Alok Jha

Ban on research using them is debated

If new disease breaks out, primates are sole animal modelsPrimate research had led to vaccinations for polio

London: Scientific research on humans' nearest animal relatives should be allowed in extreme medical emergencies, leading British scientists said on Friday. This is a move likely to prove controversial with animal rights campaigners. Research on great apes chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans was banned in the U.K. in 1998. But medical researchers said if a dangerous new infectious disease took hold, these animals might provide the only hope of developing cures.

In addition, scientists said the ban had led to British scientists falling behind their international counterparts in observational work to understand the evolution of human behaviour.

But Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said although he agreed with the ban and could see no need for great apes in medical research at the moment, he was uncomfortable with a blanket ban.

He said at the launch of a report produced by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust on the use of non-human primates in scientific research: "If there were a new, emerging infectious disease which was extremely dangerous to people for which the only possible animal model was the chimpanzee or the gorilla. I think that would lead us to reflect again on this...."

Mr. Blakemore said the ban had also left British researchers lagging behind colleagues in understanding the roots of human language, social behaviour and self-identity. Scientists in the U.S. and Japan, where most research on great apes is carried out, can observe chimpanzees.

Scientists defended using monkeys in medical research because of the advances the work had provided. Prof. Walport said primate research had led to vaccinations for polio and helped in the development of kidney dialysis machines.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006