There is a moral as well as a strong scientific case for the continued use of non-human primates such as macaque monkeys and marmosets in some areas of biomedical research, an independent expert group has concluded.

“At least for the immediate future," there is a convincing rationale for primate research in the fields of communicable disease, neuroscience and reproductive biology, said the UK working group chaired by Sir David Weatherall. It is only justified, though, where there is no other way to address clearly defined questions of particular biological and medical importance; the research is carefully selected and meticulously regulated; and high standards of animal welfare are maintained.

The 18-month study of primate research was commissioned and sponsored by the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. The working group noted the particular concerns over the use of primates in medical research, primarily because of the animals’ evolutionary proximity to humans, and the highly polarised debate around the issue. It also highlighted fears that high costs, a shortage of animals and harassment by activists were forcing scientists to pursue primate research overseas, “where we have no control over animal welfare."

Among the 16 specific recommendations in the Weatherall report was that the major funding bodies, together with government, other stakeholders, scientists, primatologists, vets and welfare specialists, should “give careful consideration” to setting up UK centres of excellence in the field. “Focusing research at specialised centres would have huge scientific and welfare benefits," Sir David commented. A re-evaluation of how primate research facilities were organised, as part of a national strategic plan for the future of non-human primate research in the UK, should start with the development of ‘virtual’ networks between existing centres, the report suggested.

Numbers have remained constant

The working group was not calling for an expansion of primate research, Sir David stressed. In fact, the number of non-human primates used for scientific or medical purposes in the UK has remained fairly constant over the last 10 years – around 3,300 animals per year, some 75% of which are used for toxicity and safety testing of pharmaceuticals and around 14% in academic research.

But for many neurological drugs, such as potential treatments for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and for vaccines aimed at HIV and other infections, the differences between other animals (e.g., rodents) and humans were too acute, the group argued. In these cases, primates were the only means of ensuring therapies were safe and effective prior to human trials.

The report also included a number of recommendations around monitoring the need for primate research, improving animal welfare, and encouraging and funding research into alternatives to the use of non-human primates. The working group acknowledged the “impressive body of work” directed at finding alternatives to primate research, including advances in molecular and cell biology, non-invasive imaging, computer modelling and systems biology. However, any firm recommendations on how to reduce the number of primates used in regulatory toxicology would be premature before the completion of a study by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), it said.

The report’s endorsement of primate research will come as a relief to the pharmaceutical industry, which is just now starting to see a fall-off in violent harassment by animal rights extremists in the UK following a series of legal measures introduced by the government to stem intimidation. In early 2005 the ABPI warned that pharmaceutical companies might seriously consider taking animal research outside the UK, as many suppliers were being forced to cut their contacts in the field.

Independent studies support animal experiments

Three independent UK studies have previously supported the view that animal experiments provide scientific and medical benefits. The last of these, by the cross-sectoral Nuffield Society on Bioethics in 2005, also called for regular review of the use of animals in medical research and heightened efforts to develop alternative methods.

The ABPI welcomed the conclusions of the Weatherall report, saying the use of primates continued to be an essential element of medical research in areas such as vaccines for polio, AIDS, tuberculosis and dengue fever, as well as neurodegenerative diseases. It also stressed that primates accounted for fewer than 1% of all animal tests and that “much more can, and is, being done to ensure that such research is carried out only when absolutely necessary."

The NC3Rs expressed disappointment, though, that the report had not gone further in mapping out priorities for the development and adoption of new alternatives to animal research, while the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection called it “yet another whitewash” that “simply fails to properly address the fundamental point of this report: whether human benefit is derived from subjecting these sensitive, intelligent creatures to a lifetime of suffering in UK labs." By Peter Mansell