Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rhesus Genome

As of April 14, 2007, Google reported that there were 199 postings regarding the news that the Macaca mulatta genone had been sequenced. Typical headlines:

Scientists Map DNA of Rhesus Monkeys
Scientists Map DNA of Research Monkeys
Macaque Genome Sequenced
Monkey Gene Map May Improve Drug Testing
Scientists map rhesus monkey
Macaque genome analysis will help find human disease genes

The original paper that all the news outlets were reporting on was "Rhesus Macaque Genome Sequencing and Analysis Consortium." Science, 316 . 222 - 234 (2007).

Of all the articles in the popular press, I think the Associated Press piece was the most telling.

I don't know how long the link will remain active, so here are a few excerpts:

These fuzzy animals are key to testing the safety of many medicines, and understanding such diseases as AIDS, and the new research will help scientists finally be sure when they're a good stand-in for humans.

"The thing we're all fascinated with is what makes us different from these animals who are so close to us," said Dr. Richard Gibbs of the Baylor College of Medicine, who led a team of more than 170 scientists that collaborated on the project....

Among the most intriguing discoveries so far: a list of diseases where the same genetic mutation that makes people ill seems normal for the macaques....

But right away, the work raises some important biomedical questions, because rhesus macaques are ubiquitous in medical research. Most vaccines and many drugs are tested in the monkeys before ever reaching people. And they're used as models of many human diseases, most notably the AIDS virus.

"As models, we expect them to behave like us," noted Baylor's Gibbs.

Yet consider some of the differences found so far:

About one in 14,000 babies is born with PKU, or phenylketonuria, meaning their bodies can't process a protein found in most foods called phenylalanine. Without treatment, PKU causes mental retardation. But in macaques, the gene defect that causes PKU seems to cause no harm, suggesting they may somehow compensate in a way people can't.

The researchers found a list of such mutations, from ones linked with cystic fibrosis to blood diseases, that are bad news for people but seem normal in the monkeys. Most involved metabolic disorders that in turn can harm the brain, a link Gibbs found particularly compelling.

The monkeys had triple the number of genes as people to do run one arm of the immune system. That raises immediate questions about how they react in vaccine or AIDS research. "It would make sense that a comprehensive knowledge of their immune machinery should be a part of those studies," Gibbs said.

On the other hand, macaques had far fewer of a family of cancer-related genes than either humans or chimps.
There is a claim in the article attributed to lead scientist, Dr. Richard Gibbs of the Baylor College of Medicine. He said that "the work has importance for the animals, too because knowing their genetic makeup should cut the number of monkeys needed in many biomedical experiments."

Now, Dr. Gibbs must be a very bright guy, but it doesn't appear that he has much of an insight into the disturbing and dark world of primate vivisection.

Its a near certainty that he's about as wrong as can be on this point. Dollars to donuts, the publication of the rhesus genome will increase demand for these already exploited animals. They are in a no win situation: If there is a similaity in a part of the human and rhesus genome, this will be claimed as an excuse to experiment on them; if there is a difference, this will be claimed as an excuse to experiment on them.

The only way out of this morass of torture and suffering is to acknowledge that some of our cognitive similarities have moral implications and that any non-religious-based consistent moral position must acknowledge that we should stop hurting them for the same reasons that we should not hurt each other.

1 comment:

Netanya said...

Yes, I saw these articles/features regarding the Rhesus Primate, and the so-called scientific giddy joy reflected in the writings about the "usefulness" of torturing, maiming and killing innocent primates in labs across the nation and the world. I was saddened, shocked and disasppointed, AGAIN - with the cold - close to idiotic - approach in which the writers present the details on this beautiful creature - all for their cruel purposes.