Most research using monkeys, baboons, and other nonhuman primates in the United Kingdom produces results that justify the animal welfare costs, according to a comprehensive review made public today. But the review panel says that scientists should be careful not to make exaggerated claims about the medical impact of such research, and funding organizations should encourage more cooperation between basic and clinical researchers to make sure experimental results have maximum impact.
Animal research is a hot-button issue in the United Kingdom, and the use of nonhuman primates (NHPs) is particularly sensitive. The use of great apes was prohibited in the United Kingdom in 1997, and some activists have advocated a ban on all work with NHPs. A 2006 study called the Weatherall report found that work with NHPs was scientifically justified but recommended that funding agencies take a close look at the results of NHP work they had supported over the previous decade.
In response, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), and the Wellcome Trust commissioned the new review, which asked all 72 researchers who had received funding for research with NHPs between 1997 and 2006 to answer a questionnaire about the outcomes of their work. A panel chaired by biologist Patrick Bateson, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, was commissioned to assess the 67 responses.
The panel found that the existing grant review process, in which NHP studies undergo extra scrutiny by NC3Rs, generally works: Most research was justified in its use of NHPs and led to peer-reviewed publications. "In general, primate research is productive and high-quality," Bateson told a press briefing in London today. For example, the citation rates of publications arising from NHP work in neuroscience are significantly higher than the U.K. average in the field.
However, Bateson added, the panel was concerned that "it was actually quite difficult to identify grants that had substantial medical benefits." The British "are conditional acceptors" of animal research who expect to see some medical or public advantage in return, he said; to avoid creating a backlash, researchers "need to be honest and not overstate the medical benefit of primate research."
Most troublesome, Bateson says, were the 9% of the projects that led to no discernible scientific, social, or medical benefit at all. Of course it's difficult to judge work before it has been done, Bateson said, but the projects in question probably should not have been funded.
The panel was also concerned about the handful of projects that didn't lead to any papers. Even if experiments generate negative results, the panel says, "researchers using NHPs have a moral obligation to publish" their work, so that experiments are not unnecessarily repeated. Research funders should take an applicant's publication record into account when weighing the costs of animal suffering against the potential benefits of the research.
The panel recommends that the United Kingdom set up a working group that looks for ways to take better advantage of research results with NHPs, perhaps connecting basic researchers with clinicians or simply trying to better publicize the research results, which often end up in specialized journals.
Funders and inspectors should make sure that scientists are using the most modern training methods when dealing with animals. Monkeys, for example, can be trained to willingly give blood samples, which can lower stress for both animals and researchers, the panel notes.
Some of the panel's recommendations have already been taken up by funding agencies, John Savill, chief executive of the MRC said at today's briefing. Before the Weatherall report, he says, "all that counted was the quality of science. We are now much more hard-nosed about looking at the likelihood of medical benefit."