S1.E4: Modernizing Research: Saving Animals

with guest Dr. Emily Trunnell

About this Episode

Ever wonder how anyone could work in a research laboratory where animals are hurt and killed in the name of science?  In this exclusive interview, Dr. Emily Trunnell, Senior Scientist at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), reveals her own struggles with her past of experimenting on animals and how she became such an ardent animal rights advocate as a result.  Dr. Trunnell now works to modernize research, end outdated animal experiments, and encourages other scientists to do the same. 

Guest: Dr. Emily Trunnell

Emily Trunnell, Ph.D., is a research associate and an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee liaison for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). A neuroscientist who previously performed experiments on animals, she works with government agencies and other scientists to replace the use of animals with superior research methods. Her victories include ending animal starvation experiments at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and persuading 14 companies—including Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Roche, and other top pharmaceutical companies—to end their use of the forced swim test. Her letters and opinion pieces have appeared in numerous publications, including Scientific American.


Ellie Hansen, host: So your early work career earning your Ph.D. in neuroscience was on the track of using animals for experimental research, and you were so disillusioned by that. Can you give us some examples of experiences in your work as a researcher that were the final straw…that you simply couldn’t continue…that inspired you to work for PETA instead. Dr. Trunnell: So for me it was kind of a slow process. I know some people talk about having a light bulb moment but for me I started out and I was presented with: this is what I would be doing; I would be using animals in experiments because that’s what the lab that I wanted to join did and because I was told that journals didn’t want to publish papers on just cells. They wanted to see things done in an animal and you know that’s how you get ahead in science is you publish papers. And so first I thought, “Well this is for a good cause. This is for science and it will just be a few animals that are used.” I wasn’t really aware of how many animals are used or what the process was like or what would happen to them. But it accumulated for me over the course of my Ph.D. and I guess the final straw for me was really some of the last set of experiments that I did before I graduated. I was doing studies looking at the effect of diet on learning and memory in mice and rats. And until the very last year of my graduate training none of the experiments I did—although the animals were all killed at the end–none of them were particularly aversive other than you know having to be in a laboratory environment. But the last experiment I did I injected rats with something that caused them to feel sick and I did that as part of a memory experiment and it was extremely upsetting to me. The substance that we were injecting was painful to them–just directly painful–and then knowing that I was going home that day and they would spend the rest of their night alone in a cage feeling sick…and rats can’t vomit so they just have to feel this terrible feeling. It filled me with such anxiety. I just remember getting my migraines and at that time I didn’t really understand why I was feeling like this because this is just what I did. But I would get migraines at the end of the day and just I felt generally very stressed and awful. And then another part of big part of it for me was sitting down to write my dissertation at the end of my PhD and having to fill in the “why.” That’s how it was for me anyway. And having to go through the literature and justify the experiments and realizing that I really did this all just to graduate. There was no higher purpose for the experiments. It was just, Emily needs experience to graduate.” And then counting the number of animals that had suffered and died for that… you know that that didn’t weigh out to me as far as harm benefit analysis. So that was kind of my trajectory and how I felt at the end. Hansen:  You touched on this topic just briefly.  I understand that there is a certain degree of lasting trauma associated with experimenting on animals. I have read several articles that point to this fact. You have written that you still experience a dull ache in your stomach thinking back to your time in the research laboratory. You felt strongly enough to leave this line of work for something you knew was better…kinder. Many people don’t. What frame of mind would someone have to put themselves in to keep working in this laboratory environment? And what toll do you think this takes on a person’s personal life and emotional life? Dr. Trunnell: So I think the frame of mind…the specifics…might be different for different people, but I think overall it all involves dissociation. So dissociating yourself from–you’re either having to forget that the animals that you’re using are sentient. You have to train yourself to view them as laboratory equipment or you have to make yourself believe that the science that you’re doing is worth the harm which means you have to ignore all the evidence that says it doesn’t. You really have to dissociate from those innate feelings when you think about how children see animals and how we all see animals until something happens and we’re told, “Oh no, you must view these animals this way and other animals a different way.” So really compartmentalizing those feelings and pushing them down and kind of telling yourself a different kind of truth every day to justify what you’re doing because none of us wants to think about ourselves as doing something awful. We want to think about ourselves as good people. I think personally it can be alienating. You may feel alienated from friends or family that you have and other professions. I remember before graduate school I worked in the restaurant industry a bit and I had several friends from that era and I went to grab a glass of wine with a friend after being in the lab all day one day and she was asking me about what I did. She knew a little bit but she didn’t know that I was using rats and so she was like, “Well what happens to the rats at the end the experiment? Do they get to be re-homed?” and I was like, “No we kill them because we need the brain tissue to analyze for the data.” And just the look on her face…she was horrified. And it was so normalized to me at that point I was really surprised. So I think for people it can feel alienating. It can lead people to not have an outlet to talk about what they do. And just trying to extend some compassion…anyone not having an outlet to discuss something stressful that’s happening in their lives can lead to bad mental health outcomes and you may abandon friendships from earlier times in life and kind of create an echo chamber where you just associate with other people who are doing animal experiments. Even if you want to talk about what you’re experiencing if you are experiencing negative emotions and feelings like that, you’re dissuaded from talking about them because that may give the animal rights side or people who oppose animal experiments ammunition against what you’re doing and it comes across that you’re not supposed to talk about those things. Hansen:  So this is a podcast that’s focusing on dogs in research but I’m personally very interested in rats. I believe you wrote somewhere that you formed emotional bonds to certain rats. I don’t know that people understand the value of rats…that rats do have feelings. Could you explain that just a bit? Dr. Trunnell: Sure, and you’re absolutely right.  I’d never met a rat in real life or you know maybe seen mice in the yard or something before, but almost everyone loves dogs so it’s much easier to empathize with with dogs and even primates who we view as having similar cognitive abilities. But I was really surprised how much personality rats have. If you’re not breeding the animals in the laboratory you order them from a vendor and they arrive at the facility. And you typically spend a week acclimating them to the facility and so that involves acclimating them to handling. That was the best part of any experiment—you just get to go in and hold the rats and just say, “Hey you know you can trust me,”…which they couldn’t obviously. We broke those promises. But some of them would just sit there and nuzzle your arm. Some of them were very curious and wanting to sniff and explore you and they all have different personalities. There were some that absolutely hated me any time I tried to pull one out of a cage they would just dart and run and then some would come right up to you. So I maintained a disassociation from them in that we didn’t name them. They just had numbers. And so I didn’t have a particular rat–that one individual who I connected with. But what I connected with is just how smart they are and curious and how much they deserve just as much to be loved and respected just as much as a dog does. Just because they’re a rat doesn’t make them lesser than.  So yeah, I have a fondness for them for sure. Hansen:  You’ve written the afterword for the book Free the Animals by Ingrid Newkirk, who is the Founder and President of PETA. You specifically identify facilities that are still doing animal experiments today, some of which seem very similar to those that were done 30 years ago. 30 years ago is a long time in my mind and we didn’t even have the high-tech computers we have today or cell phones back then and now we have all this amazing technology. So why are scientists still repeating the same experiments over and over again and can you give us some examples of experiments that should really be stopped immediately because they simply are not necessary anymore. Dr. Trunnell: The experiments are still happening for several reasons. A big one: you know …what makes the world go around? It’s money.  When researchers get grants from the federal government the universities can take sometimes half of that money, and these are each you know $400,000 grants in some cases sometimes much more and sometimes a little bit less. But hundreds of thousands of dollars the university can just take to do whatever they want with. They can pay payroll, they can build new facilities. So there’s a big incentive from your researcher at a university, from your administration to publish papers and get grants with very little regard to what you’re actually doing in those experiments as long as you keep the money coming in. And then also in the realm of money there is a giant industry that profits off of breeding and selling animals to be used in research, so primates, dogs, pigs, mice, and rats are the most commonly used animals. And then all the tools that are used in the experiments can be incredibly expensive…so tools for the surgeries and for monitoring and euthanasia equipment. There’s an industry that creates all of those things. They are some of the biggest donors to pro-animal experimentation lobby groups. In addition to money there’s also just the inertia. So, like you mentioned 30 years ago we didn’t really have the computers, when some of these scientists–who are still working–were starting their careers 40-50 years ago we didn’t have what we have now, so they learned to do what they do using animals. And you know to reach this point…to reach the 40-50 years of your career and admit that what you’ve been doing is either a sham or a mistake…that would take a lot of guts, and not a lot of people are going to do that or be able to do that or even admit it to themselves. So, you’re really motivated to keep doing the same thing and these people are training their students to do those experiments because that’s what they know. You’ve set up your laboratories to do animal experiments. Even if you have a change of heart…even if you’re an early career researcher, re-investing that money to stop what you’re doing, to buy new equipment, to get training, all that time, you know you don’t really have a way to support yourself when you’re a graduate student, so you know even if you’ve had a realization that you want to switch to a different type of methodology there’s a big up front cost to that and not a lot of incentive to do that. Then you know some people they just convince themselves that what they’re doing is right or that other animals are different than humans and we have the allowance to do what we want with them That’s just some people’s basis for thinking. I think those are some of the big reasons why these experiments are still happening after 30 years. I was honestly–even though I read about this stuff every day at PETA–I was still surprised that so many of them are still happening. Some examples of experiments that are still going on that shouldn’t be…one that pops into my mind is mainly because it’s a case (an experiment) that I work on a lot for PETA is something called the “forced swim test” and it was developed in between the 1950-70s for testing anti-depressant drugs. And so you drop a mouse or rat into a cylinder of water and supposedly if they’ve been dosed with an anti-depressant drug they will swim for longer before they start to just float. This is supposed to predict if a substance is a good anti-depressant. But it’s been shown over and over and over again that it’s not a good test, it’s not reliable, and it doesn’t model depression (which I think any common-sense person could see just looking at the experiment) but papers are published every single day using the forced swim tests still. And some of this is to do things like…there’ve been recent experiments looking at nutritional components. So vitamins or herbs are things that you could give to a human volunteer that are safe for humans to ingest. You could ask them questions about mood. You could do longitudinal studies. You could study people that use these substances already and you would learn a lot more about human mood and the effects of these substances on human mood doing that. But again…forced swim test–every day we see new papers published. And a lot of them are just things that are being done to animals that we can glean non-invasively from humans. In the literature you would think that there’s some mechanism to prevent you from doing something to an animal that you can measure in humans, but there’s just not. Other examples would be non-human primates are used for brain neuroscience studies which involve implanting electrodes and measuring activity in different parts of the brain in response to visual stimuli and we can do that in humans using EEGs, using brain imaging, using MRI…that can all be done in humans as well. And a lot of the toxicology tests that are done, that are necessary to be done to determine that things in our environment are safe for us, but there are so many non-animal alternatives for those now. Hansen:  Getting into another health issue, one example that you’ve written about are the heart failure experiments on dogs that have been done for decades that are still going on and these especially hideous experiments are currently being done at the University of Utah, Northwestern University, Wayne State University and I’m sure many other institutes. Can you describe these heart experiments and why they’re so cruel for the dogs. And why—this is my big question–why after decades of heart experiments on dogs is heart disease still the number one killer in humans. Why haven’t we found a cure yet as scientists claim they’re trying to do? Dr. Trunnell: The heart failure experiments are just horrendous and I think one thing that makes them especially awful in my mind is that they’re using –I mean it would be bad either way but I think they’re not using necessarily dogs who work for research which is one horrible thing that happens. Dogs are bred in these terrible facilities like Envigo, which was just shut down in Virginia. But the dogs that are being used in these studies are often dogs that are gotten from a local animal shelter before they’re euthanized. So, this could have been someone’s companion. And in the experiments in general the researcher implants electrodes on to the dog’s heart and force them through electrical stimulation to beat in a certain rhythm or force the atria to contract every four seconds or the ventricles and this happens in some cases every four seconds that heart is being stimulated for almost two years. So you can imagine–I mean just anyone can imagine–if your heart is being made to beat (if you’ve ever had your heart flutter or something like that) it is kind of a scary feeling and that’s happening constantly for years at a time and they do this to try to induce heart failure in attempts to study what’s happening to the hearts on a specific level. Each experiment is given about $600,000 annually from the NIH and these are for many years at a time. I think a big reason that we haven’t been able to knock cardiovascular disease down from its number one spot…I mean these experiments are kind of just a subset of cardiovascular experiments…but a big problem is when people are having heart failure they’re not having it because a pacemaker has artificially controlled when their ventricles or their atria contract for years at a time. They have an underlying disease and that’s what’s contributing to their heart rhythm differences. And so just that fact alone makes the studies really incomparable. Dogs are used because they’re easy to get or easy to breed or docile to use but for another reason: their hearts are larger obviously than rat’s or a mouse’s so they can be easier for the researchers to study. And yes, dogs have a four-chambered heart just like we have a four chambered heart, but that’s not really what we’re studying in medicine anymore. You know the treatments that are being developed these days are looking at very miniscule, very micro elements of physiology: the genes, the molecules that regulate genes, the specific proteins in the contraction process. And those are where humans and other animals are different and where we’re trying to develop therapeutics. And so that’s another reason why these experiments aren’t translating. Hansen:  I have a personal fascination with the new non-animal, human specific tools in biotechnology and I’m not a scientist, and I don’t understand half of what I’m reading when I read about these tools, but I’m still fascinated by it, and how they can do a better, more precise job than animals in advancing human health. Could you briefly describe maybe just a couple of these tools to those of us who may not be scientists such as organs-on-a-chip for example. Dr. Trunnell: Yeah, those are super exciting and you hear about it and like you if you haven’t seen one or seen all the presentations your brain would be like, “What does that even mean…organ-on-a-chip?” But they’re super cool. Most people know what a petri dish looks like. The older traditional ways that the scientists studied things–what we call in vitro (which means in a dish and not in a living organism) were using petri dishes and they’d look at human cells on a petri dish and how they interacted with different substances or different cells but oftentimes because you know the human body is obviously not two-dimensional, we’re three-dimensional, and we have various pressures and forces and different organs that cause our cells to react in certain ways, those very simple petri dish experiments don’t always translate either even though you’re using human tissues. Organs-on-a-chip are one way to make that better. These are small devices. They’re about the size of a computer memory stick and they have different channels. And so instead of putting those cells on a flat dish you’re putting them in these three-dimensional channels and you’re applying different forces and different layers to better mimic what you would see in a person. I was in a presentation with one company that makes these organs-on-chips called Emulate and they were showing two slides. One was a cross section of a human intestine and this was taken from a biopsy sample from a patient and they had a histologist look at that picture of the cells. And then they had a histologist look at a picture a cross-section of human intestinal cells grown on a human-intestine-on-a-chip and he could not tell the difference between them. There are a lot of them now and it’s almost hard to keep track of what all they’re being used for but one of the first ones were part of a human lung-on-a-chip and because you can apply pressures they were able to make the cells expand and contract by pushing and pulling the little device to create a respiration. And so they’re able to use those to study the effect of inhaled substances like cigarette smoke or vape devices or things like that or other respiratory diseases or respiratory viruses. They’re being used by a lot of pharmaceutical companies now. For example, there was a study a couple of years ago where the pharma company AstraZeneca wanted to test a drug that they had released and it had to be called off the market because it caused blood clots in humans, and those blood clots weren’t predicted by the animal tests. But they tested this in a human organ-on-a-chip and they saw blood clots there. Every day we’re seeing more publications showing that these methods better predict what you see in humans. Another in vitro method involves organoids. So, these are also kind of three-dimensional ways to grow human cells using different scaffolding techniques. For example, our brain obviously isn’t a flat disk. It’s a three-dimensional structure so you can grow parts of the brain in three dimensions which really you see the different foldings of the layers of the brain. So those are two in vitro methods. We have really advanced computers these days and even Artificial Intelligence so human biological systems can be modeled with computer modeling even using AI to create predictions and sense patterns that–humans as smart as we are—can’t sense. And then ways to image, especially the human brain or other human tissues, has gotten very advanced as well. So those are all different things that can replace a lot of the animal experiments. And the fact that they’re grounded in human biology is the key. You know as I mentioned those very micro levels are where we are the most different from other animals. Some of these organs-on-chips and organoids can be made using a patient’s own cells. So you have patient with a specific genetic mutation you can collect cells non-invasively, even just scraping skin cells, and use them to reprogram them and create specific devices where you’re really developing personalized medicine for that patient. Hansen:  Even with these awesome tools there’s still a great degree of inertia among the scientific community about accepting these new technologies. Evolving with the times seems natural to me but that isn’t the case when it comes to animal experimentation, and you touched upon why…money…tradition…all of that…so PETA has a new strategy to get the ball rolling called the Research Modernization Deal. Can you describe this plan and what listeners can do to help. Dr. Trunnell: Yes thank you. The Research Modernization Deal is the first comprehensive plan to phase out all animal experimentation. There’s a lot of lip service paid by governments and regulatory agencies that say, “We support transitioning away from animal experiments where possible,” but no real actual plan on how to get there. So the Research Modernization Deal is that. It covers both disease area and curiosity-based experiments as well as regulatory testing so testing products and testing for toxicity and medications. And it has five (soon to be six) steps because we’re issuing a new version later this year. But the five steps are really common sense. The first one is to immediately stop using animals in disease areas where we know they’re poor models of humans. And these are areas where the failure of drugs in those areas (the failure of new drugs) is between 95% and 100%. If something fails 95%-99% of the time we usually don’t keep doing it, but that’s not true for animal experiments unfortunately. So, the first step is to really address the worst areas of translation…the worst models…just stop funding those. The second step is to shift funding: to increase funds for the non-animal methods, the kinds we discussed, for preventative healthcare, preventative research, things like that. So, shift funding away from animals and prioritize research that uses non-animal methods because the scientists are going to follow the money. If they know there’s more funding for those methods they’re going to go that route. The third step is to conduct–for those areas that aren’t as clear to the scientific community if animal models are useful or not–the Research Modernization Deal says, “Okay, we’ll do a really rigorous systematic review of the use of animals in those areas to determine if they’re useful,” because that’s not even done. You know these experiments keep getting funded based on the researchers just saying, “Yes this is a good model,” without anybody actually doing any analysis to see if that’s right. The fourth step is to implement an ethical harm/benefit analysis system. This is something that exists in other countries like in the EU and the UK. It’s not required here to weigh the harms to animals against potential benefit to humans so it proposes to add that in. That would definitely eliminate a lot of the most harmful experiments from being done because there’s no way they could outweigh the benefit…the very little to no benefit. And then the final step involves regulatory testing for toxicity and it just says we should harmonize with other countries because there are non-animal test methods that may be accepted in other countries that aren’t yet accept here or vice versa. So that should be harmonized globally to where we’re all using the best methods. The step that we’re adding involves specifically training researchers. Providing specialized training grants to researchers and regulators to learn about non-animal methods and even how to use them to provide that missing link. Hansen: Something you wrote in your afterword in the book Free the Animals jumped out at me…you wrote, “Although I cannot say that this is true for everyone in the animal experimentation community, I know that there are those like me and the scientists I have worked with who are good people caught in a corrupt industry that must be forced to change.” Can you expand on that thought? Dr. Trunnell: I spent four years in a Ph.D. program and I worked with a lot of people there that are good people and they’re trying to do good science and what they’re doing is based on that historical inertia of the animal experiments that have come before, or they feel like… well, this is what I’ve been trained to do…this is my livelihood. They’re not bad people even though they’re doing horrible things to animals. I did horrible things to animals and that was a bad thing that I did, but I don’t think I’m a bad person. That’s why I really think what has to change in science for so many reasons–not just for ending animal experimentation but a lot of the problems that exist within academia and in science as a whole–is the incentive system. Being pushed to just generate papers, get grants, and not really given a lot of leeway to learn new techniques or switch methods or do better science…just being judged on those metrics alone…it just creates a very bad atmosphere. The people who are working at the federal agencies who decide what experiments are going to be funded and what are not are often older people who learned science when there weren’t a lot of better methods. Making that shift mandatory where if there’s a non-animal way to do an experiment, that has to get priority for funding over the animal-based method. Forcing those changes to happen based on where the money goes or based on what’s encouraged of researchers and how we judge their productivity–that’s what really can change the lives of a lot of people and animals, too.

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