Sandgren: 'Any kind of manipulation can involve some suffering and pain.'
Dr. Eric Sandgren has in recent years become an outspoken counterweight to the animal rights activists who'd like to see his and other UW-Madison animal study laboratories shut down.
An associate professor of experimental pathology in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences, part of the UW's School of Veterinary Medicine, Sandgren is chair of two animal-use oversight committees on the UW campus. As such, he has sparred with expert critics who condemn experimenting on animals as cruel, inhumane and unnecessary.
In late September, Sandgren faced off with Dr. Ray Greek, a retired anesthesiologist who has written three books on the use of animals in human disease and drug research. The debate, which drew several hundred people, took place at the Wisconsin Historical Society Building.
Greek, like many others, contends that animal studies don't produce a consistently predictive human response, and in most cases, he argued, the results are useless.
Sandgren recently spoke with The Daily Page about why animal studies are important, where we'd be without them, and whether they sometimes go too far.
The Daily Page: Why are animal studies important to human health?
Sandgren: Animals, like humans, are living organisms, and if you are trying to study a phenomenon that is characteristic of a living organism, there are certain kinds of questions that you only can answer using a living organism, complex questions where a response involves all of the feedback mechanisms that exist within the organism, but don't exist when you have an isolated piece of tissue or cells that are cultured.
We'd be nave to believe that animals experimented upon, in many cases, don't suffer or feel pain. Is the pain and suffering minimized or is it an essential part of discovery?
Any kind of manipulation can involve some suffering and pain. There are some studies and treatments in humans that involve suffering and pain. And certainly the same is true in some studies involving animals. The critical issue there is to evaluate that pain and weigh that against the potential knowledge and its importance and how much good that it can do. That's a standard test people perform before making any ethical decisions.
What are a few things we wouldn't have today were it not for animal studies?
The whole face of medicine would be entirely different, because we've learned a lot about how humans work by studies in animals and then we've also, beyond that, learned how to change the way those bodies work, particularly when disease exists, we want to help the body to heal and many of the medications or treatments that we have, have been developed first in animals, then translated to humans. Most of what we know about medicine was accumulated with the help of animal studies.
Some of the images of animal tests, particularly primate studies, are pretty jarring. Is it fair to researchers that the public might look at these and say, "That's awful!"
It depends on the images you're talking about. There's a classic image of a monkey being placed in some kind of a holder and actually that was a set up picture. It was taken by an animal activist who put the animal in there and the animal was uncomfortable. So, there are some pictures that are jarring and misleading. There are other pictures that are jarring and not misleading. The same is true if you look at some of the channels on television where they show what a surgical procedure is like in a human.
Why are alternatives to animal testing inadequate for scientific discovery?
Again, it's an issue of the match between the question you're trying to answer and the best way to get to that answer. If you're trying to understand certain complex reactions that occur that are influenced by multiple parts of a body, then you almost have to use a body to address those questions. Those are the kinds of studies where there aren't alternatives. The only alternative is to not answer that question.
Has there been any animal testing where you thought, "Now that's taking it a little too far?"
All of us can look back in the past and…well, one of the classical examples are the pioneering studies by Harry Harlow that were performed on this campus. Those studies did a couple of things. They revolutionized the way humans view the importance of touch and affection and the showing of love. And they also served to activate the animal rights community, because some of the things that were done there we now would not allow, because we would think they were too terrible. We've moved forward in research, and we've changed in our ethical perspective.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, a cat.