Taking a good look at research using non-human primates

Posted on July 27, 2011 by


A review of research using non-human primates over a ten year period was published today. It looks in detail at the projects that have been funded, the scientific benefits we have got from this research, how it was conducted. This is a very highly regulated area and research using non-human primates is done only where the research is necessary to achieve a clear benefit and cannot be conducted using other animal models or with human participants.

The report finds the research generally to be of good quality but does make some recommendations to keep improving practice in the future. These will ensure that we continue to have the highest standards of animal welfare and that we get the maximum benefit from this research by sharing data.


Back in 2006, Sir David Weatherall led a working group which conducted a big, independent review of all research using non-human primates. Their report looked at the use of non-human primates in biological and medical research and explored the scientific basis for the past, current and future role of non-human primates in research. It considered the role this research currently plays and may in the future, the development of alternatives, the ethics of doing this research and the welfare of the animals involved.

One of the recommendations was

Recommendation 4
As part of their ongoing programmes to assess the outcomes of their research, the major funding organisations should undertake a systematic review of the outcome of all their research using non-human primates supported over the last decade.

Today’s report conducted by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust aims to do just that.

What does the review say?

This report sets out to look at all research involving non-human primates funded by BBSRC, MRC, Wellcome Trust and NC3Rs over a decade from January 1997 to December 2006.

Research using non-human primates constitutes a very small proportion of the total research funding by these organisations. It varies between them but over these 10 years an average of around 0.1% to 0.4% of their total annual expenditure on research.

The report:

  • assesses the quality, outputs and impacts of research in this area on advancing knowledge in human and animal health;
  • identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the funded science in this field;
  • aims to inform their future science and funding strategies; and
  • feed the outcomes of the review into any Government strategy on NHP use.

Section 3 lays out the methodology used and section 4 summarises the different research grants looked at and what was found. Section 5 looks at cross-cutting issues – quality of research in the UK, costs, skilled people to do the research etc and the conclusions are summed up in section 6.

The report makes 15 recommendations.

As it says in its conclusion:

The Panel is aware that its recommendations will not please everybody. In the sharply polarised debate about the use of NHPs in research, it is important to take an evidence-based and systematic approach that carefully considers the case that has been made to support the use of NHPs, the actual benefits arising from this work in practice, and the implications for the animals involved…. ….Some of the research considered was scientifically outstanding and, if it has not already benefited medicine, is likely to do so in the future. Some of the findings are of great interest to the public. However, in a few cases the justification for the work was inadequate or insufficient. Moreover, as is the way with any form of exploration, some of the work led nowhere. In this context, an all-or-nothing conclusion on NHP use would have been stupid. Implementation of the Panel’s recommendations, already happening in some cases, should lead to the highest standards of animal care in commissioned research and the rapid transfer of findings to the benefit of both humans and other animals.

The recommendations are aimed at ensuring research using non-human primates continues to be conducted to the highest welfare standards and proposes steps that should be taken to support the decision-making process used to decide whether to fund research projects to ensure research is only funded where not only does no alternative exist, but that the project itself will have a clear scientific benefit and the results will be shared. It also covers the need to support the development of skilled people to do this research, to act on tackling the harassment of researchers by activists opposing animal research, and making sure we talk to the public honestly about this research and why we are doing it.

Interesting bits

One of the concerns raised in the review is that no clear scientific, medical or social benefit had emerged from approximately 9% of grants reviewed. This is actually pretty much in line with research outcomes from some other areas of grant funding – it’s hard to judge from the outset how effective a research project will be before you’ve done it. However we don’t do research using non-human primates lightly and we want to make sure we only do it where there is a clear medical, scientific or social benefit which we could not get any other way, so this is concerning. Several of the recommendations made by this report are aimed at ensuring we improve our ability to identify the projects that should be funded.

The report raises concerns over the training of researchers to do research involving non-human primates and emphasises the need to ensure they are supported to share best practice and results to help us keep improving our ability to do this research in the future.

And interestingly, it raises concern about how we talk about research using non-human primates. In explaining why we are doing this research, we often turn to how the extra scientific understanding we gain might help us develop medical benefits for the future, but often these benefits can be several years down the line. The report warns against making emphatic public statements about the benefits of this research

…rather statements should reflect the actual basis for funding decisions, recognising that these are often based on scientific value.

What does this mean for medical research charities?

I can’t say it better than AMRC’s chair, Lord Willis:

AMRC value this review of research involving non-human primates over the past decade. This measured review is evidence of the thorough consideration and concern of the research community over the use of animals to support research into medical conditions. We will work with the scientific community to act on the recommendations to ensure research using non-human primates maintains the highest standards of welfare and takes place only where entirely necessary and with a clear medical and scientific benefit.

AMRC only support the use of animals in research where it is absolutely necessary and no suitable alternative methods are available. We support work to develop alternatives and minimise the need to use animals. Non-human primates are only used when the research cannot be conducted using other animal models or with human participants. In some cases animal models, and the use of non-human primates, are the only way we can do research that will relieve suffering and bring hope to patients with life threatening or debilitating conditions.

MRC, BBSRC and Wellcome have responded jointly to the report.

And you can read a BBC online report Bateson report: Monkey research can be improved

MRC have a booklet with some background here Primates in Medical Research and there is a factsheet on primate research

What now?

The report makes clear that research using non-human primates is in many cases justifiable even in the context of current understanding on animal welfare and advances in knowledge. If you check out the joint MRC, BBSRC, Wellcome response, you can see that a lot of work has already been done over the past ten years that this review covers to improve animal welfare and find alternatives for research using non-human primates.  But the report makes clear recommendations which the science community will act on to continuing improving this research.

Posted in: Policy