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Ethical issues when modelling brain disorders in non-human primates

Abstract

Non-human animal models of human diseases advance our knowledge of the genetic underpinnings of disease and lead to the development of novel therapies for humans. While mice are the most common model organisms, their usefulness is limited. Larger animals may provide more accurate and valuable disease models, but it has, until recently, been challenging to create large animal disease models. Genome editors, such as Clustered Randomised Interspersed Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR), meet some of these challenges and bring routine genome engineering of larger animals and non-human primates (NHPs) well within reach. There is growing interest in creating NHP models of brain disorders such as autism, depression and Alzheimer’s, which are very difficult to model or study in other organisms, including humans. New treatments are desperately needed for this set of disorders. This paper is novel in asking: Insofar as NHPs are being considered for use as model organisms for brain disorders, can this be done ethically? The paper concludes that it cannot. Notwithstanding ongoing debate about NHPs’ moral status, (1) animal welfare concerns, (2) the availability of alternative methods of studying brain disorders and (3) unmet expectations of benefit justify a stop on the creation of NHP model organisms to study brain disorders. The lure of using new genetic technologies combined with the promise of novel therapeutics presents a formidable challenge to those who call for slow, careful, and only necessary research involving NHPs. But researchers should not create macaques with social deficits or capuchin monkeys with memory deficits just because they can.

  • research ethics
  • animal experimentation
  • genetic engineering
  • neuroethics
  • moral status
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