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.
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?