WASHINGTON—The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report yesterday analyzing the use of primates in experiments funded by the National Institutes of Health and examining “opportunities for new approach methodologies to complement or reduce reliance on NIH-supported research with nonhuman primates.” The 250-page report, written by a committee largely composed of people involved in the primate research industry, takes a short-sighted view, calling for the U.S. to expand primate breeding and increase primate experiments. The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund are urging the NIH to reject the conclusions in the report calling for increased breeding of primates and instead increase investment in development and validation of non-animal methods.
“The National Academies report does a disservice to the more than 100,000 primates languishing right now in laboratories and breeding facilities across the country,” said Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “Relying on outdated methods prolongs immense suffering for animals used in experimentation while hindering advances in human healthcare. It’s time for the scientific community to look forward towards improving the lives of both humans and animals.”
“It is incumbent on the National Institutes of Health to reject the findings of the National Academy of Sciences calling for the U.S. to expand primate breeding and increase primate experiments,” said Sara Amundson, president of Humane Society Legislative Fund. “Over the past decade we’ve seen federal agencies begin moving away from their reliance on outdated and cruel animal testing methods—and if the NIH decided to adopt these findings, they would be turning their backs on this progress. Primate research must be a thing of the past—it’s bad for animals and it’s bad for human health, and our federal government must move past outdated animal experimentation.”
While the report’s strong emphasis on increased primate breeding in the U.S., an expensive endeavor, was disappointing, it did discuss investments in non-animal technologies, and better collaboration between primate users and those with expertise in non-animal methods. Non-animal methods will more accurately predict how the human body will respond to drugs and treatments because they are based on human biology, cells and tissues rather than animal biology, As one example, the largest organ-chip study conducted to date demonstrated that liver chips could detect toxicity in almost seven out of every eight drugs that had proved toxic in human patients. Animal testing had indicated that these drugs were not toxic. Continued investment in these human-relevant technologies would help us understand human diseases and conditions, fand ultimately replace animal experiments—including primate experiments—in the future.
The report declines to acknowledge the extent to which primate experiments have failed to translate to human health advances and assumes they are the gold standard. Close to 90% of drugs tested on animals ultimately fail in human trials, with approximately half of those failures due to unanticipated human toxicity, despite no toxicity having been observed in animals. Such experiments have wasted hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. Importantly, the committee provided no guidelines on what criteria should be used to justify primate use in the future.
While the report calls for expanded primate breeding and increased primate experiments, it provides no useful conclusions or insights regarding primate welfare, other than stating it is assumed that welfare needs will be met. Primate and other animals used in experimentation spend their days behind bars being subjected to painful and distressful procedures such as being force-fed substances via stomach tubes, subjected to multiple blood draws, infected with diseases and more. Young primates can be held in restraint chairs for long periods of time during some of these procedures. Most of the animals are killed at the end of the studies or reused in additional experiments.
The evidence that NIH isn’t appropriately tracking or coordinating current primate use is an alarming signal that the agency isn’t using its funding judiciously. No taxpayer funding should be allocated to increased primate breeding under these conditions.
The NIH is the largest funder of research in the U.S., with approximately half of its more than $40 billion annual budget going to research experiments that use animals.
- Emily Snow Ehrhorn