Primate research remains controversial and has been the subject of vigorous campaigning by antivivisection groups for at least 20 years. But many independent and expert enquiries, of which the Weatherall Report is the latest in the UK, have concluded that there is a strong case for their use to advance scientific and medical knowledge, and in assessing the safety of new medicines. The use of primates, like other animals, should only be when there is no alternative, and should be subject to careful regulation.
Most research primates are macaques or marmosets. They are used in relatively small numbers (they make up around 0.1% of research animals) but they have been important in many important medical advances; for example the polio vaccine, life support systems for premature babies, and deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease.
Currently the main areas of primate study are infectious diseases eg to develop vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria; in neuroscience to better understand the brain and treat conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to schizophrenia; and in reproduction, fertility and fetal research. They are also used in safety testing new medicines and vaccines.
Cotton-top tamarin monkeys have a high rate of spontaneous colon cancer. They develop colon cancer in a very similar way to humans, so investigations of whether colon cancer is heritable - as it can be in humans - are now a focus of research. Other monkeys used in research include macaques and marmosets, mostly in brain research and in safety testing of new medicines.
European regulation of primate research has come into sharp focus with the revision of European Directive 86/609. A draft proposal was published in late 2008. It will be discussed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
Related to the revised Directive, antivivisection-inspired Written Declarations calling for an end to the use of primates in research have been put down in the European Parliament and have gained the 393 MEP signatures needed to take any one declaration further. Two UK antivivisection groups have produced their own reports critical of primate research.
However, in January 2008, the European Commission produced its response to this Declaration. It recognised that limited use of primates is imperative in particular biomedical research fields, such as immunology and neurodegenerative disease. It also recognised that replacement should be the ultimate goal, but it is simply not possible at present.
What the experts think
The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King FRS, said:
"Although rare, the use of primates in medical research and testing is invaluable, as an essential aspect of work which provides the best hope for breakthroughs in important areas such as neurodegenerative disorders and for aspects of immune and reproductive functions."
MRC press release responding to the Weatherall Report, June 2007.
"There is a strong scientific case for the carefully regulated use of non-human primates where there are no other means to address clearly defined questions of particular biological or medical importance."
Weatherall Report: The use of non-human primates in research, December 2006
"Primates have been used in research aimed at understanding how complex brains work, as their neurological development and higher cognitive functions are very similar to humans… Animal [primate] disease models were also used for research on hepatitis C, and polio."
Nuffield Council on Bioethics, The ethics of research using animals, May 2005
"... for certain experiments there are no alternatives to the use of non-human primates. Such experiments may be needed, for example, during the development of drugs and vaccines for prevention and cure of disease such as AIDS, TSE1, malaria, and influenza".
European Commission Scientific Steering Committee (SSC), The Need for Non-Human Primates in Biomedical Research, April 2002
"Many significant advances in modern medicine have been based on research involving primates."
MRC and Wellcome Trust, Primates in Medical Research, June 2006
Watch our videos
Weatherall Report The use of non-human primates in research
Response to Weatherall Report recommendations
MRC/Wellcome Trust: Primates in Medical Research booklet
EC SSC Report: The Need for Non-Human Primates in Research
Nuffield Council on Bioethics report: The ethics of research using animals
NC3Rs guidance: Non-human primates
APC report: The use of Primates under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (1986) with particular reference to regulatory toxicology
Home Office report: Aspects of Non-human Primate Research at Cambridge University. A Review by the Chief Inspector
FELASA response on primates in research European Academics Science Advisory Council (EASAC) statement
Commission response to Written Declaration
European Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) opinion on primate research (January 2009)