Research with non-human primates and other animal species is key to helping us understand and improve human health in a multitude of ways, including the development of treatments and interventions. For instance, research in nonhuman primates contributed to the development of the yellow fever vaccine and the polio vaccine in the 1950s, and is now critical in the development of a vaccine for the Ebola crisis. Similarly, basic research conducted in monkeys helped lay the foundation for an effective treatment for patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease known as deep brain stimulation. Many patients have reaped—and will continue to reap—dramatic benefits as a result of this research.
Recently, concerns have been raised regarding the ethical treatment of non-human primates in a laboratory in the Intramural Research Program (IRP) at the NIH. The specific research in question is focused on examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.
NIH takes animal welfare concerns seriously, and has numerous policies and protocols in place to assure the ethical treatment and use of these invaluable resources. All NIH-funded research with animals is reviewed to ensure that (1) the science is highly meritorious, and (2) the welfare of the animals is protected. For more information regarding these processes and policies, see http://irp.nih.gov/our-research/inside-the-irp and http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/references/phspol.htm.
The research at the Poolesville facility was no exception. A panel of experts, the Board of Scientific Counselors, reviews the scientific and technical merits of the research once every four years. During its most recent review, the Board of Scientific Counselors uniformly concurred that the Poolesville facility research program "has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life," and "could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences." While primarily concerned with the scientific rigor of the proposal, the Board of Scientific Counselors also has the authority to raise questions regarding the welfare of the animals. To further ensure their protections, however, research using vertebrate species must, according to the Animal Welfare Act (under guidelines promulgated by the Department of Agriculture) and Public Health Service Policy, be monitored and approved by an official Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC is responsible for certifying that this is done before any animals are used and that pertinent regulations are being followed during the course of the research. This provides an assurance to the general community that research with animals is scientifically legitimate and necessary, and is carried out in an ethically responsible and humane manner.
Given the specific nature of the allegations raised, however, NIH implemented an additional level of review which has recently reached completion. Specifically, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) undertook a thorough and systematic investigation into the research in question. These investigations have recently drawn to a close and NIH is confident that the process was thorough. As a result, we have taken important steps to improve the protocols that were of concern to further protect and improve animal welfare. For specific details, please see the ACUC memos linked below.
In conclusion, NIH believes that the findings from these investigations and the actions pursued, taken together with the existing NIH processes for reviewing and justifying animal research protocols, are sufficient in addressing the concerns raised. NIH remains committed to protecting animals while, at the same time, advancing biomedical research and human health.
- December 22, 2014, letter from Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, Dina Titus, Eliot Engel, and Sam Farr to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins
- January 23, 2015, response from NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, Dina Titus, Eliot Engel, and Sam Farr
- NIH Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) Memos
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