The California Aggie Eyes on Primate Center: Medical research continues as moral principles
The California Aggie
Eyes on Primate Center: Medical research continues as moral principles are questioned
In a recent audit, the Stop Animal Exploitation Now organization charged the UC Davis Primate Center and 49 other national laboratories with misconduct and inhumane care of the primates.
SAEN designed the audit to assess the use and treatment of animals in the laboratories. The audit was developed based on information gathered from the United States Drug Administration website and the Animal Welfare Act.
According to the evaluation, 94 percent of the laboratories reviewed failed to follow the USDA guidelines for proper research. In addition, SAEN alleged in a press release that the primate center abuses primates during experimentation by denying them food and water and confining them to restraint chairs.
"Primates are being used in highly invasive procedures that are obviously contrary to the best interests of the animals themselves," states the release.
Michael Budkie, the executive director of SAEN and a former laboratory worker, said that "50 prestigious institutions [including Davis] are systematically violating federal laws and abusing thousands of animals in sadistic, wasteful testing."
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he added.
However, Dr. Dallas Hyde, the director of the primate center, denied any wrongdoing or inhumane treatment.
"We are dedicated to giv[ing] them the best care possible and do not expose them to any unnecessary harm," he said. "Every one of the monkeys gets a physical examination and vaccinations. They are probably healthier than you and me."
Dr. Jeff Roberts, a scientist at the center, explained that the primates’ feeding is not compromised. He said the primates have proper diets. However, in accordance with USDA guidelines, the primates are restricted from certain foods at times.
"We give them food rewards as positive reinforcements," he said.
To ensure that the primate center maintains proper guidelines, bigger watchdogs carefully oversee it.
"Everything has to be approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee in Davis before it goes to the National Institutes of Health," said Roberts.
"We go through a lot of checks and balances before the animals get tested," said Hyde.
The IACUC reviews all protocols and ensures that the research is humane and that the procedures comply with USDA guidelines. They may help modify procedures to further protect the primates and minimize any distress they may experience during research. After the committee approves the protocol, it is submitted to the National Institutes of Health, which reviews the scientific relevance and impact of the research and allocates grants.
"The standard is that the primates cannot lose weight during the research experiment," said Dr. Phil Tillman of the IACUC. Throughout the research, scientists must measure the weights, blood parameters and appetites of the primates involved in the research. Any discrepancies or changes in these measurements are handled and reviewed by the IACUC and the USDA. They then make appropriate and necessary amendments to the experimental procedures.
Dr. Virginia Koch of the USDA does not recall having any major problems with the Davis primate center.
"No action has been taken against them," she said.
Koch explained that any laboratory dealing with animals must submit a detailed report of the progress of the research experiments. Researchers are to report the kinds of food the primates were deprived of, the time and frequencies of food and water deprivation and the reasons for the restrictions.
In addition to the reports filed by the researchers themselves, the USDA performs unexpected annual inspections to make sure that the research experiments are conducted and the primates are treated according to the guidelines.
One of the guidelines ensuring the welfare of the animals includes minimizing any distress. The USDA states that "procedures with animals that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress should be performed with appropriate sedation, analgesia or anesthesia. Surgical or painful procedures should not be performed on unanesthetized animals."
According to Roberts, it is sometimes necessary to take a monkey off analgesics for the purpose of the research because signs of discomfort can reveal the progress and effects of the experiments.
"Monkeys are stoic," said Roberts. "It is hard to say when an animal is in distress."
"We do try to minimize as much distress as possible. After surgery, the primates automatically gets two days of analgesics," he said.
Those who oppose animal research often question the specific need for primates.
"They look at the animals as inventory," said Budkie. "We're hoping that people will begin to see and understand what these laboratories are doing."
"We’re here to save someone’s life," Hyde said in response to that argument. "That’s exactly why we’re here."
Roberts explained that biological mechanisms in one animal might differ from those in another animal, resulting in different effects in each animal.
"It’s important to see how things work in mice and in monkeys to get a complete picture of how things actually work," he said.
Animal research has contributed to many significant medical advances. For example, researchers discovered that the drug thalidomide causes birth defects in primates and humans, but not in mice, according to Roberts.
Thalidomide is a sedative agent that, when taken during pregnancy, can cause infants to have short or missing arms and legs, missing ears (both outside and inside) and deafness, according to the website for the Teratology Society, which studies causes and prevention of birth defects. Other risks include heart defects, missing or small eyes, paralysis of the face, kidney abnormalities and mental retardation.
One of the current projects at the center involves gene therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of this research is to slow the loss of neurons and restore their normal function. According to Roberts, in a normal brain memory loss is due to the shrinkage of cells, causing them to be less efficient. However, in Alzheimer’ patients the cells expire and are useless. The research focuses on inserting hormones into developing embryos to sustain and promote the growth of the neurons.
Another area of research that has received a lot of attention looks into AIDS and antiviral drugs and vaccines to slow and prevent transmission of the virus. According to researchers at the primate center, an alarmingly high number of newborns are infected with HIV from their mothers. In a study, researchers tested the effects of phosphonomethoxy propyl adenine on rhesus macaques infected with the simian immunodeficiency virus, which is similar to HIV.
In this experiment, researchers tested eight SIV-infected macaques, half of which served as the control group and the other half of which were treated with doses of PMPA before and after injection of SIV. Results show that the control group which did not receive doses of PMPA became SIV-positive. However, the group that was treated with PMPA showed no symptoms of SIV.
The findings from this research suggests that giving PMPA to HIV-infected pregnant women at the onset of labor would reduce HIV transmission to newborns.
The primate center currently has approximately 125 active protocols in its four research units: Brain, Mind and Behavior; Reproductive and Genetic Sciences; Respiratory Diseases; and Virology and Immunology. It houses approximately 4,000 monkeys including rhesus macaques, long-tailed macaques and titi monkeys.
Researchers at the primate center understand that working with primates is a sensitive issue.
"It is important to weigh the ethical cost with the ethical gain," Tillman said.
Roberts and Hyde said they hope that people will understand the impact animal research has on medical discoveries.
"We all enjoy a better life because of medical research," said Hyde.
Roberts added, "We hope to educate people about the value of what we do, which is providing the best possible opportunities and the best care."
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