As Harvard Closes a Primate Research Center, Are Lab Chimps Becoming a Thing of the Past?

Harvard Medical School decided to close a major primate research center that had been linked to animal welfare problems. The pool of biomedical research money is shrinking, but is it even ethical to experiment on primates?

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Mike Birkhead

Should primates like chimpanzees be used for lab research?

In a surprise move, Harvard Medical School announced yesterday that it would be closing a controversial primate research center where four monkeys died between 2010 and 2012 because of problems with animal care. The New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC) in Southborough is set to be largely shut down by 2015, a decision that Harvard officials told the Boston Globe was mostly due to a difficult economic climate for biomedical research as the government cuts back sharply on spending. But it’s difficult to imagine that the animal welfare problems at the center—which was cited for violations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—didn’t factor into the decision to shutter the labs.

The decision is obviously going to be tough on the dozens of Harvard researchers whose work depends on lab primates. Nancy Haigwood, the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, told the Globe‘s Carolyn Johnson:

It’s very, very disturbing, disappointing, disheartening, shocking. I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to imagine that the investigators impacted by this decision will be able to keep up their momentum. We’re talking about very talented senior investigators who are at the peak of their careers.

Work with live animals is expensive, and budget cuts are impacting public funding for science across the board. Still, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—which spends about $87 million supporting primate research centers around the country—noted that the decision was made by Harvard alone.

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The problems at the NEPRC go back to 2010, when a cotton-top tamarin was found dead in a cage that had been recently cleaned. Although investigators later determined that the animal had died of natural causes, the fact that staff members had failed to notice the monkey was dead was a violation of federal animal-welfare regulations. Another elderly cotton-top tamarin was later found in such poor condition—in part because its cage lacked a water bottle—that the monkey had to be euthanized. As officials at Harvard began probing the center, more troubling failures emerged, as Harvard Magazine reported last year:

The problems at NEPRC and some of the corrective and disciplinary actions taken to right them have emerged piecemeal, but the first hints of systemic issues emerged through the probe Harvard initiated after the cage-washing incident. That review revealed a series of troubling gaps and breaks in the basic procedures and supervision that govern animal research. Some procedures were being conducted on animals without the necessary approval of an institutional committee. There was a pattern of incomplete medical records—including the absence of tuberculosis tests that are critical to maintaining the health of the colony. The two other fatalities also suggested possible training or procedural problems: last October, a common marmoset that escaped while being transferred for an imaging procedure was caught with a net and underwent imaging, but was later found dead; the day after Christmas, two squirrel monkeys were discovered severely dehydrated—staff members had not noticed a malfunctioning automatic watering system—and one had to be euthanized.

The decision to close NEPRC, which houses more than 2,000 animals, won’t end research on primates—as much as animal rights activists might wish it. But I do wonder whether we’ll see less and less live research on our closest evolutionary kin. At the end of 2011 the NIH announced that it would suspend all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees and accepted the first uniform criteria for assessing the need for primate research. The new guidelines demanded that any research on chimpanzees be necessary for human health, and that there be no other way to complete it. The justification, as NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins put it when the guidelines were issued, is that chimps deserve “special consideration and respect.” They’re simply too much like us to be used lightly as lab animals.

Their genetic similarity to humans makes primates an invaluable research resource. The list of medical accomplishments that have been aided by primate work at NEPRC includes the evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus; the discovery of the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV); and the development of brain imaging techniques for Parkinson’s disease. But the more we learn about primates—and especially chimps—the harder it may be to justify their use as lab subjects. Even if they aren’t directly harmed by the research, life in a lab is simply disruptive and difficult for highly intelligent animals. It’s easier to argue against the use of primates in film and television work—would society have lost anything if Animal Hospital had never been made. (I’m sure Justin Kirk would agree.) But while there is real benefit to primate research, it will need to be balanced against the very real rights of our evolutionary cousins. And that means that the closure of the NEPRC likely won’t be the last.

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is it even ethical to experiment on primates?

No. It isn't. And the only way you can even ask that question is if you have already somehow by some mysterious crap you made up elevated yourself above the other primates on this planet. That's your personal delusion and decent, ethical, knowledgeable people don't share it. We decent, ethical, knowledgeable people know there isn't any difference between us and them and we think this is as wrong as the Tuskegee experiments- yeah people will still do wrong crap and they will profit from it but that does not make it right at all.  


Someone here wrote: "Animal research and yes even their deaths has done more for human medicine than any other single thing.... The Vegans who have never read the other side's work with animal testing speak only in partial truths." The writer must not be familiar with the history of medicine. 

Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, 1997. Norton. 426-427 passim:

"Interpretations of the retreat first of epidemic diseases, and also of the increase in life expectancy, have been hotly debated. Some maintain the mass of the population was slowly but surely becoming less pauperized, and was enjoying better nourishment and hence improved health. Others argue that improving health was not due to rising prosperity but to better environmental salubrity due to public health measures, reducing the disease risks to which the hungry huddled masses were exposed." Animal research isn't mentioned. 

"... The decline of plague and smallpox would thus have nothing to do with nutrition standards but some link with public health action. Endemic diseases such as tuberculosis and infant diarrhoea, by contrast, do seem to have been made more sever by under-nutrition. The reduction in such diseases might be linked to wage improvements. In either case little that personal physicians did was reflected in improved health."

"Did public health measures actually do any good? The distinguished epidemiologist Thomas McKeown (1912 – 1988) maintained that reductions in deaths associated with infectious diseases (air-, water-, and food-borne diseases) cannot have been brought about by medical advances, since such diseases were declining long before effective means were available to combat them."

"...  McKeown, however, underestimated the effectiveness of the public health movement. Changing public opinion, the labors of medical officers of health, the creation of filtered water supplies and sewage systems, slum clearance, the work of activists promoting the gospel of cleanliness, and myriad other often minor changes – for example the provision of dustbins with lids, to repel flies – combined to create an improving urban environment."

The Time article author cites Harvard's own list of "accomplishments" made by scientists at the primate center. Not one of them has been particularly beneficial to human patients. 

The animal care problems at the New England Primate Center are no different from the animal care problems at any of the other large primate labs. One needs only to dig around a bit to unearth them.


It's truly appalling that the U.S. continues to conduct painful, terrifying, and useless invasive tests on animals.  You simply cannot extrapolate information from one species to another species.  It's all about the grant money train, and the "publish or perish" mentality in academia.  This is a cruel and ugly cycle that hurts and kills animals, wastes money and keeping real, meaningful process from being made. 

Case in point. The so-called "war" on cancer has remained unchanged for six decades.   The same three treatments available in 1950 - radiation, chemo and surgery - are the same today in 2013.  Yet animal models are still being touted as the breakthrough in-waiting.  It's nonsense.  Testing on animals does. not. work.  Yet we cling to this cruel practice instead of venturing into new, innovative and truly with the potential for a breakthrough.  What's that saying, "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity."  Conducting experiments on animals is insanity.


This article only touches the surface on what happened. Yes Harvard did receive horrible press because of the mismanagement and deaths that occurred at its primate center, but as in sports, bad behavior and bad press would have been forgiven by Harvard if the science at the primate center was stellar. But the primate center wasn't stellar (despite the support they are quoted as receiving from friends in the industry).

It has been almost 20 years since anyone currently working at the primate center and directly working with monkeys had a first author publication (other than a review article) in one of the elite top tier scientific journals. ForHarvard, that was a pitiful track record. Even in the rather limited world of primate research, Harvard's primate center was becoming second tier. That was why when IAVI (the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative) wanted to figure out how attenuated SIV worked as a vaccine (SIV is monkey HIV, and attenuated SIV was long considered the domain of Harvard's primate center) it ended up giving the vast majority of its money to other primate centers. Moreover, even at Harvard Medical School, the best most recent primate research was being done by researchers NOT associated with Harvard's own primate center. Those researchers outsourced their needs to other primate centers.

This made Harvard's own primate center expendable and a potential net liability for Harvard especially given all its recent negative press. To make matters worse, the primate center's prior director, a man largely responsible for the center's intellectual decline and some of the animal mismanagement, was tone deaf to the negative publicity, acting like he had nothing to apologize for, and must have further antagonized the center's position at Harvard. Even after he was forced to resign, Harvard couldn't attract a first rate researcher to take over and energize the place. In the end, Harvard must have decided it was better to just outsource its primate needs and reduce the negative publicity.

Therefore, the interesting question this article touches on is whether this will turn out to be an isolated event or a nod to the increasing power of animal rights groups.  

My own opinion, rather than defending Harvard's primate center, I would think the primate centers would be better served taking a lesson out of Bill Clinton's playbook when he spoke of making abortion, "safe, legal, and rare."  With millions dying of AIDS and monkeys the best animal model, and other reasons for testing on monkeys, I think continued monkey research can be defended, but I respect the opinion of others (such as my wife) who disagree, just as I respect vegetarians. That is why I think we need to treat the animals better, house them in larger areas and not isolate them.  Too many of these monkeys begin to self-mutilate under present conditions to the point where they need to be put down.  This may make the research more expensive but it would also serve to weed out the 'more frivolous' science.


Animal research and yes even their deaths has done more for human medicine than any other single thing.... The Vegans who have never read the other side's work with animal testing speak only in partial truths.


If your testing something for the human race then test it on the human race not the animal's even if we share 99% of dna