Science & Environment

Bateson report: Monkey research can be improved

Macaques (UAR/Wellcome Trust)
Image caption No clear medical benefits have emerged from nearly 10% of research projects involving monkeys

A review of the use of monkeys in UK medical research says the practice should continue and finds the current work to be generally of good quality.

But the independent report voiced concern that no clear scientific, medical or social benefits had emerged from nearly one in 10 projects.

It also said that in a minority of experiments, the justification for using monkeys was "not compelling".

The review was led by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson.

The current president of the Zoological Society of London was commissioned by the main bodies that fund medical research in Britain.

They wanted him to assess whether the studies on non-human primates (NHPs) were necessary, high-quality and yielded significant advances in medical science.

Animal welfare groups opposed to experimentation on monkeys called again for the practice to be banned outright. They described Prof Bateson's review a "chilling insight into primate research".

Brain studies

Although the proportion of monkeys used in research compared with other animals is low, less than 0.1%, there is concern that they suffer more than other species during experimentation, and so should only be used if those studies are expected to yield important medical benefits and if there is no other way of carrying out the research.

The review suggested that this standard might not have been achieved in all cases. "Not everything is rosy in the garden," Prof Bateson told reporters.

He reviewed experiments on monkeys carried out between January 1997 and December 2006. Just under 3,000 animals were used in experiments in that period.

The bulk of the research focused on neuroscience. Research on great apes is not permitted in the UK and so monkeys provide the next best animal models to study the human brain.

Researchers often cite the widespread prevalence of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as a justification for research in this area.

However, Prof Bateson said that the "size of the problem should not be accepted as the sole justification for individual areas of research".

He added: "Funders and researchers should avoid overstating and generalising the medical benefit (of research on monkeys). Instead, statements should be based on the actual scientific basis for funding decisions."

Considerable suffering

Prof Bateson and his team looked at 31 neuroscience studies. Half of the experiments involved considerable animal suffering. These were assessed as having a high scientific value.

Image caption Monkeys provide the best animal model for study of brain disorders

But in most cases, according to Prof Bateson, there was "little direct evidence of medical benefit". He did concede, though, that there might not have been sufficient time for the advances gained in scientific understanding to be translated into new drugs or treatments.

The report recommends a body to be set up to assess whether commissioned research will lead to improvements in healthcare.

Prof Bateson's review found a few instances of research that caused a high degree of suffering, but was not judged to be the highest-quality science.

One example was of UK-funded research on reproduction carried out overseas.

It involved performing a hysterectomy in which the mother and its foetus were, in the words of the review, "compromised". The study was undertaken to train students and repeated a study that had been carried out a decade earlier.

According to Prof Bateson, "it is not acceptable knowingly to fund work outside the UK that would not be legally responsible or ethically acceptable in the UK".

The report also said scientists had a "moral responsibility" to publish all their results on experiments involving monkeys even if they were not positive or not deemed interesting.

Research results are often not published when the experiments do not yield positive results, but Prof Bateson's point is that because some of these details are not put in the public domain, it could lead to other researchers repeating the experiments and so causing unnecessary suffering.

Strengthened procedures

Responding to the report, the Medical Research Council (MRC) said: "Despite the use of peer review to assess whether projects we fund are worth doing, it is inevitable that some of it does not work out."

The MRC added that it would continue to work to ensure all grants using non-human primates made clear the expected scientific, medical or social benefit, and that if these benefits were not realised, the reasons why should be explored to ensure lessons were learnt for the future.

In a joint statement, the main funders of monkey research in the UK - the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Biological and Biotechnology Research Council - said improvements to procedures had already been made.

"We have strengthened our procedures for assessing all grant applications requesting use of [monkeys], cats, dogs and equines," their statement read.

"These applications are now reviewed by the independent National Centre for the Refinement, Reduction and Replacement of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

"Any concerns are explored with the applicants, and funding is not awarded unless these are properly addressed. We will continue to work with the NC3Rs to ensure that all research we fund using NHPs is assessed appropriately and the research undertaken is of the highest standard in terms of science and animal welfare."

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection said primate research was a blind alley that had no merit.

Chief Executive Michelle Thew said: "This report is a chilling insight into primate research in the UK. Regulations to protect primates are failing.

"It is shocking that 25 years after legislation was introduced to give primates special protection, many experiments are being carried out that have a devastating impact on them with little or no human benefit. The only measure that would completely protect primates, and ensure more productive medical research, is an outright ban."

In general, the number of animal experiments carried out in the UK rose by 3% last year, according to government figures.

Just over 3.7 million scientific experiments on animals were started in Great Britain in 2010, an increase of 105,000 on the previous year.

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