The major experimental use of primates is for safety testing of medicines. Yet primates’ track record at predicting drugs’ dangerous side effects is abysmal. Many drugs that were safe for primates have gone on to injure or kill people.
Six young men nearly died at Northwick Park Hospital in 2006 when they were given a new drug because it had been ‘proven safe’ in monkeys at high doses.
Arthritis drug Vioxx, withdrawn in 2004, killed up to 140,000 people – the biggest drug disaster in history – after being ‘proved safe’ in monkeys.
Hormone replacement therapy, given to millions of women on the basis of research in monkeys, has been found to increase rather than decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as breast and ovarian cancer. HRT (labelled ‘the new thalidomide’ by the German Commission on the Safety of Medicines) caused 20,000 cases of breast cancer in Britain in one decade plus 1,300 cases of ovarian cancer since 1991, according to The Lancet.
Isoprenaline killed 3,500 young British asthmatics in the 1960s. Retrospective attempts to induce similar effects in primates and other animals failed.
The second major use of primates is for brain research. Yet the most dramatic differences between humans and other primates are in the brain.
Human brains can now be studied non-invasively using remarkable high-tech scanners. These enable the conscious brain to be observed while engaged in a variety of cognitive tasks of which monkeys are not even capable.
Everything we know about neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s has been learned from studying patients, their families and their tissues. ‘It is in human tissue that we will find the answers to these diseases’ – Dr John Xuereb, Director, Cambridge Brain Bank & Wolfson Imaging Centre.
Hundreds of drugs for stroke have been developed and tested in primates and other animals, yet all of them have failed and even harmed patients in trials. ‘The stroke community needs to think long and hard about whether these animal models are financially and ethically viable’ – Lancet editorial 2006.
Deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease was pioneered in patients, not monkeys, as its developer makes plain in New Scientist (2457) 24.7.04, p 40.
In 2003, a senior planning inspector dismissed Cambridge University’s proposed primate laboratory because ‘no national need’ for such research was demonstrated.
Infectious disease research
Even chimpanzees, our closest living relative, are immune to the human AIDS virus, Hepatitis B and C, malaria and many other serious human pathogens. It is futile to study infections in animals that do not contract them in any similar way.
Indeed, the US government redirected $10 million of AIDS research funding away from chimpanzee studies after concluding they are a ‘deficient model’.
80 AIDS vaccines have failed in human trials following success in primates.
Again, everything we know about HIV and AIDS has been learned by studying people, through epidemiology and in vitro research on human blood cells.
In the French blood scandal in the 1980s, thousands of people contracted HIV through contaminated blood – given to patients because it was safe in chimps.
The polio vaccine was delayed for decades by ‘the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys’ according to Albert Sabin MD, the vaccine’s inventor.