“What's wrong with my monkey?” Ethical perspectives on germline transgenesis in marmosets

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Abstract

The birth of the first transgenic primate to have inherited a transgene from its parents opens the possibility to set up transgenic marmoset colonies, as these monkeys are small and relatively easy to keep and breed in research facilities. The prospect of transgenic marmoset models of human disease, readily available in the way that transgenic laboratory mice are currently, prompts excitement in the scientific community; but the idea of monkeys being bred to carry diseases is also contentious. We structure an ethical analysis of the transgenic marmoset case around three questions: whether it is acceptable to use animals as models of human disease; whether it is acceptable to genetically modify animals; and whether these animals' being monkeys makes a difference. The analysis considers the prospect of transgenic marmoset studies coming to replace transgenic mouse studies and lesion studies in marmosets in some areas of research. The mainstream, broadly utilitarian view of animal research suggests that such a transition will not give rise to greater ethical problems than those presently faced. It can be argued that using marmosets rather than mice will not result in more animal suffering, and that the benefits of research will improve with a move to a species more similar in phylogenetic terms to humans. The biological and social proximity of monkeys and humans may also benefit the animals by making it easier for scientists and caretakers to recognize signs of suffering and increasing the human motivation to limit it. The animal welfare and research impacts of the transition to marmoset use will depend very much on the extent to which researchers take these issues seriously and seek to minimize animal harm and optimize human benefit.

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