Tag Archives: Canada

Part 2: University of Toronto ends live primate research – Outsourcing Controversy

 Earlier this week we wrote about the University of Toronto’s public statements concerning the end of their on-site primate research. A number of broader questions were raised by considering similar cases and articles.  Among them, what does it mean for a university to claim that it does not engage in a particular type of research?  In the case of the University of Toronto, the same article announcing the end of their primate research indicated that Univesity of Toronto researchers will continue primate studies at other institutions. 

Although this seems like a small point that concerns only a single animal research program, it is illustrative of larger questions and issues that deserve more thoughtful consideration.  One is what it means to say that a researcher, institution, or nation does or does not conduct a particular type of research. It is not at all obvious, and thus is an easy thing to manipulate in public presentation. For example, ask the following questions:

  1. Does that mean only that they do not house animals and conduct studies, or do not conduct that work independently on their own campus or within their own borders?
  2. Or does it mean that they not only do not conduct the work, but also do not support the work in any way, with collaborative effort, resources, or their approval? 
  3. Or does it mean that they not only do not conduct the work, but also do not support the work and would refuse any benefit arising from the work?

It is not only the University of Toronto ending its housing of monkeys and instead relying on collaborative opportunities in the U.S.that raises these questions. The point is also well illustrated in considering whether Canada and other countries are, or are not, involved in biomedical research with chimpanzees. One of the frequently raised points used to argue against ape research is that biomedical research with chimpanzees is conducted in only two countries — the U.S. and Gabon.  But what does that mean? And is that really true?

In fact, a recent CTV news show highlighted the fact that studies for Canadians are performed at a U.S. chimpanzee research facility funded largely by a federal grant to maintain national research resources in the U.S.  The fact that Canadians are involved in chimpanzee research is not hidden in any way, but is easy to misconstrue.

In Canada, there’s no outright ban, but no one is actually doing it.

Instead, Canadians commission studies at research facilities like the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, the largest facility of its type in the world. It’s home to nearly 7,000 primates, 360 of them chimpanzees.”

It is not only Canadians. Scientists from a number of other countries engage in behavioral and biomedical research collaboration involving chimpanzees housed in U.S. research institutions. Furthermore, when the Netherlands became the last European country to ban chimpanzee research almost a decade ago, it was acknowledged that because the opportunity for chimpanzee research remained in the U.S.everyone could be assured of continuation of the work without the cost, controversy, or responsibility of having to maintain the possibility within their own country.  A 2003 article highlights this point:

The end of European ape research, long sought by animal rights activists, was accelerated by a report published in 2001 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW). It concluded that high costs and decreasing scientific need had made chimp studies all but superfluous. In rare instances where ape research will be crucial to combat a human disease, the panel said, large colonies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. would be better equipped.

However, even in parliament itself some hypocrisy was acknowledged. Because ‘if the occasion arises’, the government quoted the KNAW report, Dutch researchers would still be free to do experiments abroad. Observed House member Bas van der Vlies (SGP): ‘Since through a back door [the Netherlands will profit from [ape research elsewhere, I see no reason for us to start beating our chests like gorillas.’”

The point made by Bas van der Vlies is a good one and one especially relevant now as the U.S. weighs legislation to end invasive chimpanzee research.  It is also more broadly relevant because it underscores why the decision of single entity, institution or nation, to end a particular type of research must be viewed within the context of the range of alternative opportunities and avenues that will serve the overall goal.  In other words, the decision to ban an avenue of research means one thing if that choice will result in a true end to the work. The same decision is inherently less risky if it is cushioned by knowledge that another institution or another country is committed to maintaining that research avenue and shouldering the accompanying burdens.

It is also true that the decision to “end” a particular kind of work is often more reflective of different types of cost considerations.  For example, note increasing outsourcing of animal research to other countries with less developed regulatory structure and lower costs. Whether that is good for animal welfare, science, research institutions, and the public is a topic of discussion among scientists and is one that should be given more thoughtful public consideration. We believe the US public is better served by advocating for reasonable improvements in animal welfare while keeping important medical research at home. The adoption of unrealistic policies and regulations that dramatically increase the cost of the work, while not significantly impacting on the well-being of the animals, will help drive the research overseas, with negative consequences on the biomedical leadership of our country and uncertain consequences for the well-being of the animals.  

So how do we tell the difference between individuals, institutions, and countries genuinely committed on moral or ethical grounds to ending particular types of research, rather than in only displacing it to others?  One piece of evidence would be for those claiming that the work is either unnecessary or unethical to also make clear that they do not simply outsource the work to other institutions or countries. 

Another would be for them to decline any benefits from the work.  For example, although we are aware of no efforts underway to preclude citizens of countries that disallowed such work to benefit from the findings or any advances made through chimpanzee biomedical research, for example hepatitis C vaccines currently under development, it would seem that this would be an easy way for people to affirm their commitment to the global picture. (Whether it should be habitat countries or a world-wide body who provides consent on behalf of the wild apes for whom conservationists are arguing should benefit from vaccines developed from research in laboratory studies of nonhuman primates might be a separate issue.)

What is gained from considering this more complicated picture?  In the case of the recent University of Toronto press coverage, a reminder that it is disingenuous at best to solicit public approval by disavowing research that the institution has conducted, has benefited from, and will continue to be involved in — albeit with the majority of risk and cost assumed by other institutions. In the case of chimpanzee research, a reminder that as long as non-U.S. interests benefit from and participate in studies conducted in the U.S., it is not accurate to claim that it is only the U.S.that sanctioned and benefited from such work.  And that includes the apes in Africa who could benefit from the vaccines developed via laboratory research in theU.S. and elsewhere.

Finally, we would advise a critical eye towards any articles in which universities, pharmaceutical companies, or countries claim that they are not engaged in primate or other animal research.  Those who have simply chosen to do the same work elsewhere or via collaboration should be clear about their involvement. Similarly, those whose work depends on data, tissues, or animal models developed by others, or at other institutions, should acknowledge a responsibility and involvement in the live animal work as well. 

Allyson J. Bennett

End of Primate Research at the University of Toronto?

Intended or not, comments by a university administrator and veterinarian in some Canadian news articles last week likely gave some readers a distorted view not only of the status of research at the University of Toronto, but of animal research more broadly. A pair of articles reported that primate research at the U of T had ended.  In one titled “University of Toronto stops research on live monkeys” a university official explains:

“They were our very last ‘non-human’ primates and we have no intention of using any more. Technology now lets us get the same information from smaller animals,” said Peter Lewis, the U of T’s associate vice-president of research.”

Except that the press coverage also says that the U of T scientist Prof. Barry Sessle, whose highly regarded research orofacial pain and neuromuscular function and dysfunction straddles both laboratory animal research and clinical research involving human subjects, will “continue to do monkey studies in partnership with a lab in Chicago.”  We are also aware that University of Toronto researchers undertake primate research even closer to home at another research institute in Toronto. Does the U of T administration exclude their own faculty from the “we” in the “we have no intention of using any more [primates]” statement?
In an article headlined “With last monkeys dead, U of T sees a shift in animal research,” the university’s veterinarian adds his view of the need for primates in research.

“Across the country, Dr. Harapa has watched the appetite for research primates waning. Their cost and availability are factors, and universities do feel some ethical pressure, he said. “But the main reason is that people have just adopted other animals for their experimental needs – mostly rats and mice.

Comments by Lewis and Harapa raise a number of questions. Foremost, we wonder whether U of T might want to correct any possible misimpression that their comments apply only to their own research programs, which are apparently now suited by a restricted range of animal models?  For example, Lewis’ statement that: “Technology now lets us get the same information from smaller animals.” obviously applies to a subdomain of study, as do Harapa’s comments:

“We stopped using dogs and cats a few years ago too. We can do so much research now by genetically modifying a mouse,” said Harapa. “Under a sector microscope you would hardly know the difference between a human heart and that of a mouse.

While these thoughts may be relevant to specific work at U of T, they are obviously not meant to be applicable to the broad set of research questions under study elsewhere.  We are well aware that genetically modified mice and rats are an increasingly powerful tool for biomedical research, but they cannot yet replace species such as dogs, pigs and macaques in all necessary studies.


Some institutions may find it tempting to dodge public controversy by allowing a perception that the absence of on-site animal research reflects an institution’s commitment to not participate, support, or benefit from that work. Encouraging that public perception is an easy path to gain favor with animal activists and other opponents. But this is not a good path, if for no other reason than the fact that solving a research problem involves a range of animal models at various points in time. It is disingenuous to deny the value of research with a particular species because your institution has decided to discontinue working with that species. If nothing else, those inclined to dodge should consider that they are deriving benefit from the work of their colleagues at the institutions still willing to assume the risk and responsibility. That argues in favor of acknowledging the value of the work in your public statements.

It is unfortunate that these articles contain no comments by either Harapa or Lewis that might improve public appreciation of the value of a range of animal models, or any statement of support for the valuable research undertaken by Prof. Sessle, whose primate studies drew the attention of animal rights activists.

Allyson Bennett

Addendum 2012/03/12:

In a statement to the science journal Nature  UT associate vice-president of research Peter Lewis clarified some of his earlier statements, stating that:

There are many types of research that require the use of non-human primates. Our researchers are not engaged in any of them at the moment. If a proposed research project at [the University of Toronto] required the use of non-human primates and was scientifically and ethically justified, then we would endeavor to support it.”

While we welcome this statement we are less than totally satisfied by it, as we are aware of several research programs under the direction of UT researchers  that are very likely to require the use of non-human primates in the near future, including the stroke research discussed in the Nature News article and also research on other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. It may be the case that no research protocols involving non-human primates  are currently before the UT Office of Research Ethics, but there is every chance that in the coming months one or more will be submitted, even if the actual work will be done at the labs of an affiliated institute such as the Toronto Western Research Institute rather than UT itself. Will UT then issue another statement further clarifying their position?