Dr. Aysha Akhtar
Advancing Human Health Without Hurting Animals
Original Air Date: April 5, 2023
Our relationships with animals, whether as individuals or as a society, directly affects human health. In this profound episode, Dr. Aysha Akhtar shares why having empathy for animals is so important for human life on all levels. She reveals that the key to sustainable human health is getting away from animal testing—which causes significant harm, pain, and suffering to dogs and other research animals—and replacing it with more humane, human-specific technologies. With over a decade of experience working for the U.S. government in top medical positions, and now the C.E.O of the Center for Contemporary Sciences, Dr. Akhtar gives us an inside look at what it will take to make this change happen.
Dr. Aysha Akhtar, Guest
Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., is a double Board-certified neurologist and preventive medicine/public health specialist on a mission! She is demonstrating how there is a mutual benefit to both humans and animals when animals are protected.
Dr. Akhtar is the Co-founder, President and CEO of the Center for Contemporary Sciences, which is catalyzing the replacement of unreliable animal testing with more effective human-specific research techniques.
A U.S veteran, she previously served as Deputy Director of the U.S. Army Traumatic Brain Injury Program developing the Army’s brain injury prevention and treatment strategies for soldiers. As a Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Dr. Akhtar frequently deployed to assist with national public health emergencies.
For a decade, Aysha was a Medical Officer at the Food and Drug Administration, most recently in the Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats, implementing studies on vaccine effectiveness and safety and using her Top Secret Security clearance to develop national preparedness strategies for public health threats. She is published in peer-reviewed journals including Lancet, Pediatrics, Journal of Public Health Policy and Reviews in the Neurosciences.
Aysha is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She is the author of the two books, Our Symphony With Animals. On Health, Empathy and Our Shared Destinies and Animals and Public Health, which argues for the need for health institutions to include animals as part of the “public” in public health. Aysha is a TEDx speaker.
Aysha is a self-taught and prolific artist who has been fascinated by colors, shapes, and patterns since early childhood. Her work has been featured across different platforms in the U.S. and abroad. Some of Aysha’s paintings can be found on her arts website Aysha Akhtar Art.
Aysha loves to cook and especially to eat! She holds elaborate dinner parties with friends and family and creates her own signature drinks. She is also an avid artist and gardener. She and her husband Patrick have created a garden sanctuary for all kinds of critters, including: Raphael (a very demanding crow), Junior (a rather messy squirrel), Marge Simpson (a mourning dove who uses the birdbath as her personal spa) and Josephine (a sweet, shy deer).
When not painting, Aysha’s favorite way to spend the weekend is to laze under a tree in her garden reading a sci-fi or horror book, in the company of a cat or two, hearing Patrick nearby whistling away as he stakes up the flowers. Aysha and Patrick live in Maryland with their two beloved felines, Nessie Petunia-Monster and Tumbles (her dream is to one day write and illustrate a children’s book).
ELLIE HANSEN, HOST:
You’ve been writing and speaking out against animal experimentation for over a decade. At what point in your professional life did you realize that animal experimentation doesn’t translate to human as well, and that there is a serious ethical component to hurting and killing animals for science.
DR. AYSHA AKHTAR, GUEST:
So I would say that I really started this path, actually, more than 30 years ago when I was first in high school. And that’s when I think the larger ethical issues about how we treat animals kind of accidentally fell on my lap in a sense where I started to learn about these things.
I knew I was going to go into either the biological sciences in one way or medicine, so I really especially was concerned about the use of animals in experimentation. And so that’s when I really started to think first about the harm that comes to animals with animal experimentation, and it’s obvious that they are immensely harmed, they suffer tremendously for the purposes of experimentation. And then as far as the human harms that come about from using a process, or if you will, which is animal testing, to find drugs for human health problems, to study human biology, understand our diseases, that came about as I was moving forward into my medical training. That’s when I first started questioning the ability for animal experimentation to really predict and explain what we need explained in regards to human health and human biology.
Then from medical school, after I did all my training, I eventually worked at the Food and Drug Administration. I was there for 10 years. And it was there that I saw drug after drug after drug come through the pipe line that everyone was excited about. People would say, “This is going to be the next big breakthrough for stroke. This is going to really work for stroke patients,” only to see them fail when tried in humans. And I started exploring this. And so I eventually learned that 90-95% of all drugs and vaccines that are found safe and effective in animals, don’t work in humans or are unsafe. So they fail 90-95% of the time. I saw that at the Food and Drug Administration, and then I left the Food and Drug Administration after being there for a decade to be the deputy director the Traumatic Brain Injury Program in the Army, and despite the fact that the Army has spent arguably hundreds of millions of dollars basically bashing the heads of animals to recreate head injury or to create head injury in these animals, not to mention the NFL the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, but there is not a single effective treatment for head injury, and that’s a big problem in soldiers, and not just in the U. S. but soldiers worldwide as well as we know, football players and others.
So despite all the attempt, all the money, all the resources, all the time, all the animal laws and suffering, going in to trying to find treatment for head injury, we have not a single treatment that works. The best we can offer is some therapies that may help decrease some of the symptoms of head injury, but nothing that really treats head injury. So that led me to really think that I needed to start a new non-profit organization, a new organization to really start making a change here.
And you’ve also written two books which intertwine your love of animals and how human health is adversely affected by our poor treatment of animals, or conversely, how human health can be improved by having empathy for animals. Can you talk more about this and was there a particular animal in your life that taught you this?
There was. There was my first love who was Sylvester. Sylvester was my grandmother’s dog. He was the first animal I had ever known, and this occurred when I was eight years old. My grandparents lived very close by, so I saw Sylvester every single day.
At the time I was going through my own experience in that I was being sexually molested by an uncle, and my relationship with Sylvester, my love for him and his love for me, really kept me going during that time. And then, at one point I realized– I recognized– that Sylvester was being abused himself by yet another uncle. He was being physically abused, kicked, beaten, thrown, by another uncle, and ultimately I got the courage to speak up to end Sylvester’s abuse. And that led me to have the courage to speak up and end my own abuse. And I realized then that at some level I recognized that there’s some kind of connection between the fact that he was so vulnerable and I was so vulnerable, and we were both abused, and that empowerment for any of us can cause empowerment for all of us. And so that kind of really led to a further exploration of how our relationships with animals, whether as individuals or as a society, how we treat them, how we think about them. how we abuse them, or don’t abuse them. If we respect them. If we appreciate their individual rights, their individual needs. How that affects human health, not only emotionally, like in the case with me, but also how does it affect human health in regards to the connection between violence towards animals and violence towards other humans. And there is a strong, strong connection there. How does it affect human health in regards to our risk for pandemics…infectious diseases. And there is a strong, strong connection there. How does it affect our health in regard to environmental destruction and climate change? And there is a strong, strong connection there. And then how does it affect human health in regards to using animals and experimentation? And there is a strong, strong connection there. So in almost every way you can think about it, what we now know is–and the data is really showing–when we mistreat animals, when we treat them like commodities, when we deny them their rights, when we treat them as insentient–as inanimate objects–it actually harms us as well.
Thank you for sharing your personal story, and Sylvester’s as well. And I think anybody listening can understand the healing effect animals have on us. Our health is improved. I know that my stress level decreases when I’m with animals.
You’re absolutely right. As a matter of fact, there’ve been some studies that really show that to be the case. Studies have shown that our blood pressure decreases, our heart rate decreases, it can even affect our cholesterol levels long-term. There was one pivotal study that showed that it can affect survivors of heart attacks and their longevity as well. And it’s because they really do. I mean when you think about animals, you know, I worry about so many things right. I worry about…Oh, did we pay the bills. I worry about…Oh, did I do the grocery shopping? Little things to big things, right? Animals help ground us basically to remind us what matters in life. And it is having these relationships with one another, with other animals, with our planet. I mean, those are the kinds of things that really ground us and really help stabilize us physically, biologically, physiologically, as well as emotionally.
In your latest book called Our Symphony with Animals, you tell stories about your childhood dog, Sylvester, who, as you said, was a victim of physical abuse. I believe dogs in research laboratories are also victims of physical abuse. And you spoke a little bit about how you gained the courage to speak up for Sylvester. How can what you learned from Sylvester translate to speaking up for dogs in laboratories? I believe more of us need to speak up for dogs in laboratories.
Yeah, and I absolutely agree with you. Not only I would say, speak up for dogs, but for all animals in laboratories. And they not only suffer. They’re not only victims of physical abuse, they are victims of emotional psychological abuse, as well. The day-to-day life that these animals experience in these laboratories is horrendous. I mean, think about it. They never get to experience the most basic things that we take for granted. They don’t experience sunshine on their skin. They don’t get to walk out in the grass. They don’t have the freedom to determine where they move their bodies. They are constantly picked out of their cages. They live in barren, cold laboratories, cold cages. They’re constantly yanked from their cages, given injections, manipulated, used in experiments. They live in fear, anxiety, loneliness, stress every single day. And that’s not even talking about the actual experimentation on them. This is just their day-to-day reality.
So what people can do is really, really fight these things. And really, I mean one thing that we can all do is really, inform our friends, inform our colleagues about the realities of what these animals experience in laboratories. The public has been so misinformed, disinformed about what the realities are for these animals. So much of the public has this assumption that animals are well protected and well cared for in experimentation, which is totally BS. That’s like saying black people were well cared for in slave farms. Right its total BS. So we need to just kind of help each other learn that that is not the case.
The other two things people can do is whenever there is an opportunity to make a comment in like the New York Times, the Washington Post or any other media outlet about animal experimentation please do so. Please do so. There’s often that ability to have those public comments posted online. And so please make the comments. We need to get the media to realize that the public cares about these issues and the media needs to start talking about these issues more. And then, of course, and now it’s often difficult for people, but reaching out to your representative. We were very successful in helping to get one bill passed, but it’s just a beginning of the process here. And it helped because we had public reach out to the representatives to say, I want you to make this change in how medical research is done. So there will be more opportunities also coming out from my organization, the Center for Contemporary Sciences. You can follow us, share our posts on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and learn how you can help further.
I remember when I first started researching the science of why it’s ineffective to use dogs for biomedical experimentation. One of the very first papers I read was written by you. It was entitled “The flaws and human harms of animal experimentation,” and this was published back in 2015. I ended up high lighting most of the paper because it made such an impact on me. I’d like to read a portion of your conclusion. You wrote, “Animal experimentation poses significant costs and harms to human beings. It is possible that animal research is more costly and harmful on the whole, than it is beneficial to human health.” This is a pretty powerful statement, considering how many animals, including dogs are still being used for research, and how much money companies and government still devote to animal research. Can you describe how you came to this conclusion?
Yeah, so, first of all, great that you came across that article and I’m glad it was very helpful for you. So what we do know is that animal experimentation is incredibly poor at predicting the safety and efficacy of drugs and vaccines in humans. We also know that trying to re-create human diseases in other animals doesn’t work. They are not actually human diseases. They are a substitute shadow of the actual human disease that’s re-created in other animals. Other animals in laboratories don’t get stroke, they don’t get Alzheimer’s, they don’t get Lou Gehrig’s disease, they don’t get Multiple Sclerosis, they don’t get the breast cancers that we get. They don’t get these diseases naturally. Trying to re-create them in animals is flawed from the very beginning because these animals have their own unique biology, own unique physiology, subtle nuances in biochemistry and physiology that make using them as models for human outcomes incredibly, incredibly flawed. So if you look at what the major harms that come to humans are as a result of this, we can capture it in three main bullet points.
One is that humans are harmed by directly being harmed from drugs that end up being unsafe in humans, but they were found to be safe in the animal testing.
Two, humans are harmed because lots and lots of resources. I mean billions of dollars, time, laboratory time, space. I would argue bright minds are going down these avenues using animals that doesn’t work. They could instead be using their time to better understand human biology, better understand human diseases, get better outcomes.
And then third, what we highly suspect–and it’s probably very much the case–is that because animal testing does not predict whether a drug or vaccine will work and be safe in humans, it’s likely that animal testing ended up causing the abandonment of drugs, vaccines that actually would have worked, that may have even been cures. But because they had different results in animals, they were never even given the chance to be tried in humans. So if you put all of these things together, not only the cost of animal experimentation but also the opportunity cost, what else could we have been doing instead? How much further along could we be in medical science instead? How many drugs and vaccines could actually work in humans instead? Then, yes, I would argue that as a whole animal experimentation is actually fundamentally a harm to human health outcomes.
So you mentioned a bill that was passed that might help solve this problem. A recent monumental accomplishment in US history was the passing of the FDA modernization Act, and this federal bill became law in late December2022. Can you describe the origin of the FDA Modernization Act and what it does do to help dogs and other animals and labs? And also how exactly were you involved?
Yeah, so I helped draft some of the language of the bill. I was initially in the meetings with Senator Rand Paul and Cory Booker to ask them to co-sponsor the legislation on the Senate side, and they both agreed. And I helped draft the scientific bullet points and arguments in favor of why this bill would be good for human health. And then we published articles about it. We built a scientific coalition that was in support of the bill, and we reached out and contacted other representatives to ask them to support the bill. Now the bill, The FDA Modernization Act, now law, basically it cuts an old requirement. There was an old 1938 requirement that required that drugs have to be tested on animals for approval by the FDA. Basically this bill removes that requirement and it allows instead many other options to be used in drug development, like advanced testing methods that have been coming out like a body-on-a-chip methodologies. And it doesn’t take away animal testing, but it allows the other methods to be used. Now in reality, although it’s monumental in one way, it still leaves the decision making at the hands of the FDA to determine whether or not they’re going to accept these other more human relevant testing methods in place of animal experimentation. The FDA has been incredibly slow in this regard, um, and quite frankly, a barrier in this regard. They’ve been a barrier in real progress here. So in reality, the change is going to happen much more slowly. But this is a good first step and we at the Center for Contemporary Sciences are going to continue to keep pushing for more and more progress, other legislation, other Bills, other regulatory actions and things that can really, really make this happen faster.
So you said that the change is going to happen slowly. The U.S. is still the second largest user of dogs, mostly beagles for biomedical research in the world. And so I know a lot of us, we care so much about these dogs, especially in light of the recent Envigo rescue of the four thousand beagles, that’s come to light for the first time for a lot of people. And so you know, when we say how long will it take to stop animal testing on dogs, in your mind, what does that time frame look like?
And yeah, if it is a hard one. I will say that our goal here with our organization is to actually replace all animal experimentation in 30 years. So it’s not going to happen with one species, by one species I think, it’s really going to happen as a whole, because fundamentally, even if you go from dogs to other animals in experimentation, you’re still using so called models. A process that doesn’t work. That is old. It’s thousands of years old. We need to advance and actually get away from animal testing. Replace it with much more advanced methods. So, if that’s going to happen throughout the industry, throughout the field—I don’t know if it’s going to happen with one species first or not, but that’s our goal is to replace all experimentation on animals with more advance methods in 30 years.
And now that the FDA Modernization Act is a law, who’s responsible for keeping corporations accountable for the advancement and transition away from animal testing to human biology-based methods. Because the law doesn’t say that animal testing can’t be used. So how might companies perceive this who may not want to invest in making the change to non-animal methods?
So those companies that don’t want to make the change do not have to make the change. And I mean there’s no accountability here and that’s a major limit to the law. There is no regulatory body, congressional body that’s going to be holding anyone accountable here. So we are looking at how can we again just keep pushing and pushing and working with drug companies to start using more non-animal testing methods, and then ultimately to replace the animal testing with these other methods. So it’s…I wish I could say there is accountability here, but unfortunately it’s not so. That’s why, when I say that the FDA Modernization Act is a first step, that’s what it is—it’s the first step.
I read a recent paper that was published and it was about how members of the public can help scientists advance non animal research methods such as organs on chips, but in my experience, few people are familiar with what an organ-on-a-chip is, or its importance for human health. They haven’t heard of these things yet, and at the same time, few people know that dogs are still being used for biomedical research and how awful that is. So, this presents an interesting conundrum because you want members of the public to help push companies to switch to non-animal methods. But if the public doesn’t know why this is so important ethically and scientifically, how can they help? I mean, how can science engage with the public on a wider scale?
That’s what we’re trying to do here at the Center for Contemporary Sciences. I mean, that’s really why we launched was to help educate the public through media articles, through chances for documentaries, and others to really educate the public about these new methods. And so you know we could certainly use support, and I hate to put in a plug in, but yes, we can definitely use support here to do this. We’re a really small, non-profit organization, but that’s kind of one of our missions here is to really make this “household.” Take away that old narrative that we have to experiment on animals for our own well-being, and replace it with the new narrative, which is the correct narrative. That actually replacing animal testing is better for human health as well. And so we have been working hard to get articles out in the general media and alerting the public, and just communicating with the public, communicating with policy makers, communicating with anyone who we can to explain how these other methods were so promising, and describe them in a way that the public can understand.
And what do you think will ultimately be the deciding factor that will end research on dogs and all animals? Is money going to be the deciding factor?
Yeah, so money is going to be the deciding factor because money is actually the engine that’s keeping animal experimentation going on. So drug companies have a huge failure rate. It’s so cost ineffective to be using animals because they just don’t work. So it’s a matter of really drug companies starting to recognize the economic benefit to them to move away from animal testing. The other thing is that academic research is actually where most animal experimentation happens. It has nothing to do with drug development. It’s basic research. People don’t have to do animal experimentation at universities and medical schools, but they choose to experiment on animals, so there’s no regulatory requirement for them, but they continue to do this, in large part, because they continue to get funding—funding that is paid by our tax dollars. So we need to switch how funding by our tax dollars is used so that it doesn’t keep going towards funding more and more animal experimentation, but instead funding towards more innovative testing methods that could be better for human health and better for biological sciences, and of course better for animals as well. So it is money that’s going to change all of these systems.
And what about new, young scientists. Do you think that they are entering the work force now with a different mindset than maybe scientists from 40-50 years ago who are still stuck on traditional methods like animal experiments?
I think you’re right about that, and it depends on where the young scientists are. The unfortunate reality is it’s a self-perpetuating–animal experimentation–self-perpetuating system because students go through their programs and they are taught by their mentors. And their mentors, if animal experimentation is what they know…what they do…that’s what they’re going to teach their students. So that still happens unfortunately. And there are very few programs actually teaching students about other ways to do research that don’t involve animals here. We did do a pilot survey of students entering the biomedical field, and, of course, when given the opportunity, they overwhelmingly said they’d rather learn about these other techniques rather than using animals. So the desire is there. But the knowledge is not there yet at the universities and the change hasn’t happened within the university infrastructure. But yeah, I think in general you can say you know The old guard at FDA and NIH, I don’t expect them to change. I don’t expect them to suddenly wake up and say hey, I think we need to change things, because they’re not. It’s really going to take new folks coming in with fresher ideas who have grown up in a in a world where you can do amazing things just on your i phone. And those folks are going to be the ones to question if science is advanced in so many other areas, why are we still using a tool—animals—that’s archaic? Why is medical science not advancing? And so that’s I think what will end up changing infrastructures, governmental agencies, and how programs are taught at the universities. It’s going to take a little while, but you know it will happen.