Philosophy - Index
Testing - Index
March 27, 2005
Study will debate monkey future
Study will debate monkey future
A major study will examine what limits should be put on the continued use of
non-human primates in UK experiments.
The review is being undertaken by four of Britain's leading medical and
It follows the fractious arguments between the research community and the animal
welfare lobby over the need for new testing centres in the country.
Some 3,000 primates - mostly marmoset and macaque monkeys - are used in British
labs each year.
Three-quarters of them are employed in toxicology tests - checking to see if new
drug compounds are likely to be harmful if carried forward into human trials.
The predominant view in science is that monkeys' physiological similarities to
humans - we are also primates - make them powerful tools to investigate the
diseases and fundamental biology of people.
But that closeness also raises an acute ethical dilemma - and there is growing
pressure for the relatively small numbers of non-human primates used in tests to
be reduced still further.
We hope to establish areas where alternatives, such as genetically modified mice
or computer modelling, might be an appropriate option
--Sir David Weatherall
Now, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Medical Research
Council and the Wellcome Trust are setting up a working group to examine the
recent, current and future scientific basis for biological and medical research
involving non-human primates.
Members of the working group, which will be chaired by Sir David Weatherall,
will be drawn from outside the non-human primate research community. The group
will include a broad range of scientific expertise, in addition to ethical and
Sir David said: "We hope to establish areas where alternatives, such as
genetically modified mice or computer modelling, might be an appropriate option.
"Equally, the study will examine areas of research where there is likely to be
continuing need. The working group also hope to outline what, if any, new
ethical, welfare or regulatory questions emerge from the conclusions of the
Animal welfare groups will be pushing for an end to primate experiments
UK ANIMAL PROCEDURES (2003)
About 2.8m new 'experiments' are started each year.
In the mid-1970s this figure was over 5m
Mice are the dominant research tool, followed by rats
About 40% of all procedures use some form of anaesthesia
Non-human primates form a tiny fraction of the experiments
No great apes can be used in animal experiments
No wild-caught monkeys can be used in animal experiments
They argue that many of the tests induce needless suffering and provide
"The animals provide data - of course they do - but it's the wrong data," said
Andre Menache from Animal Aid. "It applies to monkeys; it doesn't apply to
"Whatever you discover, you will have to re-discover using people, so not only
do the animals suffer using these experiments, the first few patients using
these novel treatments will suffer, too.
"In fact, there are 700 treatments for stroke that work in laboratory animals -
only one works in people and even that one treatment is controversial. We are
doing something wrong," he told BBC News.
Mainstream science disputes this argument and believes some level of testing
will continue to be necessary.
"Certain organ systems in monkeys are really similar to humans and that makes
them especially appropriate for medical research - particularly the reproductive
system, the hormone system, the immune system, the lungs and the brain,"
explained Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research
"Research on monkeys has been particularly important for vaccine development-
particularly polio vaccine - but also the recent testing of possible HIV
"It's also been essential for developing new treatments for hepatitis,
reproductive disorders, infertility, and so on, and in the future it will be
crucial for the development of treatments for brain disorders," he told BBC
Indeed, it has been said that in order to tackle the neurological diseases
afflicting a "greying population", a steady supply of monkeys will be needed in
the future on which to test the safety and effectiveness of the next-generation
Experts have argued the extremely specific way these novel products work means
primates - because their brain architecture is so very similar to our own - will
be the only animals suitable for experimentation.