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Primate research gets provisional thumbs-up in UK review

primate240.jpgPrimate research ought to continue in the UK because of its importance to human health and basic science, says a new report (download a PDF here) commissioned by the major funders of this research. The report also calls for “rigorous” experimental and ethical oversight of the work.

Approximately 3,000 primates – mostly macaques and marmosets – are used in labs each year in the UK. Invasive research on great apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – is banned in the UK. (But see our recent feature on the controversies surrounding continued chimpanzee research in the United States)

However, the review found that nearly one in ten of the projects using non-human primates that were funded between 1997 and 2006 showed no obvious scientific or medical benefit.

“Not everything in the garden is lovely,” said Patrick Bateson, chair of the review and President of the Zoological Society of London, at a press briefing today, where he was flanked by the heads and executives from the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Those groups sponsored the review, which was recommended by a 2006 working group that also endorsed the continued use of primates in research. Bateson’s team mailed detailed questionnaires to 72 grant-holders involved in primate research between 1997 and 2006 and received 67 of them back. They also examined, grant by grant, the justification, conduct and outcomes of the research.


In most cases the research passed muster, the report says, turning to primates only when justified by the potential for medical or scientific gains. Bateson cited research using primate models to study stroke as one example.

But 9% of the grants the report reviewed were found lacking and did not adequately justify experimenting on primates. For instance, Bateson highlighted a neurophysiology project that analyzed 200 cells each from two animals – not enough to reach a strong conclusion, he said at the briefing. Some studies using primates to study vision have also been dubious, he said. The report did not identify these specific projects. “We don’t want to name names,” Bateson said.

The report also noted the difficulty in determining which projects will translate into medical benefits, which may be years and even decades off. “Predicting the human benefit is something that’s very difficult and scientists are in many ways in between a rock and a hard place,” keen on highlighting potential applications of their research yet wary of over-hyping it, Mark Walport, head of the Wellcome Trust, said at the briefing.

Nonetheless, Mark Prescott, of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, said at the briefing that many researchers over-egg the potential for medical benefits of working with primates, when the real gains of the research, at least in the short-term, are scientific. Funders, he added, should do a better job identifying projects with clear medical benefits and work to translate them to the clinic more quickly.

Bateson’s report echoed the call for speedier translation of primate research into medical applications and urged funders and scientists not to over-sell the medical benefits of primate research. It also recommended:

– Researchers, funders and grant reviewers consider alternatives to primates, including other animals and in vitro and computer models. Brain imaging of humans, for instance, could replace some particularly invasive neuroscience studies.

– Improved sharing of the data and results that come out of primate experiments, particularly the distribution of negative findings. “Researchers using non-human primates have a moral obligation to publish results – even negative – in order to prevent work being repeated unnecessarily,” the report notes.

The funding agencies that commissioned Bateson’s review issued a joint statement generally endorsing the report and its recommendations. “It pulls no punches and it leaves us a great deal of work to do,” John Savill, head of the MRC, said at the briefing.

However, he also acknowledged that the prickly atmosphere that surrounds primate research in the UK could hamper British scientists, relative to researchers in countries such as the United States, where approximately 60,000 primates are used in research each year. “We are where we are,” he said. “We may be losing out because we don’t do enough primate research.”

Image of a macaque couresy of the Wellcome Library

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