In China, this is the year of the monkey. And for Chinese science, the rise of research with monkeys promises to make the next few years especially noteworthy. The country has for a couple of years been struggling to implement a major brain project, partly because officials have been trying to work out what its unique angle should be, given that similar efforts are already under way in Europe, the United States and Japan. Now researchers say that the project will be announced soon, and that primate research will feature heavily. It is natural for China to be willing to extend this line of research — and useful for the rest of the world, because elsewhere it is becoming more difficult.
As we explore in a News Feature on page 300, access to abundant non-human primates gives researchers in China a serious advantage in many key areas of preclinical study, as well as in emerging areas of basic science. With their prodigious new-found ability to apply gene-editing techniques in monkeys, for example, Chinese researchers are converting that abundance into prominent publications.
The importance of China is clear from the contrasting picture in Europe. Munich, for example, is one of Germany’s main hubs for biomedical research. The large biomedical campus on the outskirts of the city is home to a large number of exciting basic-research centres and successful biotechnology companies. Last week, it announced another splendid addition — a stem-cell centre, due to open in 2017. The centre, which will provide a research and drug-screening platform based on the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, is designed to boost the translation of basic research into medical applications by identifying candidate therapies. But there is a hitch.
The German federal government, like most European governments, is pushing translational research in medicine, and its planning can’t be faulted — except for one thing. It has no strategy for the primate research and testing that will be needed to move many candidate therapies into the clinic. There is a reason for that. Primate research in some German centres and elsewhere is under pressure from campaigners and politicians. The Netherlands voted late last month to revisit a 2013 parliamentary question on whether and, if so, how the country could end primate research within a decade — a stance that is sharply at odds with its own heavy promotion of translational research.
This hardening of attitudes comes as researchers and governments alike seem to agree that monkey research has a major role in many fields. That point was made dramatically during the Ebola crisis, when therapies based on monkey studies were successfully rushed into use; and ongoing investigations in Zika might make the point again.
Why does that general agreement not translate into consistent support for the primate studies that will be needed now and in the future to extend crucial areas under investigation, especially in neuroscience? The same government agencies must also consider the views of society at large, which, as our understanding of monkeys’ capabilities and commonalities with humans grows, is ever more strongly against research on primates. This is a valid perspective and needs to be balanced with the societal benefits that can be gained only through primate research. Such research is not an all-or-nothing proposal; it is one that requires continuous debate over where the research is warranted. Right now, however, too many politicians in Europe are shunning that debate, taking the easy way out and withdrawing support. This leaves a big gap in the translational-medicine programmes that they support. Researchers in China, who do not face these barriers of cost, logistics, regulations or ethical pressure, have a huge strategic advantage. This will give China’s brain initiative plenty of room to thrive and leverage to negotiate research collaborations with researchers elsewhere.
“Researchers should not just rush to be the first to tweak some gene in monkeys.”
Still, China needs to proceed with caution. Researchers should not just rush, for example, to be the first to tweak some gene in monkeys, even though the growing number of gene-modification tools makes it easy. That these techniques work in monkey genomes has been proved by Chinese groups already. The likely clinical and fundamental breakthroughs offered by these experiments must be well mapped out before new projects start.
This is especially true for experiments on psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, which, from a therapeutic perspective, offer some of the most compelling reasons to experiment with monkeys. There’s no use in scientists tinkering with monkey genes to create a biomedical model if the experiment doesn’t allow an investigation of how genes affect the cells, circuits and behaviours thought to be implicated in brain disorders. This requires a rigorous comparison of behaviour in the modified monkey and a normal monkey. Because the ultimate aim is to learn about human behaviour and pathology, comparison with the human disease must also be included. In many cases, these will be totally new areas of investigation not just for China, but for researchers around the globe. Few have expertise with the necessary reach. Some have experience in basic systems neuroscience, but little idea of how to approach disease. Others might work on rodent disease models, but have little understanding of primate brain function.
China should consider hiring or collaborating with scientists who are up to speed on both monkey and human behaviour. Many researchers in Europe and the United States who are keen to carry their projects through to the monkey model are sure to be interested. More-structured top-level coordination with the national brain initiatives elsewhere is also worth exploring. Chinese researchers’ freedom from animal-rights pressures will probably continue for the foreseeable future, but it is not a given. To maintain that support, and to make it easier for researchers elsewhere to form collaborations, they will have to show that they are abiding by principles that guide the international scientific community — that monkeys should be used only when necessary and in as small a number as possible.
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