Call for research to move to humans as soon as possible

FRAME welcomes the fact that researchers who carried out an experiment offering hope to spine-damaged patients have, where possible, minimised the distress for the animals involved, but hopes that the project will move onto human models as soon as possible.

A US-based team used implanted electrodes in the brain of a monkey to control an anaesthetised animal with similar implants in its spinal cord. Research on spinal cord injury often involves surgically damaging the animal’s spine, but in this case the team, based at Cornell University in New York and Harvard Medical School, Boston, said they could not justify such an intervention in the monkeys.

FRAME is pleased that the scientists have applied part of a system called the Three Rs, replacement, reduction and refinement, which is designed to end the need for animals in biological research. If it is not possible to replace animals with non-animal methods, the number used should be reduced to an unavoidable minimum and experimental procedures should be refined to minimise any suffering caused.

While welcoming the potential advances this technique could offer those with spinal injury, FRAME argues that this should not lead to further use of monkeys in this research. Now that the system has been shown to work between two monkeys any further experimentation should take place using human subjects as soon as is practically possible. FRAME is deeply concerned about the use of monkeys in scientific research because of their highly social and intelligent natures. They are likely to experience far greater levels of stress that other animals when they are held and manipulated in laboratories. Furthermore, despite the adherence of the research team to the Three Rs this research still involved highly invasive procedures including removing part of the animals skull and the insertion of electrodes into the brain

Director of the FRAME Alternatives Laboratory Dr Andrew Bennett said: “The researchers should move to human subjects as soon as is practical and, while this project did not use surgical paralysis to model spinal injury in the monkeys, it would be unacceptable if further research went in that direction.

“As a proof of principle experiment that has clearly been carried out with the Three Rs in mind, this is an interesting development with potential therapeutic benefit, but it should not lead to an increase in the use of primates. Rather the technology needs to be moved into human-based experimentation with careful planning and ethical consideration.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications . Maryam M. Shanechi, Rollin C. Hu & Ziv M. Williams. A cortical–spinal prosthesis for targeted limb movement in paralysed primate avatars DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4237