Last month, five primatology graduate students petitioned the university to spare two cynomolgus macaques that were part of a study on the mechanisms of sensory and motor function in the face and mouth. The macaques had already been euthanized, but in subsequent statements to reporters, Peter Lewis (pictured), the university’s associate vice- president of research, seemed to suggest that the university was winding down its use of non-human primates.
“They were our very last ‘non-human’ primates and we have no intention of using any more. Technology now lets us get the same information from smaller animals,” Lewis is quoted as saying in a story that ran on 17 February in the Toronto Star.
“We have no more monkeys, fortunately,” he added in the Globe and Mail. “We have no intention at the moment of using non-human primates.”
The comments angered and distressed primate researchers in Canada and abroad, who called them ill-considered, inaccurate and undermining of their work, by implication.
“I’m disappointed that the University of Toronto has taken a student’s emotional reaction to heart without consulting with senior researchers and asking: what will this do to primate research in general?” said Tipu Aziz, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Oxford, UK, who used macaques to show that creating lesions in the subthalamic nucleus dramatically reverses symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Martin Pare is an associate professor at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a member of the Canadian Action and Perception Network, a consortium of basic neuroscientists that includes most Canadian non-human-primate researchers. He called Lewis’s initial words “troubling,” and “very irresponsible”.
In a statement e-mailed to Nature yesterday, Lewis took issue with how his comments have been construed.
“My comments in response to the media enquiries have been generalized from a specific situation — the pre-planned euthanasia of 2 macaques at the end of a 7 year study,” Lewis wrote.
He added: “At the moment there are no studies planned here at [the University of Toronto] that will use non-human primates. We are not stating that in the future we will never use non-human primates. We are simply stating that we have no plans at the moment .”
His comment that small animal models can replace non-human primates was also incorrectly generalized from a specific situation — the oro-facial experiment on the macaques — to all biomedical research, Lewis added.
“There are many types of research that require the use of non-human primates. Our researchers are not engaged in any of them at the moment. If a proposed research project at [the University of Toronto] required the use of non-human primates and was scientifically and ethically justified, then we would endeavor to support it.”
The statement went some way towards mollifying critics. “It is a proper, welcome clarification,” says Pare, who uses non-human primates to study visual attention and visual working memory. Still, he adds, the new statement “doesn’t really speak to the implication of the former statement in terms of its impact on public perceptions”.
Aziz calls the new statement “a very bland comment”, adding: “It doesn’t tell you anything. There’s no comment on whether the university is in support of the principle of primate research or not.”
While non-human primate research on the University of Toronto campus is now non-existent, there are half a dozen facilities in eastern Canada that still provide non-human primates for research use, including in the metropolitan Toronto area.
Michael Tymianski, a University of Toronto professor who works at the affiliated Toronto Western Hospital and the Toronto Western Research Institute, recently used 30 macaques to conduct a study published in the 1 March issue of Nature. It showed that stroke damage can be prevented by administering a PSD-95 inhibitor, which disrupts neurotoxic signaling pathways, after the onset of a stroke. The drug has since advanced into human trials, with promising results in a recent phase II trial.
The macaques were available to Tymianski through the MaRS facility, part of the University Health Network, a group of three hospitals affiliated with the University of Toronto.
Tymianski had no direct comment on the University of Toronto position, but noted that more than 1,000 stroke treatments have been tested in lower-order species — mainly rats and mice — without translating into efficacy in humans.
“[Our] finding, which is of extreme significance to human health (stroke afflicts over 1 million people per year in North America alone), could only have been obtained with primates,” he argues.