Most of the scientific experiments involving monkeys carried out in the UK are essential for science and medicine, but nearly 10 per cent of them offer no practical or social benefit of any kind, a panel of leading scientists has concluded.
An investigation into all the studies using "non-human primates" carried out between 1996 and 2006 found that although many of them were justified in terms of scientific enquiry, a substantial proportion did not produce any immediate medical benefits.
The scientists also found a disturbing minority of experiments, about one in every nine, were carried out without any benefit of any kind, either to medicine, science or to society at large. Some scientists even failed to publish any details of their research findings, which could have stopped others from unnecessarily repeating the work.
Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, the eminent Cambridge zoologist, said scientists who carry out research on monkeys are under a moral obligation to publish their findings, even if the results are "negative", in order to prevent the work being replicated needlessly at a later date on other primates.
"Scientific research on monkeys is hugely controversial and raises strong emotions, but an all-or-nothing approach to research on non-human primates would have been stupid," said Sir Patrick. "Nevertheless, we found that some research projects were unlikely to be beneficial and the claims made for them were implausible. In my view, funding of work on non-human primates should not be continued if no effort has been made to demonstrate the potential medical and social benefits of the work."
Under British law, scientists have to put forward a case for research involving monkeys and other sentient animals which balances the amount of suffering involved with the potential benefits that may come out of the experiments, either in terms of basic scientific understanding or medical insight that could help in the treatment of patients.
Each year in Britain, about 3,000 monkeys, mostly macaques or marmosets, are used in licensed experiments and about two-thirds of these involve research into new drugs and treatments by the pharmaceuticals industry. Most of the remaining animals are used in basic research into subjects such as the brain, vision or neurophysiology.
Mark Prescott, programme manager of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, who sat on the Bateson panel, said it was quite difficult to identify studies involving monkeys that had shown a direct medical benefit. "There were quite a few where even the grant holder could not say what was the medical benefit," he said.
The findings were seized upon by animal rights groups as evidence that current regulations covering the use of monkeys in scientific research are not working. They repeated their calls for a complete ban on the use of all primates in scientific research. Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: "This report is a chilling insight into primate research in the UK. It is also a shocking admission of failure."Reuse content