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Scientific Critique of Non-Human Primate Research

Why the project of the Cambridge Primate Center in Behavioural Neuroscience (CPCBN) is scientifically irrelevant.

Our board has been asked to comment on the scientific aspect of the proposed CPCBN. The comment is based on the short release from the U. of Cambridge, entitled "Details of the proposed science" to take place at the CPCBN. According to this release, basic and clinical research at the projected facility should contribute to:

  • the understanding of the link between behaviour and the neuronal structure of the brain,
  • the understanding of the link between this structure and neuronal pathologies,
  • the development of clinical diagnosis and therapeutic strategies,
    the testing of drug treatment,
  • the understanding of how existing therapies work.

Although not explicitly stated in the release, we suppose that the primates are considered here as models of human behaviour and pathologies. This is a frequent assumption, which is, however, false. The very idea that one species can serve as a model for a different species, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of fundamental principles of modern biology. Any individual species is defined by its reproductive isolation, which implies that its chromosomes (genome) cannot match, complement or recombine with those of any other species. Hence each species has a uniquely designed genome, i.e. the gene structure, the control and regulation of gene expression etc. are all strictly species-specific. Since the genes determine all biological activities, it follows that the species' physiology, its behaviour, its response to internal disorders (pathologies) or to some external stimuli (e.g. toxins), are strictly species-specific also. No species can therefore function as a biological model for another species, no matter how closely related they are in evolution.

This statement is especially valid in neurological matters. Our central nervous system distinguishes us most dramatically from that of any other known living species, including the great apes. Therefore, using monkeys to predict the human biological responses, in any of the five fields considered by the CPCBN, is pointless. No result obtained from primate studies can be seriously considered valid in humans as long as the observation has not been made in man also. Hence the preliminary primate experiment was useless. It can even be counterproductive or dangerous, as it could pave the way to false conclusions (remember the French blood scandal, a consequence of the absence of reaction of chimpanzees to the AIDS agent HIV, which led "experts" to OK the circulation of HIV-contaminated blood samples). Many drugs, found efficient and free of side-effects in primates, subsequently proved to be lethal in man (the anticholesterol cerivastatin (Bayer) is a recent example to point). Conversely, how many drugs, perhaps very promising for human treatment, have been discarded because they did not pass the monkey model?

Let us then briefly review the relevance of the five scientific priorities assigned to the CPCBN.

  1. The brains of thousands of animals, especially monkeys, have been explored since the 19th century to try to understand how their behaviour is embedded in this organ. Libraries are full of voluminous books detailing the very many studies. Electrodes were placed in the brain to monitor its electric activities, whilst keeping the animal awake for days, or when removing the young from her mother just after birth, etc. While the relevance to humans was already questionable - and questioned - when these experiments were performed, those results became almost overnight museum archives, when non-invasive methods (PET-, NMR-scan...) enabled the investigation of the human brain at work. Would the monkey show which part of its brain is working when doing such basic human activities as speaking, reading, writing, counting, singing? Not to speak of evolved behavioural traits like reasoning or sophisticated social attitudes. Today, no serious scientist would go back to monkey models for such investigations.
  2. Human neuropathologies are at present of great concern in industrialized countries. The very fact that they most frequently occur in the last quarter of the human lifespan proves that these conditions are age-related and occur in humans at an age which exceeds by far the life expectancy of even the great apes. So even if the latter were good models for these pathologies - which remains to be proven, since in the wild so far no monkey was found suffering from these conditions - monkeys would not allow the study of these pathologies, unless they were artificially provoked. In a human individual these conditions almost invariably have multiple causes, most of which will be missed in the artificial pathology: again the animal model would be useless. Chemical methods used to induce parkinsonism in chimps for instance, were found almost 30 years ago, yet no understanding of how the pathology develops in humans and how to treat it permanently has emerged from the chimp model since.
  3. Clinical diagnosis and therapeutic strategies in monkeys which have artificially acquired a given neuropathology, are of no relevance to human patients, for the reason just given.
  4. The use of animal models to test the toxicity or effects of drugs in human patients is highly problematic. In France, the Health Ministry ascribes 20 000 fatalities a year due to adverse drug reactions, in addition to 1.3 million hospitalizations, despite the fact that the law requires that drugs be extensively tested on animal models. Among the many reasons for this, is the metabolism of the drug and drug-drug interactions, both of which are strictly species-specific (because the nuclear receptors of the drugs and the metabolizing enzymes they control are species-specific).
  5. The project to try to understand how existing human therapies work in animals which never develop the condition is somewhat surprising. Wouldn't the money be spent better on more worthwhile projects?


This critique was written by Dr Claude Reiss PhD.

* PRO ANIMA (16, rue Vezelay, Paris F75008, Tel. +33 1 45 63 10 89, Fax +33 1 45 63 47 94, email, web site is a scientific committee (not an animal welfare institute). Board members are research scientists from government laboratories, academics and the medical field. PRO ANIMA is free of any political, philosophical or religious ties. The aim of the committee is to apply progress in science, and in biology in particular, to the benefit of human health and welfare. The committee restricts itself exclusively to scientific and logical considerations.

Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine, November 2001.







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