Two weeks ago, during National Primate Liberation Week, activists on the quad protested against the use of non-human primates at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) on the UC Davis campus. This shows ignorance of the medical research process. While the CNPRC tries to minimize research on primates, the anatomy of the human body means that sometimes non-human primates are the only option.
Humans are a species of primate, so with some diseases, such as malaria and AIDS, studying primates is necessary. Unlike lab rats or guinea pigs, monkeys used by the CNPRC have a physiology, drug metabolism and fetal development similar to humans.
The CNPRC studies many human diseases that co-evolved with primates. The parasite that causes malaria is a protozoan specially adapted to life in the human body. Testing strains of malaria in primates like rhesus monkeys is an effective alternative to running unethical experimental research on humans.
The CNPRC also conducts research on SAIDS (Simian AIDS), the closest disease to human AIDS. Researchers use infected macaque monkeys to study the prevention of HIV (and Simian IV) infection and the body’s immune response to the disease. This research gets results: the center recently found that a drug called tenofovir could be used in a gel to reduce HIV transmission in humans.
Protesters have some legitimate arguments against the CNPRC. In 2004, a USDA report showed that several monkeys were kept in enclosures where the temperature reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit. But the CNPRC paid a penalty and temperature hasn’t been a problem since then. Last year, a researcher at the center caught a respiratory infection from a group of infected primates. No other humans caught the disease, and the researcher recovered. The CNPRC is open about the incident, and the researchers know the risks.
Research on primates is not perfect – many infected animals die. But the CNPRC works hard to keep the process humane; the USDA regularly inspects the facility, and all primate research must be approved by two committees on campus plus the federal funding agencies. The university also has a policy of never conducting classified research, and CNPRC studies are regularly published in scientific journals.
Opponents of primate research call for more transparency in research facilities, but militant protesters keep scientists from working more openly. Scientists from the CNPRC are reluctant to speak to the press after some researchers receive death-threats and mail containing razor blades.
When one looks into a monkey’s face, one naturally feels compassion. Sadly, the genes that make other primates our closest relatives also make them good test subjects. The research is worth it. Despite the protests and threats, primate researchers know that monkeys are the best option if we want to save human lives.
– Madeline McCurry-Schmidt, Max Rosenblum, Mark Ling, Jeff Perry, Nick Markwith