Why we need monkey breeding and research facilities in India - Hindustan Times
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Why we need monkey breeding and research facilities in India

ByHindustan Times
Dec 19, 2023 06:56 PM IST

Author - Dr Geetanjali Sachdeva, director, ICMR-NIRRCH and Dr Balram Bhargava, chief, Cardiothoracic Sciences Centre, AIIMS, New Delhi.

Inquisitiveness is among the many traits that have helped humans survive several threats of extinction and thrive on planet Earth for 1.6 million years. This trait, which is the very basis of scientific investigation, has taken us to the moon as well as the ocean’s innermost depths. Most recently, our scientific spirit helped us survive another major threat to our existence – the Covid-19 pandemic. However, our encounters with zika, ebola, MERS, and other deadly pathogens suggest that we may face similar threats in the near future. This warrants better preparedness and ready availability of experimental models that can simulate different diseases and biological conditions.

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Monkeys

While many species can be bred and used for experimental research, the ethical use of Non-human Primates (NHPs) like monkeys serves as the best model for translational research. NHPs have been used worldwide for biomedical research since the 1900s, and their contributions have been enormous, including the testing of vaccines for various diseases (polio, yellow fever, hepatitis, German measles, MMR, anthrax, and more recently Covid-19), testing of therapeutics (for typhoid, rheumatoid arthritis, cancers, allergies, leprosy, HIV/AIDS, diabetes), the discovery of blood and plasma components, key insights about the heart and brain, and several breakthroughs in the field of transplantation.

Recent years, however, have seen an acute scarcity of NHPs for research – a problem that has been compounded by China’s restrictions on NHP exports. A government committee on the matter concluded that the ethical use of NHPs for research will continue to be vital in the country’s ability to respond to public health emergencies and that the paucity of NHPs will impact not only immediate research capabilities but also critical health research in the future.

India also does not have dedicated national primate research centres or large functional breeding facilities for NHPs. In 1980, a breeding colony of rhesus monkeys was maintained at the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow for studies on reproductive biology and toxicology; however, no breeding is being undertaken there at present. As a result, scientists at national research institutions used wild monkeys for research studies. Colonies of bonnet monkeys – another common Indian species – were being maintained at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, ICMR National Institute for Research in Reproductive and Child Health (ICMR-NIRRCH), Mumbai and National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi. However, in the last two decades, the use of NHPs for biomedical research in India has been on the wane. This may be attributed to the stringent regulations imposed by the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), which mandate that NHPs for biomedical research should be procured from government-recognised breeding centres. The lack of such breeding centres has created significant challenges for Indian biomedical research.

For instance, testing Covaxin at the preclinical level was an uphill battle for ICMR due to the non-availability of rhesus macaques. The experiments thus were conducted on monkeys that were captured on a war footing to rapidly study the vaccine. The pandemic taught us that if India wants to secure its position among the global leaders in science and technology, we must establish our own primate breeding and research centres; with a focus on the ethical use of these animals. This experience served as an impetus for ICMR to establish a state-of-the-art National Animal Resource Facility for Biomedical Research in Hyderabad as well as ICMR-NIRRCH’s Sasunaghar facility in Maharashtra.

These two ICMR facilities are expected to serve as crucial national resources for testing various drugs, vaccines, and lead compounds for diseases that cannot be tested in other non-primate species. Besides supplying NHP resources and conducting research, these facilities would also train a new generation of primatologists with special skills in primate handling. ICMR and other scientific agencies in India have also set up an Institutional Animal Ethics Committee (IAEC) and guidelines for the use of animals for biomedical research to ensure that research animals are treated in a humane way.

Establishing the primate breeding and research facilities is only a beginning in the right direction – concerted efforts and commitment are needed to sustain these centres. Meritorious research using NHPs should also be supported, as the use of NHPs in biomedical research poses challenges like high maintenance costs and the requirement for special skills in primate handling.

The need of the hour is for India to complement its existing efforts with a robust strategic plan for its NHP research, which would enable the efficient use of NHP resources and ensure stringent adherence to ethical guidelines.

This article is authored by Dr Geetanjali Sachdeva, director, ICMR National Institute of Research in Reproductive and Child Health and Dr Balram Bhargava, chief, Cardiothoracic Sciences Centre, AIIMS, New Delhi.

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