The National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a workshop Feb. 18-19 on improving the rigor and reproducibility of research conducted on nonhuman primates (NHPs). Senior staff from several of the nation’s leading primate centers, including centers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Wisconsin attended the sessions. Also attending were researchers, veterinarians, and policy experts involved in NHP research, and representatives from academic associations, including the AAMC.
While NIH and academic scientists acknowledge that all research using laboratory animals involves additional obligations relating to the treatment and welfare of their subjects, research with NHPs are perceived to bear special obligations. Congress and the public have also singled out NHP research for special scrutiny.
Given the workshop’s focus on research rigor and reproducibility, the discussion revolved around the inherent tensions between ensuring that an experiment uses the minimal number of primates necessary and using a sufficient number to ensure the statistical power of the result.
The panelists agreed that conducting nonrigorous research with these animals is itself unethical, as it risks harming the animals’ well-being and loses the opportunity to benefit human health. The discussion also focused on ways to ensure a rigorous research design, instances where large data sets can be drawn from a few primates, and the particularly difficult problem of whether studies should rely on other models, such as mice, even though mice may be more dissimilar than primates for characterizing certain human diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The workshop also examined “behavioral management” of NHP models, such as providing for social primates to be paired in cages and not isolated. Such management may also increase the costs of working with NHPs but can reduce stress that might confound research results. Rigorous NHP research yields important benefits to human health, the workshop noted. NHPs were instrumental in the development of medications used to treat and control HIV, and they were used as models for understanding the spread and mechanism of the Zika virus. NHPs are now also being used in studies of coronavirus.