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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 10:43 GMT
Study will debate monkey future
Primate, RDS/Wellcome Trust photo
There are strict regulations controlling the use of monkeys
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 scientific organisations.

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.

Alternative route

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 lay representation.

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 scientific review."

'Wrong' science

Animal welfare groups will be pushing for an end to primate experiments altogether.

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 worthless science.

"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 people.

"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.

Future state

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 Council.

"Research on monkeys has been particularly important for vaccine development- particularly polio vaccine - but also the recent testing of possible HIV vaccines.

"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 News.

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 pills.

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.

Graph showing numbers of primates used in animal experiments

How experiments on monkeys may be changing

Science wrestles with monkey business
16 Jul 03 |  Science/Nature

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