Need for Primates in Research

If we understood all of the complexities of what goes on inside people, we would probably not need to use animals for experiments to make better medicines. At the moment, however, we have insufficient knowledge to predict, without experimenting, whether new medicines will work and be safe. Why is this so? To explain, firstly a short description of how living things are organised is required.

The organisation of living things

The type, speed and location of chemical reactions within living organisms is ultimately controlled by genes, which are found in the DNA. The exact order of molecules, called bases, in the DNA determines the properties of every gene. The order of the bases for the entire human DNA has recently been determined (approximately 3 billion bases in total). This information is available through a number of web sites, including the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). This has revealed that each and every human has at least 30,000 (and maybe many more) genes.

Most genes provide the blueprint for proteins. Proteins have many roles, but essentially they give form and function to all living things. At present we only know what a few of these 30,000 or more proteins do in health and in disease. We do know that many of these proteins have multiple functions. To make matters even more complicated, most proteins do not work on their own, but only in combination with other proteins.

Why primate experiments?

Because we do not know what most of these proteins do, nor do we know how they work with each other, it is impossible to predict the effects many new medicines will have in humans. For these reasons, the only way we can make safe and effective new medicines for humans is first to test these new ideas for medicines. Are they safe, and do they work? Therefore, before being tested in humans, these ideas are generally tested first on cells and then in animals.

In animal testing, small animals such as rats and mice are nearly always used in initial experiments. Because animals such as mice and rats are very different from humans, and do not react in the same way, further testing in non-human primates is sometimes necessary.

As explained elsewhere in this website, because they are related in an evolutionary sense, the genes of humans and other primates are very similar. This means that the proteins they make, and the way their cells and bodies work are very similar. This also means that, where it is necessary, we test new medicines in non-human primates, and because their genes are similar to humans, they provide a very important indicator of what will happen in humans.

For many of the major diseases that threaten mankind, curative medicines are lacking. The medicines that are available often have serious side effects or become ineffective with time.

This holds equally true for serious infectious diseases (AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, tuberculosis) as well as for chronic debilitating diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

The development of safer and more effective medicines requires a better understanding of the basic mechanisms that cause diseases. For this reason, fundamental research in animals that respond in the same way as humans is so very important.

Primate research centre