- Primate tests 'futile'
Is no-one checking these applications?
Supposedly a contraversial area of research that is strictly scrutinised and only permitted in extreme circumstanes, primate experiments have been criticised by a industry report. Many tests have no conceivable appliction.
One in ten research projects using monkeys has no benefit, finds review. Research on monkeys must be subject to rigorous safeguards to ensure medical or scientific benefits, says review author.
The Guardian. 27 July 2011.
Almost one in 10 research projects that used monkeys in the UK resulted in no scientific or medical benefit, according to a major review.
Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, who led the study, said that the justification for some projects carried out over a 10-year period from 1996 was "inadequate or insufficient" and that future projects involving nonhuman primates that could not demonstrate plausible medical or social benefits should not be funded.
Bateson, an ethologist at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, made his comments at a briefing to launch a report examining the necessity, quality and long-term impacts of the most sensitive of all animal experiments – those on nonhuman primates.
Last year, British scientists conducted scientific procedures on more than 2,600 monkeys, including marmosets and macaques, out of a total of more than 3.7m procedures on animals in total.
More than 2,000 of the monkeys were used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies to test medical treatments. The rest were used in universities and government institutions in the course of research into conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and infectious diseases including HIV/Aids.
"Unqualified support for all work on nonhuman primates is unjustified and unjustifiable," said Bateson. "But the same can be said for an outright ban on such research. What is needed is discrimination based on hard evidence."
Scientific research on monkeys should continue in the UK, he said, but the work must be subject to rigorous safeguards because "not everything in the garden is lovely."
"We did find a minority of cases, about 9% of them, that the justification of the projects was inadequate or insufficient," said Bateson. "These projects were unlikely to be beneficial and the claims made for them were implausible. In my view, funding of work on nonhuman primates should not be continued if no effort has been made to demonstrate, plausibly, the potential medical and social benefits of the work."
One example of such research cited in the report was of animals being used in reproductive biology experiments as part of training for researchers. The reviewers judged it to be repeating work published a decade earlier, and that its justification on the basis of scientific or medical benefit "would appear to have been small".
Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, welcomed the review and said that it was always difficult to guarantee the usefulness of research in advance.
"People go on exploration, they're trying to find places that weren't known before," he said. "But it is an inevitable fact of research, as is in any other form of exploration of the unknown, that some people find they go down a dead end."
He gave the example of trying to understand the scientific basis of memory and how brain cells work to encode memory. "We do some experiments in humans, some in mice, and there are some questions that can only be answered in nonhuman primates," said Walport.
"It's true that you can't immediately say that those experiments will translate into human health but, nevertheless, it is obvious that having an understanding of human memory is going to be important for human health."
John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said that there was often a long pathway from scientific discovery to implementation for the benefit of patients. "Being able to identify potential for benefit in over 90% of studies is a great fillip for the peer review mechanisms involved because that's a very high hit rate, in my view."
Bateson's study, commissioned by the main funders of research using animals in the UK – the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust – looked at 67 academic projects carried out between 1996 and 2006, which involved around 3,000 monkeys.
Panel members made independent assessments of the scientific quality of the research, the welfare costs to the animal used and the likely benefits to medicine and the public good. Assessment of potential medical benefits was often speculative, said Bateson, because of the considerable time that can elapse between fundamental research and the findings being used to develop therapies.
In response to Bateson's report, the funders said that, since 2004, they had "strengthened our procedures for assessing all grant applications requesting the use of [nonhuman primates], cats, dogs and equines."
Bateson acknowledged that the research councils and funding bodies in the past were not as rigorous as they are now. "It has got better. We started this review in 1996."
Maggy Jennings, senior scientist at the RSPCA, said that "for too long people have been happy to overstate the importance of experiments using nonhuman primates in the absence of the evidence to back up their emphatic claims. The RSPCA has always had grave concerns about the use of nonhuman primates for ethical and welfare reasons.
"This is the latest report in recent days which emphasises the importance of a robust system of regulation for animal experiments. This makes it all the more concerning that the UK government is considering weakening the laws currently in place in the UK."
Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said the Bateson report was "a chilling insight into primate research in the UK. It is also a shocking admission of failure. Regulations designed to protect primates in research are demonstratively not working.
"It is still far too easy to subject primates to extremely devastating experiments with little or no human benefit. It is now clear that the only measure that would completely protect primates, and to ensure more productive medical research, is to end their use in research. It is time for researchers and funding bodies to come into line with public opinion."
Nearly one in 10 monkey tests has no benefit.
The Independent. 28 July 2011.