may have encountered during your training as a medical scientist and how you succeeded in coping with them?

Lawrence Hansen (LH): The ethical dilemmas are omnipresent and I have not succeeded in coping with them. Starting in medical school when we were instructed to vivisect and then kill dogs in Physiology and later, even worse, were instructed to perform practice operations, weekly, on the same dog, the ethos of my medical education was that the suffering of animals didn’t matter.

Then when I got into Neuroscience I saw that the horrific suffering (we would call it torture if it was being done to us) inflicted on monkeys doesn’t even give pause to the vivisectors, who stack the deck in all Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) and rubberstamp the approval of any and all animal use. I don’t see opposition to animal cruelty as a dilemma, I see ongoing animal cruelty justified in the name of science as an evil that should be ended. There are lots of cruelty-free ways to do good neuroscience. Claiming that science requires cruelty is wrong, both technically and ethically.

AE: You are Professor of Pathology and Neurosciences at the University of California San Diego and a board member of Americans for Medical Advancement. Given the disparate views between them on the issue of animal experiments, how do you reconcile being affiliated to both?

LH: I am unreconciled. Because decent people recoil from animal cruelty and would certainly not pay to have it done just to advance some scientist’s career, the vivisectors fabricate disingenuous connections between their animal research and far-fetched, entirely theoretical “someday/somehow” links to curing feared diseases. And because people are afraid of those diseases they grudgingly accept the animal cruelty. Americans for Medical Advancement exists to expose the lie upon which so much animal cruelty depends: that this animal research has relevance to improving human health, but it doesn’t.

My affiliation with a research university puts me into the belly of the vivisectionist beast, but it doesn“t require me to buy into the party line that animal cruelty is ethically defensible. To paraphrase what Lincoln said about slavery, if cruelty to animals is not wrong then nothing is wrong. I believe it is wrong and, like any other wrong that some people will commit if left alone, it ought to be prohibited by law.

AE: Scientists who hold views that differ significantly from that of their alma mater may become victims of institutional intimidation if they express those views openly. Would you say that you have encountered this phenomenon during the course of your professional career? Have you personally been affected by it?

LH: When I first started helping medical students at UCSD opt out of the same kind of unnecessary dog killing labs that I had participated in as a student, the faculty in those courses complained to my Department Chair. He cautioned (warned) me that those guys were forming an ad hoc committee to investigate my “interference with the academic mission” of the Medical School, but nothing consequential came of their efforts.

Then when I was up for reappointment in the Neurosciences Department some vivisectors tried to block it and set up another ad hoc committee to investigate my opposition to animal research (cruelty), but I got reappointed anyway.

And most recently when I was up for promotion in Neurosciences the vivisectors tried again, with yet another ad hoc committee to investigate yet again, but I got that promotion too.

Short version is that UCSD has been good about protecting my free speech and academic freedom rights thus far, but the vivisectors do have their long knives out for me. Still, if they ever persuade university higher ups to try to silence me we will make it a cause celebre and that might do the suffering animals more good than anything I can think of. Going out in a blaze of glory kind of thing.

AE: The use of rodents as animal models for the study of human neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer“s disease and dementia is widespread today. Could you briefly explain in non-technical terms your views on the usefulness or relevance of these animal models with respect to human disease?

LH: Setting aside the ethical dimensions (which we should never do) of inflicting pain and suffering on any animal, even mice and rats, the amoral scientific problem with using rodents as models for neurodegenerative diseases is that rodents do not naturally develop Alzheimer disease or Parkinson`s disease. The only way to get what looks even a little like AD or PD pathology in rats and mice is to make them transgenic — that is, to insert human disease causing genes into the rodents. This does create a Frankenstein-like mutant model with some expression of AD or PD pathology which can be manipulated to make it go away. But reversing artificially induced AD or PD changes in animals that never naturally develop them is a far cry from curing the human diseases. The “cures” that work in the rodents have never worked when applied to humans.

It is very similar to the rodent models in cancer research. Scientists have been putting human cancers into mice and then curing them for decades but this has never transferred into curing the naturally occuring human cancers in humans. The species differences that have evolved over millions of years make animal models largely useless, except for the purposes of enhancing scientific careers and attracting lots of grant money.

AE: If the animal models are inadequate for the study of these conditions, can you outline relevant research methods that would directly benefit humans?

LH: Sure. As Alexander Pope said, “The proper study of mankind is man.” There are literally millions of people with the diseases of interest, and no non-human animals in which they naturally occur. Connect the dots! We have very sensitive and specific biomarkers, neuroimaging techniques, psychometric testing, and genetic profiling results to tell us who is developing AD in its earliest incipient stages, exactly when intervention in its pathologic cascade is most likely to help delay the onset of dementia. Like it or not, there are reliable experimental animals available for studying human disease, and they are us.

Given the predictable progression of normal aging to mild cognitive impairment to early mild and then profound dementia, volunteers for experimental treatments are unlikely to be hurt by clinical trials, and may well benefit from them.

AE: We are very grateful to you for taking the time to participate in this interview. Are there any related issues that you would like to comment on, which were not covered in the interview?

LH: Just some parting remarks of encouragement for those who think kindness to animals is important. Paraphrasing Lincoln again, animal experimentation is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature, and opposition to it in his capacity for empathy. While moral principle is all that unites us in opposition to animal research, and its a pity that this is a looser bond than self-interest and money, nevertheless the human heart is with us. History has shown that humans have been persuaded to end previously sanctioned cruelty in many forms, like slavery, genocide, women as chattel, gay bashing, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog fighting, etc. The long arc of history seems to show that we are, eventually, able to listen to the better angels of our natures.

More cynically, since the old school vivisectors can’t last forever, we will make progress one retirement, or funeral, at a time. As women progressively predominate in academics, they will show more empathy and sympathy for our fellow creatures and academic demographics alone will advance the cause of compassion.