The BUAV is always delighted to hear of scientific breakthroughs that positively impact human lives. However, the news from Newcastle University announcing a ‘scientific breakthrough’ following their work with macaque monkeys, is not yet a cause for celebration. The researchers claim that their work , published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, could see stroke victims and those with spinal cord injuries regain some movement within the next five years. However, this claim is just the latest in a long line of many thousands of celebrated ‘breakthroughs’ in animals — including monkeys - almost all of which never result in human benefit, due to differences between animals and humans. This is true for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke, heart disease, and many others. So the chance of success in humans for this news is also slim.
Specifically, we know that spinal cord injury, function, and repair, all work very differently in different species: rats, cats, monkeys and humans, for example; also decreasing the possibility of eventual success in people (e.g. Akhtar et al., 2008). The scientists involved in this monkey work admit that the method of inducing paralysis they used ‘does not model the long-term effects of cortical or spinal cord injury, including plastic changes leading to reorganization of cortical function, up-regulation of spinal reflexes or spasticity.’ But even if this does pan out in humans, history tells us that it is almost certain to be human clinical research, with healthy and injured patients, using scanning machines and so on, that will be the crux of any successful development, and not speculative animal experiments.
Considerable research has been conducted in this way: the authors of this study themselves cite successful reports of ‘body-machine interface’ experiments in humans over the last decade. Claiming, as do some apologists for animal research, that this news is worthwhile because the electrical stimulation in the monkeys ‘was used differently’ is desperate, and overlooks the importance of human-based studies and the contribution they have made.
The monkeys used in the experiments at Newcastle University will have suffered greatly; they will have been deprived of food and water for long periods to ‘train’ them to perform tasks, they have been made to endure temporary paralysis by injections directly into their brains, which would be terrifying for them, and they will have been constrained in ‘chairs’ in which they were unable to move, both for the tasks (gripping and pulling a lever), and for invasive surgery to open up their spinal cords, and removal of parts of their skulls to expose the brain, and to insert electrodes and other devices. Many members of the public would not support these experiments based on this suffering alone.
In spite of the university’s claims to be reporting this news in response to the ‘Concordat on Openness in Animal Research’, the publication itself contains no details on specifics regarding what the monkeys in the experiments actually were subjected to: how they were ‘trained’ to perform the lever-gripping task; full details of the invasive, and undoubtedly painful, surgical procedures; in what experiments they had been used previously; the fate of the monkeys after the investigations, and so on.
Akhtar AZ, Pippin JJ, Sandusky CB (2008). Animal models in spinal cord injury: a review. Rev Neurosci19(1):47-60.