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Published: 01.06.2006, 06:00
Modified: 31.05.2006, 20:42
New report on primate trials
Ethicists demand higher hurdles

There should no longer be any stressful trials using apes in Switzerland, and more restraint should be shown than hitherto in approving experiments using other primates. These are the recommendations of the Federal Committee on Animal Testing and the Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-Human Gene Technology in their new report.

Peter Rüegg

The trigger for the new ethical assessment of experiments using monkeys was an ETH trial with white tufted-ear marmosets, which were used for research into depression. In the trial, the researchers separated young animals from their mothers for a certain time, to find out what long-term consequences the separation had for the young animals. Both the Swiss National Science Foundation (Schweizerische Nationalfonds - SNF) as the financial sponsor and the canton's Animal Protection Committee as the ethical authority, had approved the experiment.

In their latest report, "Research on primates – an ethical assessment"(1), the Federal Committee on Animal Testing (Eidgenössische Kommission für Tierversuche - EKTV) and the Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-Human Gene Technology - EKAH) came to a different conclusion. According to current standards, marmosets should no longer be subjected to the trial, said EKTV chairwoman Regula Vogel yesterday when the report was presented in Berne.

Basic principle: if in doubt, be on the side of the primates

On the basis of the ETH white tufted-ear marmoset trial, the ethicists evaluated experiments with primates in general. Other primate trials, however, were not included in this consideration. EKAH chairman Klaus Peter Rippe said that the question of the primate models for research into depression should not be discussed in isolation from the general question of the ethical permissibility of trials on primates. Monkeys, with their emotional and cognitive abilities, were a special case. This fact alone was sufficient to require an essentially new ethical classification for trials on primates.

On the basis of their assessment, the two committees presented their general recommendations on 22 May. They would like to ban stressful testing on apes in Switzerland. All other applications for trials using monkeys should be approved by an interdisciplinary body. The committees are also demanding that this interdisciplinary approval should be rooted in law. Furthermore, the relevant authorities should now only grant licences with the utmost restraint. Greater care should yet be taken in striking the right balance – animal suffering v. human benefit. The ethicists expect scientists to find alternatives to trials on primates for their research into depression. And finally, institutions which finance the research should only approve primate trials if they have been assessed ethically. The ethics committees also demand that sponsors should now only support well integrated research projects.


Monkey at the heart of controversy: white tufted-ear marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) (Picture: R. Spekking) large

The opinions of the two committees are not shared by the head of animal protection at ETH and Zurich University, Hans Sigg. In an interview with ETH Life on 22 May, he warned of misunderstandings, saying that the report lacks a sound basis. The researchers whom it criticises had not been given any opportunity to present their side, said Sigg. The recommendations give the impression that the existing regulations are not satisfactory, but that is not the case. The demand to ban trials on great apes in Switzerland was like chasing shadows, because no such trials were taking place and none were planned. In a radio interview, ETH President Ernst Hafen expressed his concerns about the restrictions on freedom in research.

Present procedure is tried and tested

The SNF, which financed the ETH trials, did welcome the efforts of the two committees to resolve important ethical issues about research on monkeys. In its press of 22 May, the SNF promised to "give serious consideration to the recommendations and to adapt its practices if necessary". However, the present procedure, with separate scientific and ethical assessments, should not be given up. The problem is not an acute one: the SNF is currently not financing any projects using primates where young animals are separated from their mothers.

Over 420 monkeys used for testing

In 2004, 424 monkeys were being used in animal testing in Switzerland. This figure comes from national animal testing statistics. Of these, one third were at universities, ETH and hospitals, and two thirds were for industry. According to its own information, in 2005 the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) sponsored eleven projects using monkeys and lasting for a number of years, for which it had promised a total of 1.04 million francs. Support was mainly given for neurophysiological trials. The ETH experiment using marmosets has not been sponsored since the end of February. For the other projects, the money will run out between 2007 and 2009. Experiments using primates are being conducted in Basle, Freiburg and Zurich.

Nine out of ten animals used in trials that require licences are rodents such as mice, rats, hamsters or guinea pigs. The rest are fish, rabbits, other domestic animals, poultry, amphibians and monkey

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