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What Felix the monkey taught me about animal research
Thursday November 30, 2006
25.11.06(thisislondon.co.uk) - The research assistant, a thin, sallow man in chinos and a white shirt, greets me at the door. We have met before, but still he is jumpy and full of suspicion. ’Hi’, he says nervously.
He glances over my shoulder, checks that nobody is watching us, then leads me quickly across the foyer and down a set of stairs. After two flights, we turn right, down a long corridor and through a series of card-swiped locked doors.
Once at the end of the corridor, we twist, first left, then right, then left again. Then down another flight of stairs. In all, we walk for about seven minutes until, finally, we reach an unmarked door. The assistant swipes his security pass and ushers me inside. It is quiet, but I am hit by a thick, fetid smell, reminiscent of a hamster’s cage. I am given green overalls and plastic shoe guards and led into a room about 10ft square. The smell is even more pungent.
’This,’ says the research assistant, ’is where the monkeys live.’
To my left the large eyes of a macaque monkey stare out at me from a cage. In front of me, in a slightly larger enclosure, two smaller monkeys rattle the bars and chatter like excited schoolgirls.
I am the first journalist in 20 years to be allowed in here, one of the many highly secretive animal-testing programmes at Oxford University. To gain entry has taken months of negotiation with scientists, the university’s registrar and the heads of the medical faculty and other departments.
As a condition, I have had to promise not to reveal the location of the building, the name of my host department or the identity of anyone working here; such is the level of hostility directed towards those who experiment on animals.
Nowhere has that hostility been more evident than in Oxford. The university’s most prominent vivisectionist, Professor Colin Blakemore, and his family have been the targets of a relentless campaign by animal-rights activists, including letter bombs posted to their home and many death threats.
And, since 2004, activists have carried out a sustained protest against the building of a £20million animal-research centre in South Park Road, even forcing the construction company to pull out after causing hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage to vehicles and equipment. Although a new contractor has since been found, security is tight and builders now work in balaclavas to protect their identities; a bizarre sight on a British street.
The conflict between science and the animal-rights lobby has never been more ferocious. But why? In an effort to understand, I have spent a year studying both sides for a BBC documentary. And as part of my film I followed the fate of one animal, a monkey called Felix, as he was prepared for an experiment. I had no axe to grind and entered the lab in July with an open mind.
A seven-year-old macaque, Felix is one of more than 100 monkeys Oxford University keeps for research. Although 90 per cent of the experiments on live animals carried out in the university involve rats, mice or zebra fish, the monkeys are particularly valuable because their DNA so closely matches that of humans. There’s little more than six per cent difference between us and macaques. Each one is specially bred by a top-secret British-based company and costs more than £15,000.
When I first meet Felix, handlers have just embarked on a six-month training programme to prepare him for an experiment by the brain surgeon Professor Tipu Aziz. One of Britain’s most vociferous defenders of animal experiments (and the only scientist at the lab prepared to be identified), he specialises in the study and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
He pioneered a ground-breaking treatment for Parkinson’s which involves implanting electrodes in the brain, and admits carrying out tests on about 30 monkeys, all of which have been destroyed, in 20 years of research.
Felix is part of an experiment to research new therapies on an unexplored part of the brain that Aziz believes plays a vital part in different forms of Parkinson’s disease.
First, Felix has to be taught a series of precise hand movements, mimicking a human. Once he has mastered these - touching numbers on a computer screen - electrodes will be implanted deep into his brain so Aziz can monitor the electrical activity there every time Felix makes any given movement.
In the second phase, a toxin will be injected into Felix’s veins, inducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This will make his limbs shake and his muscles seize up, a common symptom of Parkinson’s. Then Aziz and his team will see if they can relieve the symptoms by passing electrical pulses into his brain.
If the experiment is successful Aziz will start human trials of the same technique. But whether or not it works, one thing is certain: Felix will subsequently be judged scientifically ’impure’, and of no further use. Once the experiment is over, he will be destroyed.
On my first day in the lab, I watch a research assistant whose job is to teach Felix the crucial arm movements. Before this can start, Felix has to be persuaded to leave his normal cage, which is about 6ft cubed, and enter a much smaller one which his 3ft frame all but fills. By confining him in here, the scientists can ensure he makes only one movement at a time so the electrical read-outs are not confused.
The assistant has been trying to lure Felix into this cage for a week, but he simply won’t budge. For an hour I watch as he offers the monkey bananas, chocolate and peanuts, to no avail.
It’s impossible not to imprint human characteristics on to Felix’s face: he has sad eyes, the wrinkles of an old man and he frequently fixes me with an intense gaze, curious about this new visitor. I find it profoundly disturbing. It’s not that he is being particularly badly treated: there are no signs that he is in pain or that his confined environment is affecting him psychologically. Some monkeys bite themselves after spending a long time in a cage, but Felix doesn’t appear to have any scars. Nor does he pace around the cage, as some captive monkeys do.
I also know that just to be licensed to carry out this kind of experiment, the scientists have had to have their 65-page research proposal endorsed by two university ethics boards and they have been questioned by a Home Office committee.
I, of all people, understand that medicine has benefited enormously from experiments on animals: the anaesthesia and surgery that extended the life of my father when he was dying of cancer wouldn’t have existed without investigations on animals, and I was pleased that all the drugs he took while he was ill were tested first on animals rather than sick and vulnerable patients.
But while I understand that the benefits to medical science have been weighed against the harm to the animal, as I sit watching this fellow primate casting a quizzical look in my direction, I cannot help thinking about what fate has in store for him, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
And I’m not the only one. The research assistants and the specially trained handlers who work in the lab seem extraordinarily fond of their charges. The relationship between Felix and his trainer reminds me of that between a man and his pet dog, and the assistant, who spends two hours a day every day of the week with Felix, admits he has formed a close bond with the monkey.
So, too, has a woman handler working with the two other macaques in the lab. She calls me over to watch them being ’cute’, racing around inside their cage. The handler is in her 20s, with a nose ring and straggly blonde hair, and as she watches them she wrinkles her nose in pleasure.
In terms of affection for the animals, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between these assistants and the animal-rights activists campaigning down the road. Nevertheless, all the staff here are in favour of the experiments.
’It is sad, but it’s a necessary sacrifice,’ says one.
Six weeks later when I visit the lab again, there is an air of frustration because Felix has not been progressing as quickly as everyone hoped. The trainer speculates that he is either too old or slow-witted. Secretly, I wonder if it’s because he knows he is in a dangerous place and senses what is in store.
Another six weeks on, at the end of September, I make my third visit. Felix’s learning ability has accelerated and he happily scampers into the small cage and takes a peanut. He sits quietly as the trainer locks him in and the cage is placed in front of a touch-sensitive computer.
On the screen is the number one. The trainer gently takes Felix’s hand, in the way old friends or lovers might, and moves Felix’s fingertips towards the screen. He doesn’t seem to object. When his fingernail reaches the number, the screen changes to a number two, and as a reward Felix is given a peanut. For more than an hour, I watch these two work together. It’s like a dedicated parent trying to teach a toddler to hold a fork.
Sometimes the trainer strokes Felix’s fingertips, sometimes he lifts the hands - and sometimes Felix reaches out to the screen of his own accord. It will be months before Felix will be able to touch all three numbers in sequence.
Prof Aziz is here to check on Felix’s progress, impatient to proceed with the experiment. Born in what is now Bangladesh into a medical dynasty, he arrived in Britain aged 17 and went on to study neurophysiology at University College London. Then, during a doctorate at Manchester, he started pioneering work on animal research.
He insists Felix won’t feel any pain. ’Surgery is always done under full anaesthetic,’ he says. ’So pain is not a feature of any of the experiments we do.’ But what about the toxins pumped into his body? Won’t Felix suffer horribly when the Parkinson’s symptoms take hold?
Aziz is unmoved.
’Actually, it is not as severe as human Parkinson’s,’ he says. ’And he won’t really be in the same distress as a human patient.’
But still, Felix will have to be put down at the end of the experiment. Aziz shrugs: ’It’s something we are required to do by law,’ he says.
Aziz claims the techniques he has pioneered have improved the lives of 40,000 people around the world. One such person is 13-year-old Sean Gardner, from Paisley in Scotland, who suffers from a rare movement disorder called dystonia.
When I met him at the beginning of the year, he was almost entirely paralysed; he couldn’t even twitch his fingers to play computer games or manipulate his arms to eat, even though his mind was in full working order. His cheeky personality was evident only through his crooked smiles.
’To hear the kids outside playing, knowing he can’t, that’s pretty hard,’ his mother Jeanette told me. ’I always thought I was going to wake up one morning and he was going to be back to normal, but during the past seven years he has declined from walking with a limp to being forced to use a wheelchair.’
In March, I watched at the Oxford Radcliffe Infirmary as Tipu Aziz carried out an operation to improve Sean’s condition. He fitted the lad’s head into a rigid metal frame and bored two tiny holes into his skull with a hand-drill that looked as if it came from a DIY cabinet. Seeing Sean, his head clamped in the metal frame, reminded me of the shocking photographs that animal-rights protesters display on the street - but with a boy in place of a monkey.
Two electrodes were threaded deep into the parts of the brain which were malfunctioning. A pacemaker was then fitted to pulse a current that would eventually rewire his brain. Within 12 months Sean was expected to recover many of his motor skills and possibly be able to walk again.
Prof Aziz carried out similar operations on monkeys to develop this procedure a decade ago, but even knowing this, watching Felix in the lab and imagining what was about to happen to him made me queasy.
Oxford’s new animal-research centre will improve conditions for the monkeys. They will be able to live in bigger cages, in larger, more sociable groups and have more stimulating environments. But the animal-rights movement are determined to stop it opening. They say animal experimentation is an outmoded, 19th Century science and argue that advances in DNA techniques, computer-modelling and stem-cell research are far more reliable methods of testing drugs and finding cures for diseases.
They also cite a long list of supposed ’wonder drugs’ which tested safe on animals but were later withdrawn after proving harmful to humans. Animals, they say, have repeatedly proved to be unreliable models for results in humans.
Since the new contractors began work on the research centre last December, demonstrators have stood outside, screaming; accusing the workers of constructing a concentration camp for animals.
Leader of the campaign is Mel Broughton, a 44-year-old landscape gardener from Northampton who was jailed for four years in 1997 for smuggling incendiary bombs into an animal-testing facility.
He is unapologetic: ’If you are going to take the money to build a place where animal torture goes on, where people are allowed to do that to sentient, thinking, feeling creatures and expect me to politely ask them to stop then you can think again,’ he said. ’Because I am going to intimidate you.’
Prof Aziz, however, refuses to be intimidated. Despite being on the ’assassination list’ of an extremist website, he has been extremely vocal in his criticism of the animal-liberation movement, calling them ’misinformed and sometimes illiterate anti-vivisectionists who adopt terrorist tactics’ and who ’undermine the process of democracy through intimidation’.
Britain has probably the most violent and absurd animal-rights movement in the world, he has said. ’The problem with British society is it has a humanoid perception of animals that’s almost cartoon-like.’
Is he worried for his own safety?
’There are sometimes things you have to do,’ he tells me. ’I think the situation that we are in is a travesty; that people are frightened to express their ideas in a free society or discuss the work they do.’
Aziz says his courage is also inspired by his patients: ’You take someone who was bound to a wheelchair or unable to move and suddenly they have surgery based on conclusions drawn from my primate research and they are up again. They are restored to human dignity. The animal-rights extremists will have you see scientists as people who torture animals, but they don’t give you the context.’
The last time I saw Sean Gardner, six months after his operation, he was able to hold his head up, feed himself and draw cartoon characters. And for the first time in almost four years, he was able, haltingly, to stand up, helped by his mother and Prof Aziz.
Jeanette, who had once been sceptical of the need for animal research, now has a very different perspective: ’I feel it’s a shame it has to be done on animals,’ she says. ’But when you see the difference it can make to your own kid, it changes your mind.’
Felix is still in the lab in Oxford, progressing with his training. Aziz thinks he’ll be able to insert the electrodes into his brain early next year. In my heart, I find the idea of Tipu Aziz and his colleagues in scrubs, hovering over the anaesthetised monkey, difficult to bear. Felix will spend months living with the electrodes in his head, performing his touch screen tasks in his tiny cage. And after that, he will be destroyed.
But the truth is I cannot oppose the experiment on Felix or any of the other millions of monkeys, rats, mice and fish used in scientific tests in Britain. I have been convinced of their merit by learning how the scientists work and also by Sean. The raw emotion on his face, and that of his mother, as he struggled to stand up is a sight that will stay with me forever.
And it is a triumph of medicine and of the human spirit that would not have been possible without Prof Aziz’s research. I’m glad I don’t have to stand in the professor’s shoes and wield the knife, but I am profoundly grateful to him that he has the courage to do so.
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