By: Jan E. Goodall, Mnrupe Virk

No more monkey business?

Samantha Chiusolo

U of T School of Dentistry had been conducting research on live monkeys until earlier this month when scientists euthanized the primates in order to analyze their brains. Currently, U of T has no intention to conduct further research on live non-human primates.

The Pro, Jan E. Goodall

The Con, Mnrupe Virk

Animal research has been a polarizing issue for many years, with strong arguments and even stronger emotions on both sides. Animal rights activists are often the loudest and most aggressive voice in the debate, and have thus alienated themselves from wider public support as a result of their tactics. However, these aggressive tactics are wholly justified by their cause: that animal testing is inefficient, inaccurate and unethical.

Despite the similarities between people and primates, our closest cousin in the animal kingdom, the results of experimentation on primates does not always translate to remedies for human afflictions. For example, monkeys exposed to the HIV virus present different symptoms and conditions than humans. This has huge implications for the types of medications developed from the data obtained through animal testing. For example, the Thalomide tragedy of the 1960s and 1970s comes to mind. Thalomide, a drug prescribed to pregnant women experiencing morning sickness, was safely tested on animals for years before distribution. However in humans, the drug caused debilitating and irreversible birth defects. By focusing medical research on primates and other animals, researchers are actually hindering progress towards successful treatments and cures for human ailments.

The practice of primate testing is inherently unethical due to the fact that it involves non-consenting animals: animals cannot agree to be kept in captivity and subjected to tests. Tests performed on non-human primates, who are deeply intelligent and sentient beings, often subject the animals to intensified levels of stress. Not only does this highlight the troubling ethical implications of animal testing, but intensified stress also has the potential to skew the results from the tests conducted.

It is nearly impossible to claim that all animal testing is conducted according to ethical standards. The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), an independent non-profit body established to regulate animal testing, is exempt from many public disclosure laws and thus lacks transparency and accountability to animal welfare. Further, this group is comprised of many members with a vested interest in continuing animal research and therefore cannot regulate animal testing from a truly independent and unbiased standpoint.

To argue that the costs of animal testing justify the benefits is to misunderstand the scientific process completely. There is no guarantee that the results of an experiment will be worth it in the long-run. The most ethical and efficient route therefore would be to work together and focus more attention towards viable alternatives to animal testing.

To cease all medical research on non-human primates is both impractical and detrimental to the progress of scientific knowledge. Research on primates has proven vital to medical developments. For example, treatments for macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the developed world, were perfected through research on primates, as were treatments for Parkinson’s disease. In addition, much of the research produced by experimentation on primates is used in veterinary medicine, bettering the lives of other animals.

In vivo testing, which refers to testing on a whole, living organism, is often crucial in determining the utility and toxicity of medical treatments. This is because ex vivo methods, or experiments that take place outside of an organism, do not test certain essential variables present in living beings and thus cannot always provide reliable results. Further, because Canadian law requires that pharmaceuticals undergo a process of human clinical trials before distribution, the usage of an appropriate animal model during the development of the medication itself helps refine the process of clinical testing.

The argument that data obtained from testing on primates is not reflective of human results fails to take into account the realities of biology. Primates and humans belong to the same mammal class; while there are certainly differences in biochemistry and gene expression, there is an overall similarity between the structure and mechanisms of physiological systems. Due to these similarities, there are over 100 known human diseases that have a naturally occurring counterpart – including same mechanisms and prognosis – in non-human animals. Taking the known differences into account, scientists are able to translate results from primate subjects to human application.

Lastly, it is possible to experiment on animals without being cruel. In modern scientific institutions, the use of animal subjects in experimentation is a strictly regulated process. All experimental designs involving live subjects undergo an ethical review process before implementation. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), an independent non-profit organization, regularly conducts audits on institutions that practice animal research.

In the absence of alternatives, testing on primates is a necessary component of medical research. The immense long-term benefits of this testing, such as the betterment of both human and animal health, far outweigh the short-term costs.

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