The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is about to take a closer look at the use of nonhuman primates in all federally funded U.S. research labs. ScienceInsider has learned that, in response to a congressional mandate, the agency will convene a workshop this summer to review the ethical policies and procedures surrounding work on monkeys, baboons, and related animals. The move follows NIH’s decision to end controversial monkey experiments at one of its labs and the termination of its support for invasive research on chimpanzees.
“This is great news,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D–CA) tells ScienceInsider. “I’ve been very concerned about the ethics and oversight of primate research, and so have many of my colleagues in the House [of Representatives]. Members of both parties have been supporting this review, because there’s nothing partisan about animal welfare.”
Roybal-Allard and three other members of Congress first contacted NIH in late 2014 in response to a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The animal rights group had run numerous ads alleging that researchers at an NIH lab in Poolesville, Maryland, were traumatizing baby rhesus macaques by taking them away from their mothers and addicting them to alcohol. Roybal-Allard and her colleagues asked NIH to conduct a bioethical review. NIH Director Francis Collins responded that an investigation had found no major problems with the research. Still, in December of last year the agency announced that it would phase out monkey experiments at the lab, though it blamed finances, not animal rights or congressional pressure.
That same month, Congress included language authored by Roybal-Allard in its 2016 spending bill that strongly encourages NIH to perform an ethical review of its nonhuman primate research. The agency, the bill reads, must “conduct a review of its ethical policies and processes with respect to nonhuman primate research subjects, in consultation with outside experts, to ensure it has appropriate justification for animal research protocols.” Last month, Roybal-Allard and Sam Farr (D–CA)—along with U.S. representatives Dina Titus (D–NV), Eliot Engel (D–NY), and Brendan Boyle (D–PA)—sent Collins a letter to follow up on the appropriations language.
Collins responded this week. In a letter to the lawmakers, he emphasizes the importance of nonhuman primate research in tackling Ebola, cardiovascular disease, and other afflictions. “Research with non-human primates is an essential component of the NIH mission and many patients have reaped—and will continue to reap—dramatic benefits as a result,” he writes, adding that “NIH takes animal welfare concerns seriously, and has numerous policies and protocols in place to assure the ethical treatment and use of these invaluable resources.” He states that, in response to the congressional request, his agency will convene experts in primatology, animal welfare, and ethics this summer “to ensure that NIH has the appropriate policies and procedures in place for conducting research with non-human primates.”
NIH tells ScienceInsider that it is still in the early stages of planning the workshop and does not have additional details to share at this time.
Tom Holder—the director of Speaking of Research, an international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs—says he hopes the agency doesn’t bow to political or animal rights pressure. “It is important to avoid creating politically motivated layers of regulation that would harm science in the U.S. while providing little or no tangible improvement to animal welfare,” he says. “Speaking of Research hopes that the NIH's workshop will recognize the fantastic work being done by the scientific community to continuously improve the way in which primate studies are conducted in the U.S.”
Holder says that, in addition to combating diseases like Ebola, nonhuman primates like rhesus monkeys and macaques will be used to study and hopefully thwart emerging threats like the Zika virus. “The scientific community would love if primate studies were not necessary, but that’s not the case at this time.”
PETA’s director of laboratory investigations in Washington, D.C., Justin Goodman, says his group will continue to put pressure on NIH to end all nonhuman primate research. It’s also trying to stop the import and breeding of monkeys for such research. “We hope the NIH workshop is open to the public and truly does represent the diversity of views on this issue,” he says.
Holder says he doesn’t see the workshop as a sign that NIH is turning away from nonhuman primate research, despite its actions on chimpanzees and the Poolesville monkeys. “NIH’s chimp decision just put it more in line with the regulations in other countries, and I hope that Poolesville was just a one-off case,” he says. “I hope NIH is ready to defend the importance of this research publically and that such statements will become more regular from them.”