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Scientist is denied renewal of licence to carry out research on primates

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2815 (Published 01 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2815
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. 1Hamburg, Germany

    A change in the political make-up of a German state has resulted in a leading neuroscientist being denied the right to renew his licence to conduct research on primates.

    Andreas Kreiter, professor of animal physiology at the University of Bremen, whose research includes the use of monkeys, was told in October that his licence would not be renewed. Since May 2007 the state of Bremen has been run by a coalition of the centre left Social Democratic party of Germany (SPD) and the Greens, who during the election campaign called for an end to the monkey research.

    Professor Kreiter is preparing for a court battle to try to reverse the politicians’ decision. In preliminary legal wrangling, an administrative court in Bremen ruled that he could continue his research on 24 macaques, a genus of Old World monkeys, beyond the expiry of his current three year licence on 30 November.

    Dr Kreiter said that the legal case could end up being decided by Germany’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. But, noting that the German constitution guarantees the right of scientists to conduct research that is legal and ethical, he is “pretty confident” that, in the end, he will be allowed to continue his research with monkeys. “The legal situation in Germany is very clear, and our research is legal and completely correct.”

    Dr Kreiter has conducted research with monkeys since training in Frankfurt under Wolf Singer, director of the Department of Neurophysiology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. He has won regulatory approval at the University of Bremen since 1998, but not without strong criticism from animal rights groups. Asked about reports in the German press that he had received threats, Dr Kreiter said, “It is correct that I have been threatened and been under police protection for several years.”

    He applied for a new three year extension of his licence in June, but the government in Bremen had changed since his earlier applications.

    Dr Kreiter’s extension application was denied in October by Ingelore Rosenkötter, an SPD party member who, as senator for the administration of health, labour, and social issues, has authority over animal experiments. She said that the research was “ethically unjustified” because it focused on long term scientific questions and not on medical treatments. She based her denial in part on the arguments of Jörg Luy, director of the Institute of Animal Protection and Behaviour at the Free University of Berlin, who said that if similar experiments were done on prisoners of war it would be called torture.

    When asked to respond Dr Kreiter said: “That is complete nonsense. That is the friendliest thing [I can] say.”

    In simplest terms, he says, the goal of his research is “to try to understand how simple cognitive processes are generated by the interaction of neurons.” To achieve this, the monkeys, which are provided by the German Primate Center in Göttingen, are first trained in various “attention tasks,” being rewarded with fruit juices for performing correctly.

    The next step is to surgically open a trepanation a few millimeters in diameter in the monkey’s skull, which allows for insertion of “hair fine” electrodes into the brain. The monkey is then fitted with a titanium cap over the trepanation. Dr Kreiter said that the surgery is done with anaesthesia and is similar to brain surgery on humans. The next step is to monitor the brain while the monkey performs tasks. After five to 10 years the monkey is then killed with an overdose of anaesthetics and its brain is examined, he said.

    Dr Kreiter did not dispute the fact that his research was long term but said that a better understanding of the brain is necessary to open the door to potential treatments for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and other neurological or psychiatric diseases. “I think basic research of an organ that is not yet understood is an essential precondition for later clinical research of treatments.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2815

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