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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