HRA responds to researcher’s opinion

Humane Research Australia (HRA) was pleased to read an opinion piece in The Guardian by James Bourne titled “You might find my research using monkeys abhorrent, but it could save your life.” Why?

Primate experiments have been shrouded in secrecy for decades – an industry that has proved to be almost impenetrable, despite being funded largely through our tax dollars – and now the introduction of the Senate’s bill to ban the importation of primates for research has thrown open the issue to the court of public opinion.

Animal experimentation is indeed a controversial and highly polarising issue, but it shouldn’t be.  Certainly the vast majority of the population doesn’t want to cause harm to others – whether human or otherwise – and as decent people we wish to see the eradication of deadly diseases, as soon as possible.   Why then has it been until now, almost impossible to have an open and honest debate about the scientific merit of using animals in medical research?   Is the use of animals by researchers beyond reproach?   

In this case, HRA has constantly been denied access to information, particularly about primate experiments.   The Senate bill however has begun to throw open the doors of secrecy surrounding this hidden industry and drawn the researchers out into the open in an attempt to justify their actions.

There are many claims made in the above article that cannot remain unchallenged and these will be addressed in the order they were presented.

“Much of the debate has been cloaked in misinformation driven by emotion.”

“Anyone that argues that insights gained from animals are meaningless in understanding normal and pathogenic processes in the human body is either poorly informed or knowingly untruthful.”

It was French physiologist Claude Bernard who once said “The physiologist is no ordinary man. He is a learned man, a man possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea. He does not hear the animals' cries of pain. He is blind to the blood that flows. He sees nothing but his idea, and organisms which conceal from him the secrets he is resolved to discover.”

Using sentient, highly cognitive animals as “tools for research” could certainly be considered cruel, but just as importantly, it does not represent good science. Primates have been found to be poorly predictive of human outcomes and their use has proven to be ineffective at providing substantial contributions to biomedical research.  In his 2014 paper, “Monkey-based research on human disease: the implications of genetic differences”, J. Bailey[1]  concludes that despite a reported 90 to 93% genetic similarity, “monkey data do not translate well to progress in clinical practice for humans.

Similarly, a peer reviewed article published in 2010[2] states, “Humans respond differently than other primates to a large number of infections. Differences in susceptibility to infectious agents between humans and other primates are probably due to inter-species differences in immune response to infection.”

Interestingly, the genetic similarities between humans and other primates are often cited as reason for us to use them in research, yet Bourne contradicted this position when asked about chimpanzees at the recent Senate hearing for the bill. He said “Primates share approximately 95 per cent of human genes and a number of anatomical and physiological similarities. For this reason primates are critical to biomedical research targeting the cause, progression, prevention and treatment of a wide variety of diseases.” When questioned by Senator Lee Rhiannon: “Considering their genome is much closer to ours than the macaques, marmosets and the other primates that we are using, do you think that we should still be using chimpanzees?” Bourne’s response was “No. And I am going to take that argument to the fact that you are suggesting that everything that we need to decipher from medicine is all about the genetics. If we wanted a 100 per cent correlation between primate and human genetics, that is all about the human. This is not a linear relationship.” So, we won’t use chimpanzees that are closer to humans, but that doesn’t matter?

Logic tells us that because we have not had a 100% correlation between primate and human genetics in research, then should we continue to use primates, we are prone to continue mistakes, delays and even threaten human life on occasion when such ‘successful’ research conducted on primates is translated to humans.    

Bourne conveniently omits that there are many ways today to obtain a significantly closer correlation to the 100% mark if not 100% itself by using modern alternatives to primates.  

“The visual imagery peddled by animal research opponents – much of it recycled from cruel practices decades ago – is utterly confronting. “

At this point it might be worth taking a closer look at Bourne’s own research: “The animal’s head was shaved and swabbed with a topical antibiotic solution. Adults were administered a broad-spectrum antibiotic to prevent cerebral edema, then secured in a stereotaxic frame… Following a skin incision along the midline of the cranium, a triangular craniotomy was created over the occipital pole using a burr drill… with the aid of a diamond knife, to facilitate microsyringe penetration.” That is a direct quote from his A Reproducible and Translatable Model of Focal Ischemia in the Visual Cortex of Infant and Adult Marmoset Monkeys (2014) - not “visual imagery peddled by animal research opponents” and certainly not from decades ago.

There is no emotion required when speaking out against the ineffectiveness of animal experiments as the facts speak for themselves. Vivisectors on the other hand inevitably “peddle” the imagery of sick children and terminally ill patients being more important than animals – hence the reason why (they say) animal research, no matter how cruel is unfortunately, necessary.  That argument however is gross misdirection.  

There would be very few people who have not been personally affected by cancer, Parkinson’s disease or stroke – either through the loss of a loved one or their own personal battles – but these people are precisely the reason why Australia should be embracing appropriate methods of research – not antiquated experiments based on a species which differs from us genetically, anatomically and metabolically.

The fact is all animal research in Australia is conducted under the strictest scrutiny and follows the principles of reduction, refinement and reuse known as the 3Rs. “

The globally accepted 3R’s principle, refers to reduction, refinement and replacement - not reuse (of animals).  It is astounding that a person claiming to have “got an international reputation in the field of brain injury and disease”, is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (the distributor of our tax dollars), and publishes “a number of papers in highly peer-reviewed journals internationally”[3] can get this crucial principle so incredibly wrong as to potentially mislead the Inquiry.

The research community constantly tells us that all medical experiments on primates in Australia are done with rigorous ethical procedures in place.   There is state legislation, a code of practice and a system of animal ethics committees (AECs) in place which exist to supposedly protect research animals.   Unfortunately these committees are often used to allay the concerns of the community and as an assurance that the animals are well protected.   However HRA has uncovered many experiments that should never have been given approval via an AEC.  Frequently the animal welfare representative on an ethics committee does not have sufficient expertise to challenge the scientific validity of the experiment and therefore needs to rely on the researchers themselves to justify it. [Examples of experiments conducted after AEC approval are available on our website.]

There is also too much pressure on the AECs to approve protocols in order for the institutions to receive funding.  The legislative measures that are currently in place to protect these animals are unfortunately failing.

“The welfare of every animal is continuously monitored and recorded. The outstanding facilities provided to support animal research in Australia are governed by individual state and territory legislation, ensuring the highest standards.”

Reviewing primate research and the facilities in isolation: “Maternal parity affects neonatal survival rate in a colony of captive bred baboons (Papio hamadryas)” (2007) addressed the baboon colony in Wallacia NSW and divulged some disturbing incidents of baby baboon deaths such as body torn in two, body too decomposed to establish the cause of death and body not found. It would be very interesting to know whether these studies have been followed up to determine whether conditions for these animals have improved, as such reports certainly give us little confidence that the facilities are “outstanding” nor ensure  “highest standards.” Such information however, has continually proven difficult to obtain.

All research ends up being published in journals and is generally available online.”

The reality is that few members of the general public would  be privy to research information as medical journals are often behind paywalls, must be accessed via university databases and not particularly open to the public’s scrutiny – despite the majority of this research, and the breeding facilities themselves being funded by Australian tax payers through the previously mentioned NHRMC.

Primate research is a hidden industry and it can be difficult even for those in the know to obtain information through Freedom of Information requests and even questions in Federal Parliament.

HRA commissioned a public opinion poll in 2013 and found that only 57% of the general public is even aware that animals are used in experimental research in Australia today. When HRA discusses this with members of the public they are invariably surprised that primates are still used in Australia.

“There are incidents of researchers being personally threatened and attacked, and in some cases bombs sent to their family members.”

Opponents of animal experiments do not rely on protests or arguing on grounds of cruelty or abuse.  Organizations such as HRA wish to open up debate on the scientific merit of using animals for research tools and unfortunately are often denied this opportunity due to these unverifiable claims of fear for the researchers’ safety.

It’s a very convenient excuse to deflect attention or criticism of their work and to avoid accountability.

Certainly animal experimentation is a very emotive issue to some and it’s understandable that members of the public will be deeply disturbed to learn what is going on behind lab doors, but HRA is not aware of any such incidents in Australia where researchers have been threatened by animal ‘liberationists’.   In fact HRA has approached the Australian Federal Police recently to ascertain if there had ever been such cases. HRA found nothing.

“If we proceed down a path to banning animal research – it is not only the science that will suffer but also, more importantly, the patients who would have benefitted from the outcomes.”

It is often argued that the use of primates has been instrumental in the development of major medical breakthroughs.  While animals are widely used for medical research, they are far from being an appropriate model, and certainly could not be accurately credited for any medical ‘breakthrough’.   The genetic, anatomic and metabolic differences between humans and other animals mean that any data obtained from animal tests cannot be translated to humans with sufficient accuracy.  Even when genetically modified, there is no single animal model that can accurately mimic the complex human situation.  There are far too many unknown variables that cannot all be accounted for.

Two examples often touted as success stories (using animals) are the development of the Polio Vaccine and Deep Brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s  Disease. These claims are misrepresentative of the historical records.

With the polio vaccine, monkey experiments were involved in its development, however, importantly, polio is contracted through the digestinal tract in humans whereas in monkeys, it’s contracted through the respiratory system.   The original vaccine (‘successfully’ tested in monkeys) resulted in numerous human deaths and paralysis.  Further experiments (also on monkeys) led to development of a nasal treatment which caused permanent olfactory damage to children.

Then in 1941, Dr Albert Sabin decided to study human autopsies to disprove the nasal theory and stated: “…prevention was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys”.    Finally, in 1949, Nobel Laureate John Enders grew the virus in tissue cultures. He did unfortunately use monkey tissue which then resulted in a virus (SV4O) jumping the species barrier.   Thankfully it is now grown in human cell culture (and could have been originally thereby saving countless lives and leading to a far more expeditious medical solution for humanity).[4]

More recently, deep brain stimulation for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease is often credited to the cruel work with MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine) treated monkeys, developed after the serendipitous discovery of symptoms of Parkinsonism in young drug addicts exposed to the narcotic contaminant.   Yet the practice has actually been used to treat sufferers since the 1940’s - many years before the first ever description of the MPTP-primate model ever existed.[5]

In summary, primates have been used throughout history in crude and invasive experiments, but the fact that they were used in the process does not imply nor logically follow that they were a necessary part of the development of medical treatments. 

The Senate bill to ban the import of primates for experiments – the issue which sparked this public debate - is absolutely necessary.   Australia already has three government-funded breeding facilities where these animals are bred specifically for research purposes.  The facilities, used to breed marmosets, macaques and baboons, currently hold around 750 primates in total[6], yet according to NHMRC Chief Executive Anne Kelso, only 36 primates were used in research in 2015[7] - “the lowest number in a very long time”. Opponents of the bill argue that they need to continue importing them in order to maintain the genetic diversity of the colonies, and indeed this would be the only valid reason to continue importing them, (if such experiments were justifiable - which HRA denies), but such a claim raises red flags suggesting that not only will these futile experiments continue, researchers intend using higher numbers of animals in experiments.    While there is obvious contravention of the 3Rs principle, it also goes against the current global trend where there are clear indications the research community is slowly moving away from primate research.  The United States recently announced it would cease its use of research chimps and an updated announcement confirmed it will review the policy on all non-human primate use.[8]

HRA’s view is that Australian researchers should be using non-animal methodologies that are far more relevant to studying human disease rather than trying to replicate a disease in a species that is genetically different to our own.  It is illogical to expect to use animals and achieve accurate or indicative results for humans. 

HRA therefore welcomes the opinion piece by James Bourne, misguided and incorrect though it believes it to be.   Primate experiments are finally in the spotlight. The Australian public can be made aware of what is really happening behind lab doors, and unless the public is aware of what is going on, then it will be impossible to have an open and honest debate about the scientific merit of basing Australian medical research on a different species.



[1] Altern Lab Anim. 2014 Nov;42(5):287-317.

[2]Functional Comparison of Innate Immune Signaling Pathways in Primates” Barreiro, 2010.journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1001249

[3] Proof Committee Hansard, SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Live Imports of Primates for Research) Bill 2015

[4][4] http://www.safermedicines.org/page/faqs_faq06

[5] Burns RS et al. 1983. A primate model of parkinsonism: selective destruction of dopaminergic neurons in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra. PNAS 80:4546.

[6] Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Live Imports of Primates for Research) Bill 2015, Public Hearing, Friday 5 February 2015, Questions on Notice  Department of Environment – Input from NHMRC

[7] Proof Committee Hansard, SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Live Imports of Primates for Research) Bill 2015

[8] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/02/nih-review-its-policies-all-nonhuman-primate-research

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