The use of monkeys in European research has been steadily declining. For instance, approximately 6,000 were used in scientific procedures in the European Union (EU) in 2011, compared with nearly 10,000 in 2008—counting both academic and industrial research. Most recently, a UK government report noted the number of primate experiments had fallen for the third consecutive year.
Researchers suspect that a combination of increasing regulatory pressure, rising costs, and mounting disapproval among the public are responsible. Some countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, have even taken political measures to deliberately scale back on primate research.
China recognizes that it’s going to be a leader in primate research and I have no doubt that that’s going to be true.—Anna Wang Roe, Zhejiang University
“The consequence of this is [the risk] that a lot of this research will move abroad,” says Stefan Treue, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Göttingen-based German Primate Center. He is concerned that the increasingly difficult research environment in Europe will tempt academic primate scientists to take their research elsewhere—towards countries such as the US and China, in particular, where primate research is booming—and Europe will lose its position as a big player in the field.
While Treue says he hasn’t witnessed any of his European colleagues packing their bags and heading eastward, he’s noted an extremely strong push by China to attract primate research: by offering fully equipped labs with state-of-the art technology, competitive salaries, ample funding for primate studies, and co-appointments at Chinese institutions for European and American investigators.
“For primate research, [the Chinese] are the ones investing while all the others are withdrawing,” says Grégoire Courtine, the director of a spinal cord injury research lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who took part in a collaboration between Switzerland and a lab in China. He would frequently travel between Lausanne and Beijing, where he conducted his experiments, demonstrating in 2016 that a brain implant could enable paralyzed monkeys to walk again. Now, he is working with the same Chinese lab on research using a monkey model of Parkinson’s disease.
The advantages to conducting primate research in China, says Courtine, are lower costs compared to Switzerland, as well as the expertise of the lab he is working with. Treue says that Chinese regulators will also guarantee that a given experiment will be approved quite quickly, while approval in Europe often takes much longer. “It’s not that the Chinese will let you do things that you cannot do in Europe,” he says.
For Anna Wang Roe, a US-based researcher, it was the pace at which China moves that made it possible for her to set up an entire institute in 2013 devoted to developing new technologies to map the primate brain, the Zhejiang Interdisciplinary Institute of Neuroscience and Technology at Zhejiang University. She holds a full time position as director there, while still maintaining a part-time professorship at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (she says she works on the plane). “There definitely is a lot of funding, and primate research is at the forefront. China recognizes that it’s going to be a leader in primate research and I have no doubt that that’s going to be true,” she says.
Two countries cutting back on primate studies
Courtine says he wishes there were more support for primate studies in Europe. Conducting studies in China has major drawbacks, he says, the constant, long-distance contact being foremost among them. “But the politicians, they are not necessarily courageous enough to take this kind of action, because most of the population, they are against primate research, or they don’t feel comfortable.”
This year’s scandal brought about by Volkswagen testing diesel exhaust on monkeys hasn’t helped, Courtine says. (In that case, Volkswagen admitted that the studies, conducted in the US, violated its own ethical standards.) Some of his colleagues’ research on cocaine addiction in monkeys has also come under public scrutiny. “To be completely honest, I am concerned for the future of primate research in Europe, including Switzerland, because it’s a very delicate topic, and we are walking on eggs.”
Scaling back on primate experiments is not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the Netherlands just did that.
The Dutch parliament recently decided to slash the number of primate experiments by 40 percent, a move stemming from a 2016 debate where officials supported the complete phasing out of primate research in the country. Jan Langermans, chair of the Biomedical Primate Research Center (BPRC) in the Netherlands, is currently deciding which of his facility’s research on infectious and chronic diseases to prioritize, “and how to be able to still provide the scientific community with the information they need.”
In Belgium, officials are currently preparing legislation to prohibit researchers in the Brussels region from conducting research on monkeys at all. However, to Rufin Vogels, a cognitive neuroscientist at KU Leuven in Belgium, this was more of a political statement than a practical one, because no primate research is being conducted in this region anyway.
The big changes are happening in industry
Roger Lemon, a recently retired professor of neurophysiology at University College London, cautions that the numbers of primates used in academic research are so small, he wouldn’t read too much into the decline. “I’m not aware of any of my colleagues in that area who are deliberately outsourcing their work to places like China,” he says. “Even if they were, that would have a tiny effect on the numbers.”
The shift might be more prominent within the industry. Only a small fraction of the primates used for biomedical research are in academia—the majority are used in toxicology and safety studies in the pharmaceutical industry, where primate screening is legally required before products go to market. “Given the fact that they still have to do the testing, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least that more of that is being done outside the UK,” Lemon says.
For instance, Alpha Genesis Primate Research Center, a US-based contract research organization that maintains a colony of 6,000 monkeys in South Carolina, recently announced it will expand its services in Europe. Already, a quarter of its business focuses on primate research, often for European companies, in the area of vaccine development and drug evaluation, explains the company’s CEO Greg Westergaard.
“My understanding is that restrictions in Europe have become quite significant in terms of how animals—particularly primates—have to be housed and maintained, which has driven up costs extensively,” says Westergaard.
If those actions are to deter primate research as a whole, it’s not going to work, says Langermans. “This is my personal opinion: A reduction in the use of nonhuman primates, or whatever species, purely based on numbers and not on scientific rationale, is not going to diminish the use of these animals worldwide,” he says. “It will purely mean a shift of research to other countries.”