HIGH WELFARE COST, LITTLE BENEFIT – THE BUAV CALLS FOR AN END TO THE USE OF PRIMATES IN RESEARCH FOLLOWING THE PUBLICATION OF A NEW RESEARCH COUNCILS' REPORT
Commenting upon the Report, ‘Review of Research Using Non-Human Primates’ the BUAV today expressed deep concern over this chilling insight into primate research in the UK. Legislation introduced 25 years ago designed to give primates special protection is clearly failing. The Report shows that experiments are being carried out on primates that have a devastating impact on them with little or no human benefit. According to the Report, 9% or 1 In 10 experiments did not have a medical benefit. Furthermore, recommendations by the Review to properly apply the cost:benefit test and use alternatives if they are available, simply restates what the law requires.
BUAV Chief Executive, Michelle Thew: “This report is a chilling insight into primate research in the UK. It is also a shocking admission of failure. Regulations designed to protect primates in research are demonstratively not working. It is still far too easy to subject primates to extremely devastating experiments with little or no human benefit. It is now clear that the only measure that would completely protect primates, and to ensure more productive medical research, is to end their use in research. It is time for researchers and funding bodies to come into line with public opinion.”
This report cannot be considered an independent review as it is funded by organisations pre-disposed to supporting primate research. Even with that in mind, it is revealing that a number of key concerns have been expressed regarding welfare costs, application and relevance to humans and the overstating of medical benefits by researchers. The fact that this research is being funded by the UK’s major research bodies is a shocking indictment of the system, even more so when it is happening with a species that is supposed to have special protection. Serious questions must now be raised about the remainder of the much less high profile animal research taking place in the UK.
The report was based on answers to questionnaires sent to scientists doing primate research. These scientists are unlikely to be critical of their own current and future work, and the panel’s assessment of the questionnaires was too superficial to arrive at any robust conclusions regarding the worth of primate research.
The report inferred value from specific primate research if subsequent scientific papers cited it. This is unacceptable. Work may be cited for a multitude if reasons, many of which bestow no value to it at all. The panel did not elucidate why the primate work had been cited, and if it essentially contributed to human medicine.
Even given the relatively short comings of the report, and amid assertions of high standards of animal research in the UK, the panel concluded that:
Much primate research had a high welfare impact on the animals
Alternatives to using primates were not always sufficiently explored
Benefits of primate research, which are often highly speculative, are not always commensurate with welfare costs
In many cases, little or no evidence is available of actual medical benefit stemming from primate research, in the form of changes in clinical practice or new treatments
In some cases, work repeated previous work, or ‘confirmed’ earlier results from human studies
Some primate research is never written up for dissemination
Primate researchers may overstate and generalise the medical benefit of their research, which often cannot be substantiated
What this debate really needs is a truly critical assessment of primate research, to determine to what degree primate data essentially contributes to medical progress, and how predictive of the human situation any given primate study may be. Only then can a value be assigned to it. A review based heavily upon answers to questionnaires provided by scientists, with a clear interest in defending their own work, does not provide the robust scrutiny that such a controversial area of research demands.
Key points from report
1) Recommendation 8
Highly invasive and long-term NHP research often carries a high welfare cost. In such cases, funders should take particular care only to fund projects with a very high likelihood of producing scientific, medical or social benefit. Wherever possible, funders should take steps towards encouraging a preferential or complementary use of less invasive techniques such as neuroimaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
2) 4.2.5 Almost half (46.2%) of studies were neuroscience studies…and half of these had a ‘high welfare impact on the animals.‘In most cases, however, little direct evidence was available of actual medical benefit in the form of changes in clinical practice or new treatments.’
3) 4.2.5 'More difficult to assess and also potentially important was that the trail linking discovery by researchers to developments benefiting medicine was difficult to establish. This is something that the investigators – as experts in their fields – need to help make visible for funders and future reviewers.'
4) Recommendation 12
In their public engagement, the funders and researchers should avoid overstating and generalising the medical benefit of NHP research, since this cannot be substantiated in many cases. Instead, the statements should reflect the actual basis for funding decisions, recognising that these are often based on scientific value.
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