- - Tuesday, March 6, 2018

When allegations of canine abuse at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) research labs made headlines last year, supporters on both sides of the issue went head-to-head — seemingly pitting animal welfare against hope for wounded warriors in a zero-sum game where room for compromise appeared to be nonexistent.

As a veteran who suffered a catastrophic injury while serving in the U.S. Marines, I was openly unwavering in my support for the VA’s canine research as a necessary evil that had no viable alternative. I’ve since discovered that this was a false choice.

At the time, I read about thousands of veterans whose lives had been saved or improved with scientific discoveries arrived through animal research. I also held the hope that someday that research could prolong my life, if and when it came to it.

As a longtime dog owner, it wasn’t a position I came to easily. I could swallow the fact that a few animals might experience pain under controlled, humane circumstances, as long as it was necessary and effective for achieving the scientific breakthroughs that would mitigate suffering for veterans and others. However, I now offer that the words necessary and effective form the real crux of the debate on canine and other animal research.

VA-funded canine research has lost my confidence — and that of former supporter VA Secretary David Shulkin — due to its lack of significant innovations in decades. The research seems to bear more costs than benefits, particularly for those of us holding on to a hope that perpetually seems to linger just out of reach.

Not everyone is privy to the detailed reports that shed light on an issue this complex, and I feel it’s my responsibility to bring that information to light now given my past position. First, VA researchers are not inclined to openly admit that similarities between animals and humans often do not overcome the genetic differences between the two species. This also means many breakthroughs in animal research increasingly give false hope to people, as many drugs that successfully treat conditions in dogs, monkeys and mice ultimately fail in human clinical trials.

Or worse, fail after hope was packaged and sold to someone who believed, in vain, in the effectiveness of a drug when it doesn’t perform the same in human physiology. In fact, the National Institutes of Health reports that fully 90 percent of drugs that are effective in animals are ineffective or harmful in humans.

A case in point that hits close to home for me is the drug Methylprednisolone. The drug was administered to me following a traumatic crash that ultimately left me paralyzed in 2002. Later, I’d learn it was supposed to slow the effects of nerve damage and paralysis-causing cell death in my body as I recovered. But a systematic review concluded that the drug had rendered inconsistent research results in dogs, cats and other animals.

Still, I’d been given the drug and told it was my best chance at recovering some semblance of function after my crash — only to find out later that the drug was ineffective, had harmful side effects and would do absolutely nothing for me or the thousands of people who were sold empty hope. Despite decades of taxpayer-funded tests on dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals, there is still not an effective treatment for spinal cord injury.

Unfortunately, the VA continues to peddle hope to justify the use of taxpayers’ money for questionable canine research, owing to the fact that there is little public knowledge about the testing and a lack of understanding about its inherent limitations. This is where I came to an about face. It is no longer acceptable for the VA to stay the course in this day and age just because it’s always been done, especially when other federal agencies have already moved toward adopting alternatives to canine testing.

The Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have dedicated resources to the development and use of better research tools, such as human organs-on-chips technology, that obviates the need to use dogs and other animals in pain-inducing research.

So I, as a paralyzed veteran who has as much investment in the hope of research as you will find in the halls of a VA hospital, say to the VA: It’s time to follow suit by making better use of limited research funding — funding that comes from hard-working taxpayers — and phase out unproductive canine research. More importantly, it’s time to give real hope to our nation’s sick, wounded and disabled veterans without harming defenseless dogs and puppies in the process.

Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and a senior executive at AMVETS, one of the nation’s largest veterans’ advocacy groups.

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