Sunday, June 29, 2008

No More Monkey Business

By Randy Hendrickson

Do the advancement of science and the possibility of finding new therapeutic options for disease justify “offending the dignity” of animals?

According to Nature (June 12, 2008; 453(7197):833), the local administrative court in Zurich, Switzerland recently banned several research experiments on macaque monkeys that were being performed jointly by the University of Zurich and the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ). Macaques are the most widespread genus of primates and are found in northern Africa as well as parts of Asia. The brains of these monkeys are closely related to those of humans in structure, and they make an excellent research model for studying neurological function and dysfunction.

The aim of the experiments was to study how the cortex of the brain adapts to change. One experiment involved depriving the monkeys of water (or any other drinks) for long periods of time so that they would value the reward of apple juice more when they performed a task correctly. Another experiment required that the monkeys be sacrificed after the experiment in order to examine the microcircuitry of the cortex of the brain. These experiments were previously approved by the Swiss National Science Foundation; however, an external animal experimentation advisory board challenged the right to continue the research on the grounds that it would “offend the dignity” of the monkeys.

Swiss law mandates that the benefits to society must outweigh the burden to the animals. In addition, a new court interpretation of the law demands that there must be immediate benefits gained from the research. According to the court ruling, “society is unlikely to see the benefits of the research during the 3-year funding period approved, and thus the burden on the animals is not justified.”

Conversely, according to PETA, the British government automatically rubber stamps most animal research, even when the benefits are vague or intangible. The main difference between the Brits and the Swiss is that the Swiss require that the benefits be immediate, whereas the Brits only have to show that there may possibly be benefits further down the road. Unfortunately, this has led to more than 3 million animal experiments in Britain annually despite obvious scientific failings.

The Swiss researchers feel that the use of the “immediate benefit” requirement is completely unrealistic and will impede progress in preventing and treating neurologic conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Both the University of Zurich and the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich are planning appeal the lower court’s decision in hopes that they can continue their research.

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