NIH to End Research Targeted by PETA
Adult rhesus macaque on a tire swing. Image © Understanding Animal Research

On December 11, 2015, BuzzFeed broke the news that a well-regarded researcher’s work on the physical and psychological effects of maternal deprivation in infant monkeys would be terminated. Constantine Stratakis, scientific director of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), said the decision was made for financial reasons. However, coming as it did after a year-long campaign by PETA, many on both sides of the issue saw the move as bowing to external pressure.

In a Science article published December 14, 2015, Stratakis was quoted as saying that the research of Stephen Suomi has produced “a treasure trove of material.” Suomi “has made critical observations on the impact of certain behavior on genetics,” Stratakis said. A PETA representative is quoted in the same article as welcoming the decision. “They did the right thing by shutting down this work,” PETA Director of Laboratory Investigations Justin Goodman said.

According to an NICHD statement, Suomi’s research will be phased out over three years as part of a broader plan to end the institute’s operations at the NIH Animal Center in Poolesville, MD. Suomi has been studying the long term effects of early maternal separation on the mental health and development of infant monkeys with a colony of about 300 animals. According to the statement, over the course of the next three years, about 100 animals per year will be transferred to other facilities. Suomi’s lab “may continue to analyze behavioral data and to conduct experiments on collected samples, but no animals will be involved,” it said.

Many in the research community viewed the decision with concern. “What is clear is that the science is valuable and that the work is conducted with care for the animals,” Speaking of Research said in a December 15, 2015 blog post. “Science is the essential foundation of medical progress and discovery that benefits society, humans, animals, and the environment,” the post said. It noted that both the American Psychological Association and the American Society of Primatologists had voiced their support for the scientific merit of Suomi’s work and its contributions to human and animal health.

“The US has a strong system for direction, review, and oversight of animal research,” said Speaking of Research. It went on to caution that “[p]olitical campaigns by groups fundamentally opposed to all use of animals in research threaten the very fabric of science on which medical progress depends.”

The American Society of Primatologists (ASP) registered its concern that the decision will have “widespread—and unknown—effects.” ASP noted that Suomi is involved in collaborations with other researchers in order to answer a variety of scientific questions while reducing the number of animals needed. The ASP’s Board of Directors estimated that terminating Suomi’s studies may affect more than a dozen large-scale projects being conducted by more than 60 researchers in the U.S., Italy, France, the U.K., Germany, and Canada.

“We believe that the decision by the NIH that curtails long-term, life-long data collection on [these] rhesus macaques will negatively impact both human and non-human primate health,” the ASP board said.

Even the decision to end the research did not satisfy PETA. Justin Goodman told Science the group would continue its pressure on NIH to end all research with nonhuman primates. “We’re also trying to get NIH to start counting the number of mice and rats it uses.” On December 21, 2015—just 10 days after the NICHD decision was disclosed—PETA announced that 28 Members of Congress had written to Collins, asking that the 300 monkeys from Suomi’s studies be sent to sanctuaries rather than transferred to other labs. “Your decision last month to retire all federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries demonstrates NIH’s commitment to providing refuge to primates previously used in experiments,” the congressional letter said.

PETA launched its high profile campaign against Suomi in September, 2014 using video footage and photos of animals in his studies that were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. PETA’s claims that the research traumatized the animals were aired in the media and conveyed in graphic ads in the Washington, DC Metro system.

In December 2014, Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Sam Farr (D-CA) wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins expressing concern about the “scientific and ethical justification” of Suomi’s research and urging him to conduct a bioethics review.

Collins provided a response in January 2015. After outlining the “numerous policies and protocols” in place at NIH “to assure the ethical treatment” of animals, Collins detailed issues that were addressed in a review conducted by the NICHD’s Animal Care and Use Committee under the direction of NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. No problems were explicitly identified, but Collins told the Representatives that “several important refinements” would be made to the research protocol as a result of the review. These included deleting neonatal EEG analyses and spinal taps that “previously yielded important data, but are not currently needed to achieve the research goals.” In addition, the number of blood draws was to be reduced and the protocol was amended to “define distress behaviors more clearly.”

Meanwhile, also in January 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) wrote to Representatives Roybal-Allard, Titus, Engel, and Farr detailing how Suomi’s research has contributed to the understanding of human and animal behavior and to the improvement of treatments for mental illnesses including depression, addiction, and autism. In a January 22, 2015 letter, APA Acting Executive Director for Science Howard Kurtzman urged the Representatives to reevaluate the research in light of the demonstrated benefits of Suomi’s research. “We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research,” Kurtzman wrote.

However, PETA interpreted the NIH-mandated protocol changes as a victory and kept the pressure on. On October 20, 2015, the group sent letters to hundreds of people living near Collins and Suomi. “I am writing to share some disturbing information about one of your neighbors that is especially upsetting if you object to animal abuse,” Senior Laboratory Oversight Specialist Alka Chandna said in the letter. She described the studies in inflammatory terms as “cruel psychological experiments” and asserted that “neuroscientists have called them worthless.” Chandna urged the neighbors to visit, call, or email Collins or Suomi with a personal appeal to “save monkeys from terrible suffering.” The letters included the scientists’ home addresses, their telephone numbers, and email.

In July, 2015, language about nonhuman primate research was included in the House Appropriations Committee’s report that accompanied NIH’s FY 2016 funding legislation. The report called upon Collins to “conduct a review of its ethical policies and processes with respect to nonhuman primate research subjects, in consultation with outside experts.” While report language lacks the force of law, it provides instructions to federal agencies. It is therefore likely that NIH will undertake an ethical review of nonhuman primate research in the coming year.