Italian court suspends ERC-funded monkey study

Researchers warn country is among the most hostile in Europe to experiments involving animals, and restrictions could get even tighter

February 5, 2020
Source: Getty

Italy’s top administrative court has suspended a European Research Council-funded experiment on monkeys, prompting researchers to warn that the country is becoming increasingly inhospitable to animal studies.

The Lightup project, which involves creating small blind spots in macaques to better understand how to overcome damage to the visual cortex, has faced sustained opposition from antivivisection groups, with a petition opposing the experiment garnering more than 400,000 signatures.

Last year, researchers working on Lightup discovered that Italy’s Ministry of Health had released their names to hostile campaigners. The project leader said that he subsequently received phone threats and bullets in the post.

Now, the experiment has been suspended after a legal challenge by the Lega Anti Vivisezione (LAV), an Italian campaigning group. Last month, the Council of State told the Ministry of Health that it must prove “with utmost urgency” that there is no alternative to animal testing, a ruling that was celebrated as a “fantastic result” by LAV.

The court should now decide by 21 April whether the project, which is worth about €2 million (£1.7 million) and is set to run until 2023, can proceed.

Marco Tamietto, the project’s principal investigator and professor at the University of Turin, said the country was now “at a crossroads”.

“This is a big project, an ERC project; it’s well funded. If the system fails to resist pressure from animal rights [activists], then it will be a disaster for biomedical research in Italy,” he said.

He was “very confident” that the court would ultimately allow the experiments to continue because the Ministry of Health had already deemed that there was no alternative to using monkeys.

But if the experiments are stopped, it would demonstrate that “we have a system in Italy that cannot support science and research”, Professor Tamietto said. And if that is the case, he would have to move the project out of the country, he added.

Professor Tamietto, who has also worked in the UK and the Netherlands, said Italy was more hostile to animal testing than any other European country.

Italians’ opposition reflected a “general movement which is anti-science”, including widespread anti-vaccination beliefs, and has been encouraged by a “populist” political environment that promulgated the view that “everything is just an opinion”, he said.

The country’s political situation was “giving voice” to an “aggressive, noisy minority” opposed to animal research and hostile to the scientific approach in general, Professor Tamietto said.

“We are receiving money from the ERC for the programme, and paying expenses for animal maintenance and personnel, while not being in a position to proceed,” he said.

Silvio Garattini, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, and one of several eminent Italian scientists to sign an open letter decrying the project’s suspension, said Italy’s particularly strenuous ethical checks on animal experiments were making research “impossible”.

Even if Lightup is allowed to continue, other animal experiments in Italy would face further legal challenges, he warned.

“The problem is that politicians are very sensitive to these animalist movements, because they represent votes,” Professor Garattini said.

Italian researchers face further potential restrictions at the end of the year, he said, with the expiration of a legal extension allowing certain types of animal experiments – involving commonly misused drugs, for example.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: ERC-funded monkey study halted by court

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