The importance of primate research and the responsibility it requires
By: Brian Russ, Ph.D.
A bill is currently circulating in the Australian Senate to ban the importation of primates into the country for the purpose of research. If enacted into law, it would effectively limit all non-human primate research within the country to that which is currently occurring. At this time, there are three breeding facilities for primates within Australia. The majority of these colonies contain macaque monkeys, the primary primate used in biomedical research. If this bill were to pass, those colonies would not be able to bring in new animals, which in turn would restrict medical advances, as the colonies are the primary suppliers for the all biomedical research on primates in the country. Interestingly, this bill targets a very small number of cases – the Senator who proposed the bill states that between 2000 and 2015 fewer than 800 primates were imported into the country. More likely, the goal of this bill is to push Australia towards the complete cessation of biomedical research on primates. The bill is supported by the Australian organization Humane Research, which advocates for the ban of most animal research within Australia, particularly primate research.
Scientists and advocacy groups in Australia are concerned that this bill will negatively impact biomedical research within the country. Dr. James Bourne, a biomedical researcher and member of the research committee in the Australian government’s National Health & Medical Research Council, recently testified in a Senate committee hearing to express the importance of animal research in Australia and how the ban would detrimentally impact Australia’s biomedical research as a whole. He pointed to the recent outbreak of the Zika virus, to demonstrate how primate research will be critical in developing a vaccine for it and any similar future viral outbreaks. A number of international advocacy groups have also spoken out against this bill declaring that its passing would be a stranglehold on biomedical research within the country. The advocacy group Speaking of Research, which is based in the United States but operates internationally, recently published an open letter to the Australian Senate from a number of biomedical researchers in Australia detailing how primate research has been critical to helping the people of Australia, and how this ban would drastically reduce their effectiveness in the future. The letter explains how biomedical research on primates directly led to the eradication of Polio in Australia (and throughout most of the world), helped to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease through the creation of Deep Brain Stimulation, and was critical in the creation of most vaccines used today. While all of these are of great benefit to the word, they only begin to scratch the surface of how biomedical research on animal models benefits the world’s health.
In addition to the discussing the benefits that animal research has provided the world, the letter also points out that animal importation and research is already strictly regulated, for the better. Throughout the world, ethics committees must approve research before it is allowed to begin on any animals, and if a suitable non-animal alternative exists that should be used instead. In the United States, all animal research must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which is run at local institutions and organized by the independent group the American Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences (AALAS). Additionally, institutes are also overseen and accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International. Institutions that work with AALAS and AAALAC allow these organizations to ensure institutional compliance with law and regulations dealing with the care and treatment of animals at the institutions. The majority of animal researchers welcome having such third party oversight to ensure that the public sees that biomedical researchers take the treatment of animals very seriously. AALAS and AAALAC investigations revolve around what are termed the “Three Rs”: Reduce, Refine, and Replace. That is, Reduce the number of animals needed in biomedical research through better techniques and practices, Refine the processes to minimize distress and any associated pain, and Replace animal models with alternatives when feasible. Organizations like Speaking of Research, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, the National Association for Biomedical Research, along with many others, push for not only better funding and understanding of animal research, but also for the responsible and humane use of animals in said research. Researchers therefore embrace the Three Rs and actively look for ways to encourage researchers to Reduce, Refine, and Replace.
Advocacy groups that seek to ban animal research often attack animal research by suggesting that researchers are not appropriately aiming to replace animals with other alternatives. For instance, Australia’s Humane Research group has a webpage and videos demonstrating that numerous alternatives to animal research are available. Groups that advocate for the use of animal research, however, disagree that we are at a stage in biomedical research were we could truly stop using animals. Advances in biomedical research are constantly evolving, and there may be a day in the future where the use of animals in research is no longer necessary in expanding our understanding of the world and improving the health of the populous; however, they state that we are not currently there.
One such recent advance that will help to Reduce, Refine, and in some cases, Replace animal research is the development of what is being called the mini-brain. While still in the early stages of development, these bundles of human neurons can mimic the functions and structures of parts of the human brain. These “brains” are grown by inducing stem-cells to grow into a particular class of brain cells through a form of genetic programming. This breakthrough could be of huge benefit to the biomedical community as it may allow for the testing of drugs directly on human neurological tissue. Advocacy groups looking to ban animal research and replace it with non-animal alternatives will likely point to these findings as more evidence that animals are no longer necessary for biomedical research. However, one must remember that the creation of these mini-brains would not have been possible without years of research into how stem cells operate, research that was conducted with animals. Additionally, while this research may be useful for drug development, mini-brains do not have the capacity for actual perception or behavior, meaning that tests on the effects of drugs will still require some animal testing to ensure their efficacy and safety.
As research continues to progress it may someday be possible to eliminate the need for animals in biomedical research. Currently, the state of biomedical research necessitates the use of animals, and banning of such research, or even restricting the importation of primates, could severely hinder the advance of cures and vaccines for many serious illnesses. Nevertheless, it is important that the scientist and the public continue to police animal research to ensure that all animals are treated ethically and every attempt is made to practice the Three Rs.