Two days ago the Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled “Baboons used in ‘Frankenstein-like’ medical experiments”. Yesterday it was followed by an editorial – “Medical testing on primates: more openness and transparency needed” – and another article, also on the topic of research on non-human primates, “Thousands sign petition urging an end importing of primates for medical research”. Numerous online media have republished the “Frankenstein” article and people have taken to social media to comment.
During a six-month investigation, journalist Natalie O’Brien uncovered medical experiments on non-human primates, secretly conducted at a number of Sydney hospitals and universities, including a kidney transplant from a pig to a baboon. O’Brien writes that
Millions of dollars of research grants are being used for a variety of experiments but the hospitals involved have refused to release details about how many baboons or other primates have been experimented on, and how many have died or had to be killed.
NSW Health also denied a whole organ transplant had taken place, despite details emerging of Conan, a baboon who had to be killed because of fatal complications arising from the insertion of a pig’s kidney into his body.
In response to a Government Information Public Access (GIPA) request NSW Health had denied that diabetes research involved whole organ transplants, while the NHMRC acknowledged in writing that it has funded research for “whole organ animal to animal xenotransplantation”.
Meanwhile, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has introduced a Bill to end the import of primates for medical research. A Senate inquiry into the importation of primates into Australia for use in medical research is due to be published in March. And Humane Research Australia has handed a petition with more than 14,000 signatures calling for a ban on importing primates for medical and scientific research to the Federal Parliament.
The main issues that the articles are concerned with are the secrecy and the ethics of this research. Reliability of the animal model is another concern.
Why have these experiments been conducted secretly, as they are entirely legal? Being legal and being accepted by the public are not the same. Indeed, the law is often lagging behind views that many, if not most citizens have come to regard as acceptable and/or desirable. Examples are marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia.
The procedures performed on animals in biomedical research would anywhere other than in licensed laboratories considered to be animal cruelty, punishable by law.
The RSPCA defines animal cruelty as follows:
Animal cruelty can take many different forms. It includes overt and intentional acts of violence towards animals, but it also includes animal neglect or the failure to provide for the welfare of an animal under one’s control. In addition to this, it is important to remember animal cruelty is not restricted to cases involving physical harm. Causing animals psychological harm in the form of distress, torment or terror may also constitute animal cruelty.
Given that animals share with us the ability to suffer, it is not surprising that many people find animal experiments abhorrent. Researchers tend to keep invasive animal experiments out of public view, usually for fear of negative press or harassment. But every now and then animal advocates and journalists manage to find out about particularly gruesome instances of animal experimentation and make them public. The monkey research reported in the recent articles is such an example, and it has generated condemnation and questions about what else goes on behind closed doors.
But is the secrecy justified? Isn’t it understandable that researchers are fearful of the consequences of being open about the details of animal research? Recent experience from the UK tells us that greater transparency has NOT resulted in negative consequences for researchers and their institutions.
The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK was launched in May 2014. It is a collaboration of now 98 universities, charities, commercial companies, research councils, umbrella bodies and learned societies with a common aim:
The aim of the Concordat is culture change within the life-science sector, and a resulting shift to greater societal understanding of why and how research organisations use animals in science. The Concordat creates a shared commitment and critical mass to encourage organisations to take strategic and practical steps towards greater openness.
Following a survey of signatory institutions, the first Concordat on Openness Annual Report was published in September 2015. The survey found no reports of any adverse consequences for those organisations that provided the public with more information about their research than they had previously done.
When the Concordat was developed there was considerable concern cited about the risks of openness, and a fear that transparency would bring researchers into physical danger. The information provided by signatory institutions about their communications activities since May 2014 indicates clearly that this has not been the case. The success of many initiatives developed by signatory organisations over the first year including media interviews and documentaries, the development of websites and videos, public engagement events and mention of animals in staff recruitment processes, places this risk into context and paves the way for more activity in the future.
The types of additional information that organisations provided varied. It included, for example, numbers and species of animals used, lay summaries of research projects, images of animals, and images including animal facility staff. Funding bodies revealed the proportion of grants that are used to fund animal research, and one organisation published on their website the minutes of Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB) meetings.
Here in Australia, we have no such initiative. While we will see how genuine the Concordat signatories are about real openness, at least it’s a good start. Here, it is extremely difficult to obtain details of animal research. Helen Marston, CEO of Humane Research Australia (HRA), describes the difficulties of obtaining any information on her blog.
A large proportion of medical research grants involve animal experimentation. We don’t know the exact extent of this proportion, but the public has a right to know how these public funds are spent. We need transparency in animal experimentation so that we as a society can have an informed dialogue about the ethics and usefulness of this research.
Further reading (and viewing)
Animal experimentation. Animals Australia.
Ban primate experiments. Humane Research Australia.
Knight, A. (2007). Systematic reviews of animal experiments demonstrate poor human clinical and toxicological utility. Alternatives To Laboratory Animals, 35, 641–659.
Knight, A. on animal experimentation. A series of video clips.
Nobis, N. (2011). The harmful, nontherapeutic use of animals in research is morally wrong. American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 342(4), 297-304.
Regan, T. (1985). The case for animal rights. In defense of animals. P. Singer. New York, Basil Blackwell: 13-26.
Tyler, A. (2015). The scientific case against the use of animals in biomedical research. UK, Animal Aid.