WASHINGTON – The new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is rejecting a call for the agency to suspend invasive and ultimately fatal experiments on dogs because he says they could potentially advance medical research and lead to breakthroughs that could help veterans.

Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday that the VA only has 92 dogs involved in the controversial VA studies, while thousands of dogs are euthanized every day across the country.

“I love canines, I was raised with them,” he said during an appearance at the National Press Club. “But we have an opportunity to change the lives of men and women who have been terribly hurt, and until somebody tells me that research is not helping that outcome, then I’ll continue.”

The VA previously told USA TODAY in a statement that his predecessor, David Shulkin had approved the continuation of the experiments, a contention Shulkin denies.

Wilkie’s comments are the first he has made publicly on the issue since he was sworn in July 30. He said he is prepared to reauthorize the experiments and signaled he may approve new ones.

An anti-testing organization, White Coat Waste Project, called last week for a suspension of the controversial experiments until the National Academy of Sciences finishes a study evaluating the need for dogs as research subjects. The VA commissioned the $1.3 study in August. It;’s not due to be finished until 2020.

“I think it calls into question the integrity of the VA’s intentions if it is going to continue funding and conducting dog experiments that it has just paid an organization over a million dollars to scrutinize,” Justin Goodman, a vice president at White Coat Waste, told USA TODAY last week.

The VA currently has nine studies at four VA facilities that involve surgeries on dogs’ hearts, brains and spinal cords with hopes of advancing medical science to help veterans and others suffering from cardiac problems and spinal cord injuries.

“My charge is to make life easier for those who have borne the battle,” Wilkie said. “There is nothing more tragic to me (that in) 2018, (at) this stage of development of medicine, that they haven’t been able to find that cure to  address spinal cord injuries, paralysis and early deaths from that.”

Critics have said the most recent breakthroughs from the dog testing cited by the VA date to the 1960s, including research that led to the invention of the implantable cardiac pacemaker and procedures that paved the way for the first successful human liver transplant.

Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law strict restrictions on the VA dog research in March, mandating that the tests be “directly approved” by the VA secretary to receive agency funding.

The move came after revelations last year that researchers had botched surgeries on dogs at the VA facility in Richmond, Virginia, and amid continued questions among lawmakers and veterans advocates about whether they needed to use dogs at all.

Goodman, from White Coat Waste, blasted the secretary for authorizing continued experiments.

“It’s disturbing that Secretary Wilkie is siding with entrenched bureaucrats who torture dogs for tax dollars over veterans by backing a failed and widely-criticized program that wastes public resources desperately needed for veterans’ care and services,” he said.

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