Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ethics of Primate (Ape) Research

An anonymous person has left a few comments on my post "New Primate Links" and rather than let that conversation die, I'd like to encourage futher commentary on the issue of using primates as human models in research.

According to the NIH website, 26,000 primates call the 8 National Primate Research Centers home. They represent 20 different species including chimpanzees, baboons, marmosets, and squirrel monkeys. Most are rhesus monkeys (macaques). All told, there are at least 20 plus labs that either breed or experiment on primates, or both.

The way I see it, the main issue is:
Do we really need to experiment on primates in labs?

I have stated that I am against unnecessary biomedical research on primates.
I am not against primate studies! I'd prefer that primates not be in labs, but there are people and places that study captive primates responsibly. See for reference: Marc Hauser, Sarah Boysen, Frans de Waal, and the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute.

Defining what is unnecessary is very challenging. People who are paid by the government make it their business to justify the necessity of their research. I would personally draw the line much closer to "unneccesary" than the NIH people do.

One of the arguments for primate biomedical experimentation is that they are similar enough to us physiologically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively to be good models. That is the same argument for not using them in research. If we use primates because we ethically cannot use people, then if they are so similar to be useful models, aren't they also similar enough to be immoral choices?

I think we should find alternate routes to developing treatments and vaccines for the conditions that primates are used for. AIDS is one that gets much of the money and attention and which is also possibly the least necessary. Chimpanzees do not actually become sick from HIV. They don't get AIDS. Monkeys that are used in HIV/AIDS research are infected with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) which would be fine if humans got sick from SIV or if SIV worked like HIV, but it doesn't. Any condition (like dementia, Parkinson's, endometriosis, etc) can be artifically created in a primate with enough trial and error, yet when those conditions are 'duplicated,' they never approximate the real human condition because the etiology is totally different. I think recreating human conditions in nonhuman primates, particularly apes, for the hope of helping humans is unnecessary.

We should find alternate means to achieve cures, treatments, and vaccines for humans that do not rely on primates.

I equate it with weaning ourselves from our oil dependency for personal transportation.

If those in power really wanted to, they could fund and develop alternative fuel sources. They could do the same for biomedical research. The European Union has ended its use of apes in biomedical research. Primates studies are still alive and well in the UK; they just aren't doing biomedical research anymore.

I have found some more interesting links on this subject I'd like to share.
• This one is an organization that seeks to modernize medical research by ending biomedical experimentation of primates. Among other points, they argue that laboratory conditions are unusual enough that results can't be generalized to wild populations, much less humans.

• The Humane Society presents some information about which EU countries have banned biomedical experimentation on apes (chimps, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos). The Netherlands was the last holdout until 2002, when it decided to retire its apes to sanctuary.

• The Great Ape Project was formed to grant a few basic rights to the nonhuman great apes: life, liberty and the prohibition of torture. The project has been controversial, namely because of who started it: Peter Singer. "Some opponents argue that, in extending rights beyond our own species, it goes too far, while others claim that, in limiting rights to the great apes, it does not go far enough."

• So as to be more balanced, here's a link to an OHSU Oregon Primate Research Center website that has links to information about how primate biomedical research has helped enhance human health. OHSU does not experiment on apes.

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