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Brookhaven Lab may experiment on monkeys

'Filbert', a baby squirrel monkey, rides the back

'Filbert', a baby squirrel monkey, rides the back of his mother, 'Meg', at the Philadelphia Zoo. Photo Credit: AP File / Jan. 2001

An unusual NASA-funded experiment proposed by a Harvard scientist to expose as many as 18 monkeys to radiation could put Brookhaven National Laboratory, a possible site of the study, at the center of a controversy.

The experiment would expose squirrel monkeys to levels of radiation similar to those encountered in spacecraft traveling to Mars to help determine what might happen to astronauts going to the planet, a NASA spokesman said.

Brookhaven National Lab confirmed on its Web site that the experiment has been proposed for the facility. But spokeswoman Mona Rowe said the lab has not yet received a formal proposal. Officials at the federal Department of Energy, which funds the lab, couldn't be reached.

Rowe said the proposal could take months to be approved and will have to be reviewed by three separate committees to determine the experiment's benefit to science, its safety and its treatment of animals.

"It's possible that Brookhaven is the best facility in the United States to use for this type of research," Rowe said.

On Wednesday, the proposal drew protesters from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who stood outside the lab's front gate for an hour.

"We're hoping that Brookhaven will see that members of their community don't support cruelty to animals," said Ashley Byrne, a senior PETA campaigner, who traveled from PETA's Washington, D.C., offices.

Protester Sabrina Melendez, 27, of Brentwood, said she was there because "I feel bad for the monkeys."

The experiment calls for squirrel monkeys to be exposed to radiation at BNL but then observed at a Harvard Medical School facility for the rest of their natural lives, a NASA spokeswoman confirmed through e-mail. They can live for up to 20 years in the wild.

Jack Bergman, a behavioral pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Boston, received funding for the tests from NASA, the NASA Web site said.

A spokeswoman at Harvard University said Bergman was not available to comment.

Byrne said she led a similar protest at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., last week and will protest at Harvard next week.

Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said animal research has helped determine the safety of consumer products such as the swine flu vaccine, pesticides and deodorant.

But the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit, has petitioned NASA to pull funding from the project and submitted requests to obtain details of the experiment from NASA and McLean.

Dr. John J. Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the committee called the experiment "nonsense." He added, "This is bad science and bad ethics, and an ill-advised funding decision."

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