Animal Aid

Monkey madness at Oxbridge

Animal Aid's Mad Science Awards (AAMSAs) - handed out each year for pointless and grotesque scientific research - never fail to embarrass the animal research community because of what they reveal to an incredulous outside world.

The theme this year is highly invasive brain research involving non-human primates at OXFORD and CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITIES.

These respected seats of learning have traditionally competed against each other at their annual boat race. This famous event pits top athletes against each other, epitomising the spirit of human endeavour.

But Oxford and Cambridge are also engaged in an altogether more contentious form of competition: research on primates.

Monkey tied up for experiment

Cambridge University announced plans in May 2000 to build a massive primate facility for research into neurological diseases. A subsequent planning inquiry (in which Animal Aid played a leading part) resulted in the government inspector ruling decisively against the project on scientific grounds. The Deputy Prime Minister, however, rejected the judgement of his own inspector and granted the University permission to proceed. A High Court challenge, in July this year, by Animal Aid and the National Anti-Vivisection Society failed on narrow legal grounds. Meanwhile, the University - knowing the opposition it faces - has announced that it does not intend to go ahead after all, despite having permission to do so.

Key sections of the media, however, have portrayed the decision by Cambridge not to proceed as arising from threats of violence by animal rights activists. In fact, the University, in its own evidence to the planning inquiry, insisted that it was not unduly concerned by animal rights militancy. There was also a failure by much of the media to reflect the view of members of the scientific community who gave evidence at the planning inquiry, that primate research is misleading and counter-productive. Undoubtedly, the debate over primate research is not only about animal welfare, it is about good and bad science.

Primate in experiment

Unmoved by the Cambridge experience, Oxford University has begun building its own £18 million animal research facility. The stated objective is to seek answers to the problems of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. 'Animal models' of these and other human diseases will be used - a methodology that is now increasingly regarded as unreliable, even within the rresearch community. Although the project is currently stalled after the contracted builders withdrew in the face of concerted campaigning, both the government and the University are determined not to let the anti-vivisection movement claim another victory and have pledged that the Oxford expansion will reach fruition.

The competition between Oxford and Cambridge is not just about building new research facilities. Rather, it is about actual experiments currently being conducted on primates in existing Oxbridge laboratories. Most of these experiments are performed on tiny marmosets and on rhesus macaques. It is impossible to quantify what suffering these highly intelligent animals go through before, during and after undergoing major surgery, the aim of which is to deliberately destroy large parts of their brains. In addition to experiencing physical pain, these primates also endure psychological stress and fear.

Caged monkey

Some of the strongest scientific arguments against using non-human primates in medical research have been voiced by individual scientists who themselves performed animal experiments in the past. A recent example can be found in a powerful editorial written by Michael Balls M Balls. Editorial in ATLA 2003; 31, 545-547.) who made the following points:

  1. The use of such highly sentient creatures is morally indefensible - the main reason for the desire to use them, their similarity to ourselves, is also a most compelling reason for not doing so.

  2. The higher primates, by their very nature, cannot be institutionalised and remain healthy.

  3. In my opinion, some of the procedures to be applied to primates in the new [Cambridge] facility, and especially those involving the insertion of electrodes into the brain, involve substantial suffering.

  4. Similarly, there is little evidence that primates provide effective models for human disease, especially since insufficient is usually known either of the human disease, or of its purported relation in primates, for a rational judgement to be made about how useful the primate model is likely to be.

  5. Trying to reproduce animal models of human disease is an outdated approach, especially since there are now many non-invasive ways of working with human patients.

  6. The UK already conducts far more procedures on primates than any other EU member state [the total number of experiments on these animals used in Great Britain in 2003 was 4799].

This timely editorial once again highlights the urgent need to subject the whole issue of primate research to public and scientific inquiry. For too long, research scientists have been able to pass off as moderate, procedures that cause severe pain. This is in addition to the questionable scientific relevance of these experiments to human patients.

Primate in experiment

There are other important scientific arguments against using monkeys as animal models of human brain diseases.

  • Genes in the brain of humans and non-human primates, including chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys, differ significantly in their levels of activity. One important difference is that human genes provide greater protection against activity-related damage, than do genes in monkey brains. This could help to explain why humans live longer than non-human primates and also why humans are more susceptible to age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's (Emory University Health Sciences Center press release, 13.10.2003).

  • The human brain is about three and a half times bigger than that of the chimpanzee, our closest evolutionary relative. The left and right halves of the brain in humans differ from each other and also differ in their circuitry ('wiring') from chimpanzees. The key to understanding the differences between the brains of humans and monkeys is how the brain cells are organised to work together, which, again, is unique in each species rain circuitry involved in language reveals differences in man, non-human primates. Medical College of Georgia. 5.9.2001).

Click here for the summaries of the 2004 award winners >>

Report researched and written by André Menache BSc(Hons) BVSc MRCVS FRSH, Scientific Consultant to Animal Aid

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