March of Dimes' Monkey Experiments Draw Fire
By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
The conditions for the primates are so harsh that the experimenters sought a special exemption from animal care guidelines. Nonetheless, the March of Dimes decided to fund Miles Novy at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center to impregnate monkeys and then infect them with mycoplasma bacteria to see if he can trigger miscarriages or premature births.
Novy inserts monitoring cables into the monkeys’ uteruses and into their babies’ bodies, tethering the animals in cages that are too small to meet animal care guidelines. He asked for an additional exemption from limits on the number of surgical procedures that could be performed on each animal. When the babies are born, Novy kills them for further study.
In a research career beginning in 1965, Novy has infected monkeys with group B streptococci bacteria, finding that, as expected, the infection triggers premature births. The March of Dimes is now paying Novy to do similar experiments using another bacterium, called mycoplasma.
Ethical Human Studies Bring Better Answer
About 10 percent of births are preterm (that is, before 37 weeks gestation). Infections play a role in about one-quarter of cases (2 to 3 percent of births overall). More than 20 human clinical studies have already shown that bacterial infections, including the bacteria studied by Dr. Novy, in the genital tract or uterus double the risk of preterm birth.
Sometimes infections are mild and not clinically apparent, leading investigators to look for more subtle signs of infection that may predict preterm birth. For example, doctors can test for fetal fibronectin, a substance produced by the chorioamniotic membranes. When they find it in the cervix or vagina, they know that something is amiss in the membranes that has allowed it to leak through. Fetal fibronectin in the cervix or vagina at 24 weeks is associated with a 60-fold increased risk of preterm delivery within four weeks of sampling—a simple way to identify women who might benefit from antibiotics or other treatments.
There is no debate that bacterial infections are linked to preterm birth. The question now is what to do about them. Human research studies are currently aimed at defining which groups benefit from treatment and which do not, addressing these key questions:
- Which antibiotics are most effective and under what circumstances?
- Is it always wise to try to extend pregnancy to term, or is preterm labor a sign of disease in mother or baby, so that an early delivery might be best?
Human studies allow researchers to avoid the problems presented by animal experiments.
March of Dimes' Sponsors Take Action
Previous March of Dimes experimenters have sewed closed the eyes of kittens and have conducted many other harmful and fatal experiments on animals. PCRM has long been pushing the March of Dimes to focus instead on clinical services and ethical human studies. Tens of thousands of people have complained to the March of Dimes, and some of its leading corporate sponsors—Kmart, PepsiCo, Sara Lee, Publix supermarkets, among others—have recently decided to restrict their support so that their donations cannot be used for animal experiments.