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To Ape or Not To Ape? Bridging Missing Links in Medical Research

Raging controversies have always surrounded animal experimentation, but the simmering issue deals with the idea of using primates in medical research.// The reason for the yo-yoing on the issue of using primates in medical testing hovers around their extreme likeness with humans.

Primate testing has triggered controversies mainly due to two primary issues: whether the experiments on apes is really effective in making positive strides in the medical field and if it is ethical to use animals that are so close in resemblance to humans, for the purpose of medical testing. Scientific data shows the closeness in the DNA profile, 97.7 percent of the DNA in apes and humans is similar.

Rick Bogle, a keen animal rights champion, has always praised the advanced cognitive ability and sensitivity portrayed by apes. Apes have been known to possess the ability to communicate in sign language, at par with a three-or four-year-old human child. Showing empathy, poking fun and playing pranks, so similar to humans, has raised the concerns for their use in medical experiments.

Consequently, animal rights activists contend that all animals merit the same rights as humans, which does not exclude freedom from deliberate pain and discomfort. But researchers are quick to assert that their experiments on apes are ethically justified because it has benefited humans to a great extent.

However, scientists involved with research on primates contend that primate experiments are need of the hour to arrive at remedies for human diseases. Scientists opine that specific primate research has contributed in great measure towards protecting human health.

Having said that, it is also evident that after decades of experiments on primates, scientists have not made path breaking strides in certain human diseases like HIV or AIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, epilepsy, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, or cancer—which have been experimented threa dbare on primates. Perhaps the basic loophole in conducting such experiments on primates is that scientists can only induce symptoms of human ailments in apes, which defeats the method of studying the disease in a natural form in humans.

Many countries have enforced a ban on using apes for medical experiments – infact New Zealand has endowed apes with legal rights that will cover them from being used for experiments, and research. United Kingdom also followed suit.

Now, British scientists have stirred the hornet’s nest again, by seeking a leeway in the ban that will allow primate testing in cases of medical emergency. United Kingdom had banned the Research on apes and their clan in 1998, but medical researchers have raised questions about these animals being the only succor for developing cures, in the event of an outbreak.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said "It is worth reflecting what the position would be ... 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 ... decision to ban research in this area." According to him the ban has relegated the British researchers way behind in perceiving the facets of human language, social behavior and the concept of self. Scientists in the US and Japan have never faced impediments in medical testing and this has reflected in novel breakthroughs in medical research.

While Animal activists, scientists, researchers, and the like debate the issues surrounding animal testing, the clash over the role of animals in general and apes in particular in medicine, will continue to fill many a debate till such time diseases remain uncured.

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