Directors Corner


Should we err on the Side of Humansor Monkeys? Most of you will be aware of the perennial debate regarding the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research.Thus although the number of monkeys used worldwide in medical research issmall (less than 1% of all animals used in research), their use generates polarized emotive views from both opponents and proponents.

I have personally been confronted by opponents who have sought to challenge the medical benefits that accrue from using animals in research, and one of my scientific mentors at one time had to contend with a barrage of shouted negative comments from animal rightists after he had delivered awell-researched paper at an international conference. Which begsthe question- how should IPR scientists confront, rebut and/or address issues related to use of animals, and especially non-human primates in health research?


We need to arm ourselves with the right arguments to counter those who would rather that animals played no role in amelioratinghuman suffering. It is important therefore to take note of the current status regarding the use of animals in medical research,as outlined by various independent, legal and professional organizations.Whenever possible medical research avoids the use of animals altogether, but some information cannot currently be obtained without their use e.g. the impact of a promising new vaccine on a tissue or organ within the body; brain functions and disease; reproduction and susceptibility to certain infections. But why not use lower animals? Actually we do, but they are not sufficient.


In many cases animals such as mice, rats, fish provide useful information, but ‘mice and men’ have been separated for eons and we have to be careful about extrapolating from rodents to humans. When the gaps in biology are too wide, the animals most closely related to humans are primates. But this similarity (and its inherent characteristics such as ‘sentience’ – the ability to feel and/or perceive), is also what raises most concerns; the closer to us or human-like they are (e.g. Great Apes), the less comfortable we feelabout using them in research. At IPR the two main species available for biomedical research, baboons and African green monkeysare both lower primates, abundantly available and not threatened in conservation terms. The great apes are not available in Kenya formedical research.


We are using non-human primate species at IPR because their brains, physiology, reproductive and immune systems are similar to our own. The research data we generate from these animals is therefore more directly relevant to people. As medical researchers,our argument based on cost-benefit analysis, is that research on primates is justified when the potential benefits are great and there are no realistic alternatives.


In recent times many others, including regulatory and independent working groups, parliaments and major scientific organizations, have reiterated this view. For example, a working group report chaired by Sir David Weatheall (2006) titled, ‘Use of non-human primates in research’ sponsored by four organizations including the Wellcome Trust, concludedthat there is a strong scientific case for the continued use of nonhuman primates in medical research. The European Commissionhas also recently released a report stating the use of non-human primates such as chimpanzees and baboons was still an integralpart of basic and applied biomedical research. 


The European members of parliarment (MEPs) also recently supported the useof non-human primates but have called for the use to be re-evaluated and restricted for ethical reasons and want to see significant reduction of the number of animals used in planned testing.Scientists at IPR recognize and adhere to legally defined responsibilities for working with animals. While all animal use must be justified,primates have special status under international laws and the justification for their use must be especially strong. All research at IPR must be approved by an Institutional Science and Ethics committee(IRC) hich has to satisfy itself that there are


March 2, 2013