Tag Archives: nonhuman primates

Of White Papers And Commentators: The Use Of Nonhuman Primates In Research

Two weeks ago, nine scientific societies, including the American Physiological Society, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Academy for Neurology, published a white paper entitled “The critical role of nonhuman primates in medical research“. The paper, which notes how nonhuman primates are critical to all stages of research, provides a huge number of examples of medical breakthroughs made possible thanks to studies in nonhuman primates. Among the paper’s appendices is a list of over fifty medical advances from the last fifty years alone; these include: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B; and surgeries such as heart and lung transplants. This is no small feat considering the group of species accounts for around only 0.1% of animal research in most countries (that provide data).


On September 2nd, 2016, John P. Gluck wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher“. Gluck is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. However, this Op-Ed has not come out of the blue. Gluck has long worked alongside PETA and other animal rights groups to condemn nonhuman primate studies. This op-ed is timed for just before today’s NIH workshop on “Ensuring continued responsible research with non-human primates” – a workshop that PETA is petitioning congress about. The article explains why Gluck stopped conducting animal research, his ethical stance against it, and concludes by saying:

“The federal government should establish a national commission to develop the principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research. We already accept that ethical limits on experiments involving humans are important enough that we are willing to forgo possible breakthroughs. There is no ethical argument that justifies not doing the same for animals.”

This is disingenuous of Gluck. The strict regulatory system that exists in the US, and most other developed nations, is the very embodiment of principles aimed to guide decisions on when and how we should conduct studies on nonhuman primates (as well as other species). Some countries have specific regulations surrounding primate research (e.g. the UK considers them a specially protected species and researchers must explain why no other species can be used instead). In the US, all primate research is governed by the Animal Welfare Act (enforced by the USDA), and any research receiving federal funds will also be subject to the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Animals (PHS policy; enforced by OLAW). The PHS Policy also endorses the US Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Use in Testing, Research and Training, which forms the foundation for ethical and humane care and use of laboratory animals in the US. Every research protocol must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – a group made up of including scientists, veterinarians and lay-persons – who review and evaluate the study, recommending ways in which it could be improved (both scientifically and from an animal welfare perspective).

Other commentators have noticed this as well. As Wesley J Smith writes in the National Review:

Gluck would have readers believe there are no strict ethical regulations that govern primate research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Animal Welfare Act already has many stringent requirements governing research on monkeys-as the law should-including cost-benefit analyses, the requirement that any pain experiments cause be palliated, and the requirement that oversight boards approve the purpose and approach of proposed experiments.

Ultimately, Gluck’s article reads as an ethical objection to animal research with some scientific gloss. The heart of his objections is Singer-esque in nature (he mentions Peter Singer earlier in the article). He almost directly condemns our different treatment of humans and nonhuman primates as speciesist:

The ethical principle that many of us used to justify primate experiments seemed so obvious: If you are ethically prevented from conducting a particular experiment with humans because of the pain and risks involved, the use of animals is warranted. Yet research spanning the spectrum from cognitive ethology to neuroscience has made it clear that we have consistently underestimated animals’ mental complexity and pain sensitivity, and therefore the potential for harm. The obvious question is why the harms experienced by these animals, which will be at least similar to humans, fail to matter? How did being a different member of the primate grouping that includes humans automatically alter the moral universe?

No doubt our understanding of the cognitive abilities of animals has improved, and with it has come a greater appreciation for their capacity to suffer. We are a long way from the 17th century philosophers, like Malebranche, who thought animals could not suffer. Our greater understanding of the capacity of animals to suffer pain or distress informs the way we treat animals in laboratories. For example, it was not until the early 1990s that the USDA adopted regulations requiring group housing of nonhuman primates (DiVincenti and Wyatt, 2011), this was thanks to many years of studies showing that nonhuman primate welfare was best met by keeping primates in social groups. As such, it is wrong for Gluck to claim that harm to animals “fail to matter”. While we may give animals a different consideration compared to humans (it is legal to eat animals and keep them as pets), it would be wrong to say they exist outside our moral sphere. The UK’s House of Lords set up a select committee in 2002 to look at animal studies; when assessing the ethics they concluded (s 2.5):

The unanimous view of the Select Committee is that it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering.

This is the heart of sensible moral consideration – that we should minimise the suffering of animals wherever possible while realising that we also have a moral imperative to conduct animal studies to reduce greater suffering among humans and animals.

Image from Californian National Primate Research Center

Photo by Kathy West.

Primates at the Californian National Primate Research Center. Reproduced with permission.

And there is no doubt we have a moral imperative. To return to the recent white paper:

Research with monkeys is critical to increasing our knowledge of how the human brain works and its role in cognitive, motor and mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression. This research is also fundamental to understanding how to prevent and treat emerging infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola. NHP research is uncovering critical information about the most common and costly metabolic disorder in the U.S. – type 2 diabetes – as well as the obesity that leads to most cases.

Without NHP research, we lose our ability to learn better ways to prevent negative pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. This research is also helping scientists to uncover information that makes human organ transplants easier and more accessible, literally giving new life to those whose kidneys, hearts and lungs are failing.

The eradication of these diseases is not worth giving up on. For some animals such research could be the difference between survival and eradication. Ebola has a 95% mortality rate for gorillas. An outbreak in 1995 reportedly killed more than 90% of the gorillas at a national park in Gabon. Overall it is estimated that one third of all the world’s gorillas have been wiped out by Ebola in the last 20 years. If nonhuman primate research (primarily in monkeys rather than great apes), can come up with a vaccine then it will be both animals and humans who can benefit. Humans are unique in that they are the only species with the cognitive capability of making a decision of this magnitude. In the words of Wesley J Smith:

This is the difficult fact that can’t be avoided: We need primate research if we are going to advance science, relieve human suffering, and bring new treatments into medicine’s armamentarium. At some point, we have to decide whether to help humans or not experiment on monkeys.

Looking forward to today’s NIH workshop (which will be streamed live online), it would seem they have struck the right tone. Reviewing the evidence, reviewing the policies, and looking to see what can be improved – that is the essence of science – while still appreciating that the duty of the NIH is to improve the health of a nation.

[T]he Office of Science Policy is taking the lead in planning a workshop on September 7th, 2016 that will convene experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare. Workshop participants will discuss the oversight framework governing the use of non-human primates in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research endeavors. At this workshop, participants will also explore the state of the science involving non-human primates as research models and discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies. NIH is committed to ensuring that research with non-human primates can continue responsibly as we move forward in advancing our mission to seek fundamental knowledge and enhance health outcomes.

Tom Holder

Who’s Afraid to Talk about Animal Research?

Part 1:  Outreach and Education Programs by the Nonhuman Primate Research Community

One of the misleading claims often made about members of the community of scientists and others engaged in, or supportive of, animal research is that they don’t talk with the public about their work. To the many scientists and others actively involved in a broad array of both formal and informal education, outreach, and community engagement efforts it is obvious that there is, in fact, a great deal of talking about animal research. At the same time, as with any other aspect of science or area of public interest, there is always a need for more outreach and more public engagement.

Speaking of Research encourages new outreach efforts and increased participation in dialogue about the responsible use of animals in humanely-conducted and ethical research. For those seeking to become more involved in speaking out about animal research there are many sources of information and existing programs that provide good ideas, models, and assistance in setting up new efforts.

This post will begin a series that highlights different approaches to science outreach and education, particularly those focused on research with nonhuman animals.  We begin with community outreach and education programs at primate research centers.  Many primate centers have active outreach programs built around educational objectives and service to local schools, including programs that provide opportunities for K-12 students to learn about research, internships for college students, and tours of their facilities.  The focus on educational outreach and opportunities for students is in keeping with the role of scientists as educators.

The California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) is one with a long-standing educational program.  Initiated in 2003, “the Education Outreach Program (EOP) was developed as a free, public-service program to introduce K-6 students to nonhuman primates, general health science concepts, animals in research, and biomedical research programs and careers. It supports the California Science Content Standards. This program has been a huge success with the classes visited since it began in June 2003. Comments we have received indicate that the children, as well as the adults, have a greater understanding of primates and health sciences, and the positive benefits that the primate center has on their lives.”  The CNPRC website includes links to the curriculum for their outreach program as well as many resources for teachers.

The Oregon National Primate Research Center also has an active outreach program, with its mission described as:  “Scientists have a responsibility to communicate their research findings to the public, and ONPRC scientists and administration take this responsibility seriously. The Office of Education Outreach hosts tours for over 3,000 visitors to the Center each year.”  As well, “ONPRC scientists speak to Center visitors, serve as mentors for teachers and students, and visit area classrooms. In addition, they participate in various programs through OHSU’s Science Education Opportunities Office (SOAR), and collaborate with several local and regional institutions, including Saturday Academy, OMSI, and the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR).”

Rhesus Monkeys at ONPRC

Outreach programs at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Tulane National Primate Research Center also support interactions between local schools and scientists engaged in primate research.  At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, a description of outreach programs illustrates an approach that, like others, includes many different audiences:  “The Department of Veterinary Sciences plays a vital role in helping to develop an appreciation for and an understanding of biomedical research by offering teachers, regional youth and the public a unique avenue to actively participate in the research process. Our formal education programs provide opportunities for individuals to dramatically increase their content knowledge in the sciences; access to scientists, veterinarians and other career role models in the sciences to both educators and students; practical hands-on student activities that coordinate with national science standards and curricular frameworks; and professional development for employees.”

At the Wake Forest University Primate Center the community outreach and education program “serves the community by providing children in grades K-12 and their teachers with opportunities to visit the WFUPC and learn about biomedical research. These tours are designed to give visitors educational information about nonhuman primates and the unique role that they play in translational research, to highlight the wide range of human health disorders that are addressed by the Translational Science Institute and the WFUPC, and to educate children about careers in science.”

Among the sources for educational and outreach materials about nonhuman primates are those provided by the American Society of Primatologists (ASP). ASP has a long history of encouraging and supporting “the development of educational programs in primatology” and “promoting improved instruction regarding primates.”  Their website includes helpful links and materials for teachers and others “looking for ideas on incorporating nonhuman primates into their lesson plans and anyone interested in learning more about nonhuman primates.”

Finally, the Primate Info Net (PIN), begun in 1995, provides many resources, links, and helpful educational material to those interested in primates, primate research, and outreach activities.  The PIN is maintained by Lawrence Jacobsen Library at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC), University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Primate Info Net is designed to cover the broad field of primatology, providing original content and links to resources about nonhuman primates in research, education and conservation. Through email lists and other resources, PIN also supports an informal ‘primate information network’ comprised of thousands of individuals around the world working with nonhuman primates in a variety of roles.”

There are many other ongoing outreach, education, and community engagement efforts. Those highlighted here provide just a few examples of the types of programs that encourage interaction.  Speaking of Research encourages scientists and others supportive of animal research to get involved in public outreach activities through the broad range of existing programs such as those highlighted above, but also by developing new initiatives.  Members of the Speaking of Research Committee work actively in many different types of public outreach and education and are available to share advice and experience with others.  We encourage you to use the comments section or to write posts to share your own experiences and programs and, by doing so, help to continue to build networks for supporting and increasing these efforts.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.