The euthanizing of four macaque monkeys following Parkinson’s disease research at the University of B.C. has sparked outrage among local antivivisectionists.
“We’re calling for an end to animal research at the University of British Columbia and at all publicly funded institutions and private institutions,” Anne Birthistle, volunteer with Stop UBC Animal Research and codirector of the Animal Defense and Anti-Vivisection Society of B.C., told the Georgia Straight by phone. “We believe in the scientific data that shows animal research is hazardous to human health, and there are far better human-based, progressive approaches that we should be using.”
Birthistle explained that “basing human medicine and toxicology on animal systems is playing with fire”, claiming that “you can’t extrapolate between species.”
In research signed off by Dr. Doris Doudet—a UBC professor in neurology and medicine—and her research team in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism last November, 18 monkeys were subjected to positron emission tomography (PET) scanning. From there, the animals were divided into two groups. Animals in both were subjected to repeated intravenous doses of the drug MPTP until Parkinsonian symptoms manifested physically with varying degrees of severity.
“Four Parkinsonian animals in Cohort A were euthanized shortly after PET imaging due to the severity of their motor disability,” Doudet and her team explained in the paper. “Although maintaining some degree of disability, the remaining Parkinsonian animals were able to care for themselves independently after recovery from the acute effects of MPTP.”
Brian Vincent, director of Stop UBC Animal Research, told the Straight the institution must be held accountable for the deaths of the macaques.
“First of all, if they had abided by their protocols, which were approved by their animal-care committee, it’s highly unlikely all four would have died,” Vincent said by phone. “Maybe one, because of a mistake, but all four? Something went wrong.”
Helen Burt, associate vice president of research at UBC, told the Straight the four deaths were “completely unanticipated” as the research was peer-reviewed and government-funded and the administration of the drug was not unusual in such a “scientifically rigorous study”.
“What happened was that they typically give an extremely small dose of this drug to the animal, and it normally takes numerous doses for the animals to start showing any evidence of the signs of Parkinson’s disease,” Burt said by phone. “This was a completely unexpected adverse reaction, if you like, to the drug. It doesn’t normally happen, and it was completely unanticipated.”
The reaction of the four monkeys was akin to a human allergic reaction to an antibiotic, Burt said by way of example.
“The individual doesn’t know that they’re allergic to the antibiotic, then they have an unanticipated reaction to that drug, and this is what happened in this case,” Burt said. “So we clearly take all kinds of heroic measures with the animals, but in this case, although there was a complete team available whenever these drugs are given txo these animals, it was felt that we had to use humane anesthesia to end the suffering of the animals.”
Despite the pressure from Vincent and Birthistle’s group to stop the practice and despite the fact the University of Toronto has just ended its years-long experimentation on monkeys, Burt said that is not on the horizon at UBC.
“The whole point of this research is to have a robust animal model of human disease so that we can explore new treatments,” Burt added. “This is a devastating disease with no cure. Millions of people worldwide are affected by Parkinson’s disease, and without this kind of research, we would simply not understand, number one, the disease, and, number two, we would have no new treatments. So research using these models provides essential insight into the disease and brings us closer to effective treatments.”
Opponents maintain that can still be done without any animals having to die or suffer in the process.