Opinion: You might find my research using monkeys abhorrent, but it could save your life

01 March 2016
This Opinion Piece first appeared in The Guardian on 1 March 2016.

“… and what do you do for a living James?”

Before answering this question I can predict a range of responses to my answer. Some people lean forward in fascination, others lean back in uncomfortable silence. Sometimes there is abhorrence. I completely understand these reactions because I am a scientist who uses animals in my research.

More precisely, I use the small New World marmoset monkey in medical experiments trying to understand the potential for the brain to repair itself following an injury. While some people hold firm views in support or opposition of my research, others recognise it as crucial yet are uncomfortable with a reliance on animals for the research.

This often leads into a conversation about a friend or relative who is severely afflicted as the result of a stroke, head trauma, or disease such as Parkinson’s or dementia. It is these personal stories that confirm to me the importance of my work.

There is currently a private member’s bill before federal parliament, moved by Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, proposing to ban the importation of non-human primates like marmosets for research purposes.

Much of the debate has been cloaked in misinformation driven by emotion. Scientists, by definition, believe in evidence and proof. So when misinformation and untruths are peddled, they assume that the general public will see through the untruths and dismiss the propaganda.

The fact that this bill is even being considered is evidence that Australia’s scientific community has been cowed into burying its collective head in the laboratory for too long on this issue.

As an example of why non-human primate research is so relevant, recently researchers in the United States infected monkeys with the Zika virus, making their raw data available online rather than waiting to publish them in a journal. The reason: the data is as close as scientists can get to understanding, in real-time, what is happening when humans are infected with the Zika virus. The scientists hope that releasing the data to the world’s scientists will help to speed up research into the nature of the virus that has spread across the Americas and presents a risk to multiple nations including Australia.

Another recent example is worth highlighting. In 2015, the world witnessed the worst epidemic of the Ebola virus to date. The use of non-human primates in ongoing research proved crucial in the search for therapies to prevent Ebola infection. Macaque monkeys were treated with an antibody isolated from a human Ebola survivor and developed almost complete protection against a lethal dose of Ebola when the antibody was delivered up to five days after being infected with the virus.

These examples alone dispute the claim made in many submissions to the senate inquiry that knowledge gained from non-human primate research is inapplicable to humans. This claim is utterly false. 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.

Primates share approximately 98% identity with the human genome and many anatomical, physiological, and behavioural similarities. For this reason, primates are critical to biomedical research targeting the causes, progression, prevention, and treatment of a wide variety of diseases. Furthermore, the benefits move in both directions – breakthroughs in human medicine are also used to treat diseases in other animals, including primates.

Studies with primates have led to highly significant medical insights. For example, rhesus factor incompatibility between mothers and their unborn children was discovered through experiments on rhesus monkeys. Countless lives have been saved after Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed their polio vaccines in primates. HIV was a death sentence in the 1980s but today is a treatable condition due in large part to research conducted using non-human primates. My own government funded research that recently identified a drug that reduced the amount of brain cell death following stroke, which could never have been determined through rodent or cell based research.

The impact of this discovery could be enormous with nearly 2% of the population having a stroke every year. Finally, the development of stem cell technology, on which many hopes are pinned today was initially based on research using monkeys.

The visual imagery peddled by animal research opponents – much of it recycled from cruel practices decades ago – is utterly confronting. 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. Under these principles, animal-based research is only approved by a qualified animal ethics committee, which includes members of the lay public, welfare organisations and veterinarians.

There is currently no alternative approach that can replicate the vast complexity of human disorder and disease. Researchers are continuously looking for non-animal based alternatives, which has already led to a significant reduction in the number of non-human primates used in research in Australia.

Non-human primates are used only in exceptional circumstances – when necessary and when finding an answer simply cannot be provided by another animal model, cell-based system, computer modelling or human experimentation. Protagonists of the ban on non-human primate importation refer to the use of these animals for “drug testing” but the vast majority of research in Australia is not for this purpose.

Currently in Australia, non-human primates are used in experiments associated with obesity and metabolic disease, understanding perceptual and cognitive processing, vaccine development, and the development of prostheses to return sight to people who are blind.

The care and welfare of animals are of paramount concern to every researcher and the staff employed to care for the animals are highly qualified and compassionate professionals who take great pride in their work. 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.

Furthermore, every researcher understands the great duty of care they must apply. Minimising the risk of pain and distress is of utmost importance when designing a study.

So why is there not a greater transparency of animal research in Australia? First, it must be pointed out that researchers have nothing to hide. All the procedures and principles of the research program have been provided to an animal ethics committee and the appropriate funding body for full evaluation. All research ends up being published in journals and is generally available online.

However, researchers tend to be somewhat hesitant to speak out as history tells us that this can have significant repercussions on the individual and the important research program. 

There are incidents of researchers being personally threatened and attacked, and in some cases bombs sent to their family members. While there is pressure from certain corners for more transparency, this needs to be appropriately evaluated and assessed by many parties, including government bodies, research institutes and anti-vivisection organisations.

You might find my work abhorrent, but it is framed in the highest possible duty of care to the animal and it seeks to address critical challenges in global health. 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.

A/Prof Bourne is a Chief Investigator in the Stem Cells Australia initiative and a reseacher at Monash University's Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute.