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Non Human Primates in Research

2018-01-25
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Nonhuman primates have been and will continue to be very valuable animal models in biomedical research. For some types of research viable alternatives to the use of nonhuman primates are not available. It is clear, however, that the use of nonhuman primates presents many serious problems for animal health and well-being, animal management and health risks to researchers and animal care staff. The use of nonhuman primates, especially Old World primates, requires specialized housing and facilities; intense, continual training of staff; and well organized support staff providing medical surveillance and treatment, hazard assessment, and security.

Primates As Research Models

Advantages
– Humankind’s closest biological relatives
– We share 98.4% of our DNA with chimpanzees
– Characteristics in common — tool use, long-lasting social relationships, and complex communication
– Same organs (heart, lungs, brain etc.) and organ systems (respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous systems etc.) which perform the same functions in pretty much the same way

Disadvantages
– Expensive to purchase and maintain
– Reproductive rate is low (typically one offspring per reproductive cycle) and the developmental period of the young is long
– Special handling and management requirements, based on the temperament and potentially lethal zoonoses of primates
– Ethical issues on the primates, especially chimpanzees, have limited their use
– There is no perfect animal model regardless of how similar it is to humans

Why Are Primates Needed in Research and Safety Testing?

Before pharmaceuticals reach the consumer, their safety has to be tested on humans during clinical trials. Preliminary experiments on animals – often rats and dogs – are intended to protect the health of people taking part in these trials. Only few candidate pharmaceuticals are actually tested on non-human primates (NHPs). Primates are needed to test certain drugs with potential effects on female genital organs, eyes, birth outcomes, blood coagulation, or the brain, as they are the only mammals with specific physiological traits similar to humans.

In research on infectious diseases, vaccines and drugs that are developed are typically first tested on cells grown in the laboratory, then on animals, and finally on humans to check their safety and effectiveness. Primates often remain the most suitable animal option because their immune system is very similar to that of humans. Primate species are the only ones that can be used to develop effective malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis C, or HIV vaccines and drugs for humans. Primates may also be needed to quickly detect new diseases such as SARS that could spread across the world.

Primates play a unique role in brain research because they are the only animals with brains that approach the complexity of the human brain. Research on pain and experiments on primates which require entering their skull raise difficult ethical concerns. Some new, non-invasive research techniques are being developed that can be used on humans and primates, but important limitations remain.

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