Rhesus Macaques are seen feeding in Khao No-Khao Kaeo, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand. Photo by Randy Everette/Wikimedia
Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Use of monkeys in medical research hit an all-time high in 2017, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.
Last year, scientists used close to 76,000 primates for research, up by 22 percent from 2015 and 6 percent in 2008, according to a USDA report. Experts think primates are better animals for testing of drugs and study of diseases than mice or dogs because of their genetic and physical similarity to humans.
"I think the numbers are trending up because these animals give us better data. ... We need them more than ever," Jay Rappaport, director of the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, home to approximately 5000 monkeys, told Science Magazine.
The numbers have distressed some in the biomedical community who have committed to curbing the use of monkeys for research.
"People are just blindly running toward the monkey model without critically evaluating how valuable it really is," said Thomas Hartung, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.
A federal investigation of the death of of four animals at Harvard University led to the school shutting down its primate research center in 2015. That same year, the NIH also dropped its support of all invasive chimpanzee research.
The next year, Congress instructed the NIH to conduct an ethics workshop on the use of monkey research.
The public has joined the science community in its protest of animal research, with a record 52 percent of Americans opposing the research, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Adding to that, nearly all commercial airlines decline to carry lab animals.
Still, the increase in monkey research remains popular due to how useful the animal has become for testing. Monkey research "represents both the state of the science and the importance of nonhuman primates," an NIH statement read.
Although NIH declines to support the use of some primates during research, it still encourages the use of others. Close to two-thirds of the primates used in NIH-supported research are rhesus macaques, which make popular testing subjects for diseases like HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and addiction, according to an NIH report.
In 2017, the NIH handed out 249 grants for primate research versus only 171 in 2013.
"I think when Congress sees these numbers, things are going to come to a head," said Mike Ryan, director of policy and government affairs at the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in Boston.
To reduce this dependence on all primates for research, Hartung is calling on the NIH to expand its opposition to animal research to include all primate research. He also disputes that idea that primates are more useful than other animals in research and warns that over reliance on monkeys could lead to "repeating the mistakes of the past."