Treatments for Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Brain-controlled prosthetic devices for lost limbs. Medications improving the quality of life for those suffering from schizophrenia. What do these life-changing advances have in common? All were made possible through strongly regulated and humane animal research.
Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced plans to phase-out the use of monkeys at its research facility in Poolesville, Maryland, research that has for decades provided critical insights into our understanding of the child’s brain and behavioral development and of diseases such as autism. Some people may use this announcement to spin a story that research involving monkeys and other animals is no longer necessary. However, nothing could be further from the truth. This decision, in fact, was mainly due to economic reasons, and serves as a reminder that people around the world continue to benefit from research involving non-human primates and other animals in service to biomedical research.
The significant role that animal models play in the development of treatments for human brain illnesses is undeniable. Indeed, the director of the NIH, Francis Collins, recently affirmed the importance of animal research at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience when he said, “We have to continually make the case for how valuable it has been to study animals in order to learn almost everything we know about how biology works.” He went on to affirm the importance of research with animals including non-human primates going forward.
Animal models have been the basis for almost every major medical breakthrough in the last century and will continue to be for decades to come. In fact, you likely know someone who takes one of the 25 most commonly prescribed U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medications, all of which were developed with the aid of animal research, demonstrating the indispensable role of this research in the drug discovery process.
A choice to turn away from animal research would have immediate and dire consequences. We would lose essential avenues for discovery. We would fail to realize continued progress in understanding the neural, behavioral, cognitive, developmental, physiological, genetic and biological processes that contribute to human and animal health and disease. Assessment of the safety and efficacy of new medications would also be severely compromised. There is a very real movement by animal rights extremists to end all animal research. This challenge is urgent and requires the general public and the scientific community to dedicate the time and energy now to advance public education and dialogue to prevent harm to the public in the future.
Scientists engaged in animal research take very seriously the obligation for the responsible and compassionate use of animals in biomedical research. A multitude of laws and regulations set by oversight entities are in place in the U.S. to ensure that the animals used in research are treated humanely. Institutions must have an animal care and use committee that reviews every research protocol that uses even a single animal. These committees include veterinarians, clinical experts, and representatives from the general public. Only when everyone agrees and has signed off can the research proceed. Similar laws protect laboratory animals in other countries.
Neuroscientists advocate for the responsible and compassionate use of animals in research—treating them humanely and with dignity. Animal research is irreplaceable for advancing scientific and medical progress, and is a necessary means to an end: finding cures for debilitating brain illnesses.
Cline is president of the Society for Neuroscience and Hahn Professor of Neuroscience at The Scripps Research Institute. Sanchez is associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University; affiliate scientist in the Division of Developmental and Cognitive Neuroscience at Yerkes National Research Primate Center; and chair of the Society for Neuroscience’s Committee on Animals in Research.