Another colossal failure for biomedical research ethics


Sun Qianq and Poo Muming / AP

Monkeys have been successfully cloned by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Many fear that this could represent the next step towards human cloning. However, while human cloning might be technically closer, there are numerous legal and ethical barriers that stand in the way, given the inevitable suffering and death of research subjects that would be involved in developing the process.  Animal cloning experiments have resulted in appalling harms to mothers who endure repeated forced embryo implantation, abortion, cesarean birth, and death of their infants; and to their babies who die before or shortly after birth due to multiple complications and impairments. Existing laws protecting human research subjects almost certainly prevent this sort of cloning research being done on humans, although explicit bans on human cloning would provide a safer guarantee.

Sadly, it is not criminal to subject monkeys to non-consensual research causing suffering and death, and so this latest cloning research “success”, despite the harms to the monkeys involved, is trumpeted across the world. How do the scientists rationalize their actions? According to this article in The Globe and Mail, the goal of the research is “to create lots of genetically identical monkeys for use in medical research… The researchers said their initial targets will be Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” In other words, the researchers believe it’s okay to cause profound and irreparable harm and suffering to monkeys as long as the (stated) goal is to advance human medical science. Not only is this thinking ethically bankrupt; it is scientifically dishonest. Decades of research on (non-cloned) monkeys and chimpanzees in the name of curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases have failed abysmally. Researchers have systematically misled funding bodies and the public, grossly overstating the human relevance and potential contribution of this research (see Bailey and Taylor 2016 for meta-analysis).

Queen’s University is one of the few Canadian institutions that still confines, harms, and kills monkeys in the name of neuroscience (including the study of neuro-degenerative diseases). Over the years the University has fought to maintain access to monkeys, ignoring growing public concern about this research, and the trend in more progressive countries to end it. (For example, Queen’s led a 2012 lawsuit against Air Canada when the airline banned the transport of primates destined for research use. Queen’s researchers specifically raised the possibility that they might need to establish monkey breeding facilities in Canada if they could no longer import animals.) As monkeys become more difficult and expensive to source, we must face the horrific prospect that Queen’s could turn to cloning as the answer to its monkey supply challenges.

Researchers tell us that we shouldn’t worry about these experiments because any proposed research would be subject to ethics review. In reality, however, we know that the committees who do this ethics review are dominated by animal researchers themselves (unlike the committees who review the ethics of research on human subjects), and that few if any proposed experiments are ever rejected on ethical grounds, even where they clearly violate public opinion and values.

History shows that professional self-regulation in this field has failed. At least since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein we have been warned of the hubris of biomedical research culture driven by curiosity, arrogance, and the drive for glory. The ethical failures are legion. In North America alone, in the post WWII era, this moral abyss has included: ‘practicing’ hysterectomies on unsuspecting Black women in hospital for appendectomies; carrying out eugenics-driven sterilizations on persons with disabilities and others deemed to belong to undesirable populations; deliberately failing to treat Black men suffering from syphilis (despite readily available cures) in order to study the etiology of the disease unto death (and including infection of partners and children); conducting nutrition studies on indigenous children by failing to treat known deficiencies; deliberately injecting prisoners with viruses and cancer-causing agents; deliberately exposing military personnel to radiation, and so on. Indeed, when Chester Southam (chief of virology at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research) was criticized for injecting patients with cancer cells as part of a research study, he defended himself by saying the practice (of deliberately harming unsuspecting or inadequately informed research subjects) was ubiquitous in the biomedical research community. As indeed it was. When laws started being passed in the 1960s and 70s to reign in this wild west, biomedical scientists and their organizations protested vehemently, decrying any limitations on their pursuit of knowledge.

The moral failings of our society are multiple. But abandoning innocent animals to the mercy of the “self-regulating” field of biomedical research surely counts as one of our most abysmal failures.