Last week Chinese researchers created genetically modified autistic monkeys. These ethically criminal experiments are not confined to international laboratories. The UK continues to experiment on thousands of monkeys each year.
The last remaining chimpanzees in US research laboratories are preparing to embark on their retirement in sanctuaries across the country. The chimps’ planned release was announced by The US National Institute of Health in November last year. The NIH concluded there was no further justification to hold these primates for biomedical research.
Chimpanzees are human’s closest living relative and the most intelligent primate, sharing 98% of our DNA. Primatologist Jane Goodall famously discovered chimpanzees’ ability to use tools in the 1960s. It now seems that Chimps might even share our penchant for a Sunday crossword. A 2013 study published by the Zoological Society of London showed that these emotionally receptive creatures engage in puzzle solving for fun.
It is partly this high level of sentience that caused the UK to ban the use of chimpanzees, along with all great apes, in medical research nearly two decades ago.
In 2010 the European Union followed the Britain’s example, also announcing a ban on experiments using great apes.
However, other primate species are still used in research across the globe. In the UK, around 3,000 macaque and marmoset monkeys are experimented on each year.
It seems there has been an international ethical consensus that smaller less humanistic primates are fair game when it comes to medical experiments.
The hypocrisy of this only serves to highlight the unjustifiability of society’s perspective on the rights and sentience of animals.
If a chimpanzee is considered too intelligent to be subjected to a life of scientific experiments, why are macaques the suitable alternative? Although they haven’t proved they can play games for fun they are highly social, sometimes manipulative creatures. In 2007 primatologist Dario Maestripieri published research showing that macaques exercise cunning behaviour in social situations and can often be observed trying to sleep their way to the top of the macaque power elite!
If we are truly dictating the rights of animals based on a tenuous differences in intelligence or the level of similarity then we are making a dangerous philosophical judgment. If this is a suitable test to find appropriate test subjects then where do we draw the line?
In a potentially overreaching estimation of human empathy I would suggest that most human beings have the empathetic capacity to agree that any experiment is wrong unless it in unequivocally necessary.
Non-human primates (NHPs) are primarily used for certain toxicology tests and to study human reproduction and how the brain works. Primate research is responsible for the development of the polio vaccine and the development of treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
It would be illogical to suggest that NHP based research has not led to important scientific developments. It would also be pretty inaccurate to say that anti-vivisectionists are prioritising the rights of animals over working towards important medical discoveries. Viewpoints about animal experimentation are often dichotomized making the debate impossible.
This is something Michelle Hudson-Shore knows all too well. Michelle works as the Scientific Programme Manager for The Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME). She is also writing a PhD investigating the feasibility of phasing out the use of primates in biomedical research. Michelle takes an ethical stance against primate experimentation. Michelle does not believe it is necessary to use primates in research. She says, “Their complex cognitive, behavioural and social needs can never be met in a laboratory environment.”
Michelle believes that we can end primate research but the only way to do this is through reasonable and constructive dialogue. According to Michelle “there needs to be greater emphasis from government and funders to provide resources for and facilitate innovation to find alternative ways of conducting the research”.
Government ignorance and a lack of funding seems to be an incredibly weak reason to be experimenting on thousands of intelligent sentient creatures.
With this in mind, let’s consider the alternatives to animal models in medical research.
In 2003, a World Health Organisation study was carried out to test whether genetically modified mice could be used to improve the effectiveness of the polio vaccine. The original polio vaccine, although effective, sometimes results the rare case of vaccine-derived poliovirus. This means that the virus injected into patients genetically evolves and manifests itself in polio-like symptoms. The WHO study showed that GM mice were effective in this research and are a suitable alternative to monkeys for testing all three types of polio vaccine.
Admittedly, the use of mice feels like removing one injustice only to replace it with another. But it certainly demonstrates that there is potential for removing the need for primates in scientific experiments.
However, genetically modified mice aren’t the only potential solution to experimenting on monkeys. A 2013 report by The Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHEC) offers a further alternative: in vitro organoypic model systems. This revolutionary technique involves creating prototypes that mimic human tissue. These futuristic constructions can be used to model the brain, heart and kidney. The report suggests that because these model systems are constructed using human tissue they “can be more relevant to human biology and physiology than studies in animals”.
But according to the SCHEC report, models like this take a long time to process and apply to research. The report also points out that they only work when looking at specific cell types. When the need to study whole body systems comes about, only primates will do. However, one is left wondering whether these measures could be developed quicker with due attention from the government and funders.
Brett Cochrane is the group head of science at the Dr Hawden Trust, a charity which promotes the development of techniques and procedures to replace animals in research. Brett explains “there is a large and constantly growing ‘toolbox’ of non-animal technologies and approaches to help progress biomedical research”.
Here is a list of the non-animal approaches Brett outlines:
- Organotypic cell culture
- Human stem cell based technologies Advanced imaging technologies
- Advanced mathematics
- Computational approaches
Brett also believes that these alternatives to animal testing are not receiving nearly enough attention. He explains, “Far more emphasis needs to be placed on how can we use our current tool box of non-animal technologies in a more meaningful and significant manner, the current battery of non-animal approaches is enormously under-utilised.”
All of this can seem exasperating for those who are desperately trying to put an end to the continued unjust suffering of primates in scientific research. But there is some hope. Brett believes “we will eventually see primates being removed from research in the UK.”
Researchers often claim the UK is the best in the world when it comes to the welfare of primates and other animals in laboratories. Brett believes that we should be enhancing this reputation for scientific excellence by leading the world in non-animal research. He says, “With the correct vision and funding streams made available primate research will be confined to history books.”