Sacred Cows and Golden Geese...An Interview With Dr. Ray Greek

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Sacred Cows and Golden Geese...An Interview With Dr. Ray Greek

By Dominick Miserandino

Some people get a little interested in animal rights. Dr. Greek has a passion for animal rights and is against animal testing more then any person I've ever seen. His book explores the pros and cons of animal testing from a medical and historical perspective.

Dominick: In your book, you say that the Ancient Greeks didn't believe in animal testing. What was there basis for that?

Ray: Hippocrates mentions nothing of animal experiments and emphasized the importance of clinical examination and cleanliness. Hippocrates fathered the concept of clinical research. This august scholar taught that, by observing enough cases, physicians can predict the course of a disease, both in terms of its likely effect and vulnerable population. Hippocrates' methodology has stood the test of time. Clinical observation still provides our most accurate and usable medical information. Aspirin was first prescribed by Hippocrates around 400 BCE, in the form of willow bark.

Then, in second century Rome, a still revered physician put Hippocrates' human-based medical research process substantially off course. An experimenter of great energy and resources, Galen, was physician to the gladiators and to Marcus Aurelius's son. Galen might have continued investigation of the human model, but this practice was stanched by moral opposition. There already existed a bishop of Rome and a state-supported Church protocol disallowing human autopsies. So, Galen cut into goats and pigs and monkeys purloined from North Africa's Barbary Coast instead.

Thus, Galen became the father of vivisection. (Vivisection literally means the cutting up of the living, but it refers to experiments conducted on animals.) Galen combined physiologic data from animals with his personal observation of humans to forge broad theories of physiology. He was a persuasive lecturer and prolific writer. More than five hundred written tracts on medicine and other subjects contributed to his historic importance.

Dominick: Has any of his animal research been found to have positive effects on humans?

Ray: No. Galen's research showed obvious things like the heart pumps blood so one could argue that some of his discoveries gave us some basic ideas about anatomy. But to say his discoveries therefore benefited humans is specious. He got more wrong than right and it was what he got wrong that greatly influenced medicine for over 1000 years. Also, one could have obtained the same knowledge e.g. that the heart pumps blood from autopsies or even observing what happens to gladiators when they got a sword through the chest. Galen probably got his ideas that proved correct about human anatomy from observing the gladiators and observing other human patients

Dominick: Do you believe that there have ever been cases where animal research has definitely benefited humans?

Ray: I do not deny that experimenting on animals has increased the number of facts known in our world. What we prove in Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals is that the knowledge we have gained is not knowledge that can help cure or prevent disease or that is useful for anything else for that matter. Indeed it is knowledge with no purpose much like the knowledge gained by counting the number of grains of sand in a pail. So you count them, so what. What does it benefit society to have that knowledge? So, has it ever done any good? Animals like people can be infected with viruses, bacteria etc. So, yes one could argue that by so doing 19th century researchers proved the germ theory of disease. But just because a concept works in an animal does not mean that it will in a human. Rabies produces many of the same symptoms in humans and animals but a vaccine that works in animals may kill a human. Polio can be produced in monkeys but since the disease is subtly different experimental results cannot be extrapolated to humans. Herpes B, rabies and many other diseases exist in animals and can be transmitted from an animal to a human. But Herpes B is asymptomatic in monkeys and kills humans. Animal experiments did help convince skeptics that infectious diseases were real phenomena, but the reasonable scientist was already convinced based on human data. I think animal experiments did help convince researchers of certain scientific principles in the 19th century but in the final analysis, even being generous I am unable to see any present-day benefits to animal experimentation. As a paradigm, it fails miserable. It steals money from legitimate research modalities and results in harm to people.

Dominick: If there is some benefit, why not encourage some "regulated" animal research?

Ray: The problem is predictability. Predictability most readily and reliably distinguishes between science and pseudoscience. Science allows predictability. Although animals can usually be found that will demonstrate a concept of physiology, biochemistry or anatomy that is already known from human-based research, retrospective demonstration does not fulfill the criteria for predictability. Also, some animals will demonstrate human drug responses, etc., but none do so consistently. Let’s use the following as examples: 6 drugs were studied the side effects of which were already known in humans. Animals correctly predicted 22 side effects and incorrectly identified 48 side effects that did not in fact occur in humans. Further, the animals did not predict 20 that did occur in humans. Thus the animals got it wrong 68/90 times or 76% of the time. Of 20 compounds known not to cause cancer in humans, 19 did cause cancer in animals. While of 19 compounds known to cause oral cancer in humans only 7 caused cancer in mice and rats using standard National Cancer Institute protocol. So some will argue that animals correctly predicted some adverse drug reactions and some cancer causing chemicals. The reason that claim is fallacious is because throwing a dart at a board of answers (death, cures infections, causes cancer, safe at any does etc.) will give the correct answer a percentage of time. Science is about predictability. If throwing a dart or doing an animal experiment or using whatever modality to make a decision gives us correct answers only a small percentage of the time it is obviously not useful. The difference between astronomy and astrology is that while astrology may occasionally predict what kind of day you will have, astronomy will predict where Venus is going to be in the sky for the next millennia. That's predictability and that's science!

Dominick: Considering that people have always viewed animals as "lesser creatures" then humans, why do you think animal testing would have originated at all as a legitimate means of medical research?

Ray: It is counter intuitive. What is going to tell you more about human anatomy and physiology; a human or another species? In the 1st century AD society was not technologically advanced but autopsies do not require advanced technology. If they had started on the "humans the best model for humans" track opportunities to study humans would have been taken advantage off and the results believed. Scientists did eventually study humans but the results were not believed. For example, scientists knew the pancreas was involved in diabetes based on autopsies but research on dogs led them to believe the real problem was with the liver. Because of the "the true sanctuary of medical science is the animal lab" mantra, good human-based data was frequently ignored in favor of misleading or wrong animal data.

Dominick: But why wouldn't they test on humans first to begin with? What made them feel that animals were better subjects?

Ray: It was illegal to perform autopsies on humans in Galen's day. The Holy Roman Empire forbade it. The penalty was death. Otherwise autopsies would have been done. Some autopsies were performed. But not until the Renaissance were they done in the light of day.

Dominick: But then if there's not going to be animal testing, do you propose human testing?

Ray: First let me say that society already does human testing. Drug trials, clinical trials for cancer treatments and surgeries and many others are already done on humans. AIDS medications bypassed animal studies entirely and went directly to humans. What most people don't realize is that every time they take a new medication or undergo a procedure, they are in effect being a guinea pig. No one knows how you will react to a drug until you take the drug. Just because one million people took it safely does not mean that you won't have an allergic reaction.

Also, tissue derived from humans is already used every day. HIV is studied from human tissue samples as is cancer and many other diseases. The Human Genome Project is an excellent example of research using human tissue. All the traditionally useful research modalities are either human-based or basic science/technology-based. Technological advancements in biological science have forged frontiers so phenomenal, and we have yet to tap one iota of their potential. The achievements of physicists, chemists, mathematicians, computer engineers and other biotechnical engineers have long since outdated the archaic methods of animal experimentation.

Breakthroughs in physics have allowed imaging techniques such as CAT scans, MRI scans, and PET scans. And improved our ability to understand disease processes through X-ray crystallography, single molecule spectroscopies, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Ultrasound, blood-gas analysis machines, blood chemistry analysis machines, microscopes, monitoring devices, electrocardiograms, and electroencephalograms provide windows into the human body lacking in animal experiments. We also use humans to study disease in the field of epidemiology.

Epidemiology is the study and control of diseases within a human population. Epidemiology has linked diet to heart disease, smoking to lung disease, and identified all known environmental poisons and occupational diseases. So when people ask, "do you suggest we test on humans?" The answer is no more so than…we already do. But I think the real question that worries people is "If we give up animal testing won't the people who take drugs and have surgeries performed be taking and even greater risk than they are now?" Or, "Do you want us to test on prisoners and other groups who cannot defend themselves from the will of society?" And the answer to both is decidedly no. What we propose is simply to do more of what has worked in the past: in vitro research, clinical observation and research, autopsies, molecular biology and genetics, mathematical and computer modeling, post-marketing drug surveillance, high-throughput drug screening, epidemiology research, basic science research in chemistry and physics, and the myriad other reliable research modalities.

Dominick: What is the Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA)?

Ray: AFMA believes that animal modeled biomedical research harms humans by yielding results that cannot be extrapolated from animals to humans. It diverts research dollars that could be going to proven methods of curing disease and is used to justify the introduction of unsafe medications. Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA) promotes human wellness by exposing the ineptitude and hazards of animal-modeled biomedical research. It educates the public, showing how government and charities misspend medical research dollars. AFMA also discloses how industries keep unhealthy products in the marketplace through animal experiments.

Dominick: Did you formulate the group?

Ray: As students in veterinary and medical school, my wife and I were struck by how differently we treated the same diseases in animals and humans. For example, humans were given penicillin for infections but rabbits and guinea pigs were not. Some medications that caused birth defects in humans could be given to animals with impunity, and vice-versa. In light of these and other differences between humans and animals, we began to question how animal research could ever hope to cure human disease. As we progressed through our respective residencies in anesthesiology and veterinary dermatology, the differences between humans and animals became even more pronounced. Tumors that are lethal in humans go away without intervention in animals. Anesthetics that are used daily in human patients must be avoided in some animal patients. We became alarmed when we realized that slight differences between animals and humans in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology make the application of animal research dangerous when extrapolated to humans. The money wasted on animal experimentation disgusted us. Our disgust changed to horror as we learned that wasted money was the smallest transgression; humans were actually being harmed when their physicians tried to apply what they had learned in the lab on their human patients. For example: Radial keratotomy, a surgery to correct vision, was performed in rabbits prior to humans. The rabbits did well but the first humans were blinded after undergoing the same procedure. Why? Because the rabbit eye differs slightly from the human. This slight difference led to catastrophic results. We think the public has long been sold the idea that the cures for disease will be found in animals. It is time the public knew that not only is that an expensive fallacy but it is also a dangerous one. Hence my wife and I wrote Scared Cows and Golden Geese, the Human Cost of Experiments on Animals and then formed AFMA.

Dominick: You hear lots of stories about people who want to take experimental drugs but are not allowed to. What is the reasoning behind denying those who are dying, these medications?

Ray: There is no reasoning behind it. It is immoral in my opinion. ACT-UP changed that to a large degree. Now people with incurable illnesses are allowed much more freedom to try new medications than they were before ACT-UP educated the public. Cancer patients and their families have also been very active in this fight. There are hundreds of clinical trials ongoing. If I had an incurable disease I would research it online and find out if there were clinical trials that I could participate in. I do not advocate trying new drugs without medical supervision. But in this day and age there is no reason to. There are plenty of clinical trials and new treatments being studied that anyone should be able to find one.

Ray Greek, DVM, is the founder of Americans for Medical Advancement