Dr. Kenneth Litwak Joins AWI as Laboratory Animal Advisor

Dr. Kenneth Litwak recently joined AWI as our laboratory animal advisor, after nearly 20 years conducting and overseeing animal research. We sat down with Kenneth to talk about his thoughts on animal welfare and the long road that led him to AWI.

AWI: Tell us about your education and work experience.
Kenneth: I got my bachelor’s degree at California Polytechnic State University, then my veterinary degree at Kansas State University. Following a brief stint as a companion animal veterinarian, I went back to school to obtain a doctorate, at Wake Forest University. After receiving my doctorate, I joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and then the University of Louisville. At both institutions, I ran laboratories, dedicated to developing and testing artificial organs.

Were you using animals while testing these organs?
Yes. We used calves. Their hearts are about the same size as a human heart and calves have been the animal model that had been in use since the earliest days of artificial heart testing. Yet no one had really spent a lot of time thinking about how different they were from the very sick people. I realized that and started asking questions, like: “How does a healthy, growing calf differ from the sick person?” or “What can we learn from an animal model that looked the same, but was anatomically and physiologically different?” Once I started asking those questions, it became increasingly difficult to justify our use of the calf to test the artificial hearts. Especially at the University of Louisville, I found very creative people using mechanical and computer models of the heart and circulation to test these devices, allowing us to answer virtually all of our questions without having to do animal testing.

I remember giving a talk, at a meeting about artificial heart development, about the need to rethink our use of the animals, because the results we were getting were wrong (including results from studies I had published). I had multiple well-known cardiovascular surgeons tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was a bit chaotic and disturbing. I realized just how protective people were of their published results. It was a form of heresy. That is when I decided to stop doing my own research and instead promote better care of the research animals, using my training as a laboratory animal veterinarian.

It must have been a big change to go from running a single laboratory to overseeing the health and welfare of all the animals in an institution.
It was a tremendous change. After being singularly focused on science, I had to switch gears and increasingly focus on issues of animal welfare. Yet, those same scientific principles that caused me to rethink the use of animals for artificial organ development, also led me to look at laboratory animals in a very different way.

For example, in most facilities mice are transported from a housing room to a procedure room. That can involve a cage being hand-carried or put on a cart. It seems innocuous, but when you look at this single circumstance, you see how much it can affect the animal. When a person walks, they tend to swing side-to-side (think about it when you walk down the hallway next). Imagine what happens to the 20-gram mouse in the cage. Now, imagine what happens to that mouse if you drop something and reach down to pick it up, while holding that cage. They get tossed all around the cage, which is extremely stressful. Or, think about the cart rattling down the hallway. I did a study, which got published, with this sort of transportation and found that cart transportation could expose the mice to nearly 2 g’s worth of acceleration. That’s enough to lift them off the ground. We found that simply putting a towel under the cage was enough to remove most of the vibration. That’s just one example of how I tried to use the scientific process to improve animal welfare.

But you eventually left animal research, altogether. Why?
Over many years, I became less and less enamored of how animal research was being done. While people may disagree about the need for animal research, there should be no disagreement with the desire to improve the quality of life for the research animals. I found that there was real resistance to making simple changes to benefit the animals. The scientists were afraid that these simple changes would somehow affect their research outcomes, even if I could produce data to suggest there would be no effect.

Similarly, as we seek ways to improve the lives of research animals, we need to examine all aspects of their lives, including the rigidly controlled conditions they live in. For instance, how does keeping five mice in a 75 in2 clear plastic box, with air constantly blowing through it, relate to a person, who is interacting with many different environments, every day? Taken further, how does a genetically manipulated mouse, who eats the same diet every day, and has been exposed to virtually no diseases, relate to a person, who eats a varied diet and is constantly exposed to various diseases? We have made animal research into a factory production and have lost our perspective about how the animal relates to the human. The diseases researched in animals look like those in people, only until we look more closely. Then we find that our pink lawn flamingo only shares a similar color to the real bird.

What will you be doing at AWI?
There’s so much to do. I think the biggest focus will be on making data available. There are dozens of articles describing ways to improve research animal welfare, but unless you know how to get them or how to interpret them, they’re effectively useless. I believe that AWI can provide a real leadership role in making the data more accessible. I’m really looking forward to working with scientists to find ways to apply the principles of the 3 R’s (refining, reducing, and replacing) in a manner that will improve animal welfare, while ensuring solid scientific outcomes.