Genetically modified monkeys have once again hit the headlines, fanning an already raging fire over the use of non-human primates in biomedical research, as the Australian Green Party becomes the latest to try to curb the practice.
Chinese researchers have created monkeys with a human gene that causes them to show autism symptoms, such as running obsessively in circles and ignoring others. The announcement late last month sparked claims of animal cruelty and the potential for a “Planet of the Apes” scenario.
But has the announcement been overshadowed by sensationalism?
“It’s a primate so this has gained more attention than if it were a rodent,” says James Bourne, researcher at Monash University and Chair of the Non-human Primate Breeding and Research Facility Board in Melbourne.
“New [genetically modified] rodent models are occurring daily.”
Bourne believes the backlash relates to a normally social animal appearing so reclusive when genetically modified to reflect autism symptoms.
He is also quick to quash the “Planet of the Apes” scenario, by pointing out that it would be virtually impossible for the monkeys to escape and breed outside a laboratory.
Bourne is at the centre of the debate around the bill proposed by the Greens to ban the importation of non-human primates into Australia for research.
If successful, the ban could signal the end of primate research in Australia, as it could lead to inbreeding of the primates already in the country, jeopardising the genetic diversity and the health of the national colonies.
The bill originally only targeted monkeys that were inhumanely caught in the wild, although researchers say that all monkeys imported into Australia are born and bred in accredited European facilities.
However, Helen Marston, Chief Executive Officer of Humane Research Australia, explains that there is yet another ethical consideration.
“Subjecting these animals to long, arduous journeys in a cargo hold. That’s what we want to stop,” she said.
Animal protection groups insist that there are alternatives to animal research, which can better predict what happens in humans.
Researchers argue that these are inadequate.
Neuroscience, in particular, relies on primates, as the animals share up to 99% of human genes, with many anatomical, physiological and behavioural similarities.
Computer modelling can predict normal function, but cannot simulate the brain in a diseased state. And a “brain in a dish” is only part of a brain system. To observe behaviour in disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and autism, a researcher needs the whole animal, researchers say.
Yet critics believe these very similarities to humans, demand that we do not experiment on primates.
“They argue that [primates] are similar to us genetically, but they’re not acknowledging that they’re similar to us in emotions and family bonds,” says Marston.
Yet people don’t do this research on a whim – working with primates is extremely costly and difficult.
“If there is anything possible that can be done first, it is done,” says Nicholas Keks, a professor of psychiatry at Monash University and Director of the Centre of Mental Health and Research in Melbourne.
“Also, the ethics barriers are extreme, so primate research has to be absolutely necessary…because everyone feels awful about it.”
Kim Wallen, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroendocrinology at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, says there is enormous respect and compassion for the rhesus macaques used in his studies.
“We train the monkeys to come out of their social group on command, and to offer a leg for a blood sample like those we give when we go to the doctor,” he explains.
“Like humans, some monkeys are unfazed by giving blood, while others remain a bit anxious. We had one monkey who seemed to need the reassurance of contact and would reach out with one hand and gently place it over our hand while we were drawing the sample.”
Bourne says he looks forward to the day when animal research is unnecessary. But that day has not arrived, he says.
“If there were a better technique, we’d be using it.”