WASHINGTON—NASA's inspector general is being urged to immediately halt NASA-funded experiments that expose live squirrel monkeys to harmful space radiation. Based on in-depth analysis of a previously undisclosed government document, experts with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) have concluded that the monkey experiments are wasteful and unlawful. On Feb. 18, PCRM will submit a formal legal petition to the inspector general demanding a full investigation.
A research protocol obtained by PCRM through the Freedom of Information Act reveals disturbing details about how monkeys will be treated in the experiments, as well as a lack of scientific validity and the researcher's reliance on discredited experimental principles. Researcher Jack Bergman submitted the protocol to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the monkeys will be irradiated.
"This document is a smoking gun showing that NASA's monkey radiation experiments are wasteful, unscientific, and profoundly cruel," says John J. Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C., PCRM’s senior medical and research adviser. "The inspector general should immediately halt these experiments to prevent animal suffering and the waste of $1.75 million in taxpayer money."
Squirrel monkeys used in the experiments will be subjected daily to restraint in a primate chair, and these highly social animals will be housed individually in steel cages. The experiments involve bombarding monkeys with ionizing radiation, compelling them to perform tasks, and testing them for cognitive impairment. Many studies show that captivity and restraint can impair brain function in primates, making it nearly impossible to assess the effects of the radiation.
NASA has not used monkeys for radiobiology research in decades. In 1990, government researchers ended decades of radiation experiments on monkeys after concluding that monkey data did not translate to humans. Many researchers today use high-tech, human-centered methods of studying space radiation exposure, including human phantoms equipped with sensors and data from manned spaceflight.
Today’s advanced technology enables Bergman to expose squirrel monkeys to some of the types of radiation found in deep space. But there is still no true ground-based simulation of the complex mix of low and high-energy radiation an astronaut would encounter. This includes blasts of particle radiation from solar flares, which disabled an unmanned Mars spacecraft launched in 2001.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.