By Matthew R. Bailey
Lawmakers have recently increased efforts to introduce legislation that would impose strict reporting requirements on medical research involving monkeys and other non-human primates. The goal is to substantially reduce such research.
These restrictions could endanger lives. Primate research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in medical history — and promises to unlock treatments for the world’s deadliest diseases in the not too distant future.
Consider a groundbreaking treatment for glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer. Scientists inject a harmless type of poliovirus into cancer tumors. The immune system then attacks the virus and kills the cancerous cells in the process.
This breakthrough is years in the making — and would have been impossible without primates. About two decades before the first human trials, researchers began using monkeys to determine how to get the poliovirus into tumors.
Thus far, the treatment has sent at least two patients’ glioblastoma into remission. Clinical trials are still underway. Scientists believe the technique could also be used to treat breast and prostate cancers.
Or look at how primate research is helping people with epilepsy. The FDA recently approved a type of therapy called “deep brain stimulation” for epileptic patients who don’t respond to medication. A seven-year clinical trial found that the method reduced seizures by 75 percent.
The therapy — which also helps people with Parkinson’s — was perfected through research in primates.
Such research could even help pregnant women and their unborn babies. Fetal and placental development in monkeys is similar to that in humans. So researchers are turning to primates to better understand illnesses like the Zika virus, which causes birth defects, in hopes of identifying treatments.
Despite these advances, activists claim research on non-human primates is a waste of time and money. They point out that less than five percent of experimental therapies tested in animal models result in FDA-approved treatments for humans.
That figure might seem low. But it’s actually high, given how difficult drug development is.
First, scientists do extensive lab work to formulate and test potential drug formulas. If this research proves promising, scientists move on to study those promising compounds in animals. Only if a drug succeeds in animal models do scientists attempt trials in humans.
Just one in 10 experimental medicines that reach the stage where they’re tested for safety in healthy humans ends up garnering FDA approval. So a five percent success rate for therapies in pre-clinical animal models is quite impressive.
In an ideal world, scientists wouldn’t need to use animals in research. Alternatives like computer models would be sufficient. But in the real world, alternatives simply aren’t sophisticated enough to model everything that happens in the human body.
We share as much as 98 percent of our DNA with non-human primates. They play an essential, irreplaceable role in research.
Scientists don’t perform research involving primates unless it’s absolutely necessary. Primates account for less than one percent of animals employed in research.
Research in animals is subject to more extensive regulations than even research involving humans. Federal rules govern animal housing, cleanliness, and feeding. And scientists must provide justification for every animal they use for research.
Scientists are on the verge of incredible discoveries. Researchers are working with non-human primates to develop vaccines for HIV, remedies for heart disease and high blood pressure, and more.
The lives of millions of people depend on Congress allowing such research to continue.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This piece originally ran in the Washington Examiner.