Primates needed for medical tests, say scientists

Click to follow

There is a strong scientific case for the continued use of monkeys in medical experiments, according to a high-level investigation by some of Britain's leading scientists.

The report on the use of primates in scientific research was immediately condemned yesterday by anti-vivisectionists, who labelled the independent inquiry short-sighted, misguided and a whitewash.

A working group of nine people - mostly scientists and chaired by Sir David Weatherall, a distinguished medical geneticist - concluded that "non-human primates" were still essential for important scientific research. "There is a scientific case for careful, meticulously regulated non-human primate research, at least for the foreseeable future, provided it is the only way of solving scientific or medical questions and high standards of welfare are maintained," Sir David said.

Using monkeys will be critical for further breakthroughs in a range of medical fields, from the development of vaccines against mass killers such as HIV and malaria to the basic understanding of brain disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, the report says. It also called for more research into alternatives to using monkeys and other animals and recommended better training of scientists and technicians involved in primate experiments, as well as better welfare provisions for the animals.

But despite the report's emphasis on the more-humane treatment of monkeys and on the development of alternatives, it failed to satisfy anti-vivisectionist groups which want to ban or phase out the use of monkeys.

"This report seriously underplays the importance of non-animal research methods. It adds nothing new to the literature and merely provides a pedestrian and persistently negative interpretation of the opportunities to replace primate use," said Gill Langley, the science director of the animal welfare charity the Dr Hadwen Trust.

"If this sort of short-sighted, uninspired and misguided thinking is the limit of our aspirations, both for sound medical progress and for the humane treatment of our closest cousins, then it is a sad indictment of us all," Dr Langley said.

The Weatherall report, which was commissioned by the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, says scientists need to experiment on monkeys because of their close relationship to man.

"The members of the working group accepted a moral case for careful, well monitored and meticulously regulated non-human primate research, provided it is of a high quality and has the potential to benefit mankind, and it is the only way of solving important scientific or medical questions," the report says. Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals, welcomed the suggestion that each monkey experiment should be considered on its own merits.

About 3,000 monkeys, mostly Asian macaques, are used in scientific research each year in Britain. About three quarters are used for toxicology testing of drugs and other chemicals, and 400 for academic studies.

Although there is some work on developing alternatives, such as computer simulations or tests based on human tissue grown in culture, Sir David said that in many instances using monkeys is unavoidable, such as in the development of vaccines.

"It is estimated that there is funding available for only about 10 major HIV, tuberculosis and malaria vaccine trials in the next 10 years," Sir David said. "These trials can take five years and involve 10,000 volunteers. Pre-testing in a small number of non-human primates can ensure we only proceed into human trials with vaccines that are likely to prevent millions of people dying."

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) dismissed the vaccine claims."We recently showed that 25 years of research into an HIV vaccine has delivered 30 cures for the primate version of HIV but have failed to find a vaccine for the human virus," said Michelle Thew, chief executive of the BUAV.