Monkey business

Lawsuit settlement will save some primates tested at UC Davis, but the valuable research will still require a death toll

Illustration By Conrad Garcia

These days, Gigi’s life is smooth sailing. Retired at 43, she spends most of her days in the sun, resting and watching birds. She enjoys leisure time by her fountain and often hangs out with pals Rosemary, Justin and Lynn. A 20-foot tower gives her a spectacular view of the Texas Hill country. The biggest challenge of the day comes from neighboring longhorn cows that stroll by the fence line.

It’s a breeze, considering Gigi’s first job. In the ’60s she worked for the United States Air Force in the space program, a subject for tests on the effects of space travel. When the Air Force discontinued testing, she and the others bounced from one facility to another for biomedical research. She and 140 others became the first to be used in hepatitis and AIDS research. You’ve probably never heard of Gigi and the gang.

That might be because they’re chimpanzees.

While animal welfare groups decry the horror stories of tests done on animals, the scientific community praises these advances made in the name of human health. According to National Institutes of Health statistics, non-human primates make up 1 percent of all animal research, but it’s an important group for the human fight against diseases like asthma and Alzheimer’s.

In the search for an AIDS vaccine, scientists discovered that the closest non-human strain of HIV is simian immunodeficiency virus. Found only in non-human primates, SIV behaves almost identically to the HIV virus in behavior and development into AIDS. It may be the key to a human vaccine for the virus.

The California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis is one of eight primate research centers nationwide funded by the NIH. It hosts several species of primates, including rhesus macaques, though it no longer handles chimpanzees. The demand for primate research increased dramatically and the Primate Center began plans to expand in late 2001. The plans would allow the university to increase the number of primates kept at the center from 3,800 to 5,000.

Yet not everyone was thrilled by the change. In January 2002, Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals, two California-based animal welfare groups, sued the university to prevent the expansion.

To get the go-ahead on any project, the university must prove that any significant environmental impacts are unavoidable. It must also show there are no feasible alternatives to the project. The groups claimed that the university did not fully examine the alternatives before dismissing them, and the university itself admitted that a non-primate research alternative was preferable.

Dr. Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals, claimed the goal of the lawsuit was, “to move the biomedical community away from the harming and killing of animals.”

Katz said there is no justification for the increase in demand for primate research. There are plenty of people with AIDS willing to be volunteers for the testing of medications, making him question the necessity of infecting healthy apes with SIV. The lack of consideration for what happens to primates following their use in research alarmed both the Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals.

“Usually after they do invasive research they kill the monkey and do an autopsy,” said Katz, adding that when a test is over animals in the group are commonly euthanized.

Yet the protests haven’t derailed the scientists’ search for answers. The high demand for primate research is due in part to the mapping of the human genome and the serious questions that have resulted from the need to learn how environment, proteins and behaviors affect our genes.

Gigi and the gang are lucky. At the end of their long research road was a retirement facility after the Air Force decided to disperse the group in 1997. More primates from UC Davis will now be heading to similarly happy pastures.

Along with the Coulston Foundation, a research facility that received 110 chimps, the Air Force selected Primarily Primates Inc., a 75-acre primate rehabilitation facility in Texas, for the retirement of the remaining 31 chimps. It is one of the largest primate sanctuaries in the country.

UC Berkeley, University of Tennessee, University of Arizona and the Buckshire Corporation have all retired primates with help from Primarily Primates Inc. president Wally Swett.

“We’re being approached more, rather than having to prove ourselves,” said Swett of the permanent lifetime rehabilitation and retirement his facility has offered since 1978.

Retirement for the primates no longer needed at the UC Davis Primate Center is now guaranteed thanks to the settlement reached in late May between UC Davis and both animal welfare groups. A liaison from the UC Center for Animal Alternatives will be designated to work with the Primate Center on reducing the number of animals used.

The Primate Center agreed to allot $75,000 for the next two years to purchase imaging technology for more non-invasive research practices. It will also encourage the use of imaging technology in the grants given by NIH for primate research and host a yearly meeting for the scientific community on the alternatives to primate research.

As part of the settlement, the Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals are barred from any further protest of the expansion. The next step for Katz and In Defense of Animals is to continue to raise public awareness of the perils faced by research animals, and to encourage the NIH to give more money to non-animal research. It is an area he feels is grossly under-funded.

“I don’t want to use animals in research,” said Dr. Jeff Roberts, the associate director of the Primate Center. “But if we have to use animals to help understand biological phenomenon, then we’re going to.”

A veterinarian, Roberts walks the same thin line as many animal researchers. He finds himself balancing his love for animals with his drive to study, and the frequent need to euthanize his subjects to gain valuable insights into diseases. What we can learn from how these primates handle everything from viruses to drugs may provide keys to our own health issues and save millions of lives.

Roberts responded strongly to the accusation that UC Davis summarily dismissed the non-primate research alternative.

“It’s characterized that we’re totally rejecting alternative research for use of animals and that’s not the way it’s done,” said Roberts, citing the use of computer models and cell cultures as frequently used alternatives to procedures involving primates.

However, Roberts cautioned, some research cannot skip the animal testing phase. The testing of vaccines in primates before they are given to humans is vital to prevent the risk of infecting healthy humans with the disease.

“Where would we be if Louis Pasteur decided that he wasn’t going to do any work with animals?” asked Roberts.

Pasteur developed the idea of a vaccine by utilizing a weakened strain of a microbe to combat a more powerful strain. He successfully developed vaccines for rabies and anthrax, using animals in his research and vaccine trials. Arguably the most important person in medical history, he pioneered the study of infectious diseases and his technique for vaccine development is still in use today.

It is a delicate dance, risking the lives of our closest genetic relatives to save the lives of millions of humans. Asthma is another area where primate research is proving invaluable. According to statistics from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, over 5 million children in this country have asthma. Besides AIDS, it is the only chronic disease with an increasing death rate. Primates are used to study the causes of asthma and test potential medications for treatment.

Roberts noted the similarities in the development of asthma in primates and children, saying, “When people look at the changes in human and monkey airways it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. If we can come up with answers to deal with this disorder by using those animal models, I would feel unethical if we didn’t pursue those answers.”

The settlement’s commitment of funds to the purchase of non-invasive imaging equipment is a source of agreement for both sides, said Roberts. “It [the settlement] addressed the other groups’ concerns about reducing animal numbers. If you do it using better science and you can answer the same question, I’m all for it.”

The cost of maintaining lab animals is substantial, and with the demand for primate research many facilities could see those costs skyrocket. The ability to use fewer animals and possibly get more comprehensive and valuable results is one the research community hungers for.

Roberts believes that the use of non-invasive technologies is the start of a trend in both human and animal research. The biomedical engineering department at UC Davis is developing technology that combines CAT scans and MRIs with positron emission tomography, or PET scans. The combination of imaging (CET and MRI) with detailed display of the metabolic and organ functions would allow researchers to study an animal internally both visually and metabolically while it’s still alive.

Using the example of a study on the long-term effects of a drug, Roberts said, “Rather than taking six animals then treating them all with the drug and then euthanizing one animal at one month and doing a necropsy, the next at two months and so on, if you can evaluate those changes on one animal six times, you reduce your animal number.”

Now that the settlement is complete, Roberts can focus on what drives him to continue primate research.

“I speak a lot at scientific groups about Alzheimer’s disease and you’ll have somebody ask, ‘Well, when is that going to be available?’ ” he said. “And you look at them and you start answering the question and they’re crying. This isn’t someone asking some abstract question. Their mother or their father has Alzheimer’s disease and they’re looking at when is something going to be available. And you get this huge knot in your stomach and you’re driven.”