Announcing plans to block a proposed series of radiation experiments on squirrel monkeys at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a group of physicians charged Wednesday that the tests would irrevocably harm the animals and produce scant human benefit.
The monkey experiments have stirred controversy ever since NASA announced plans to conduct the exposures late last year. The agency operates the Space Radiation Laboratory, one of several major research facilities at Brookhaven. The NASA-run lab is the only center nationwide capable of producing the high energy ions and protons that mimic the supercharged radiation environment pervading deep space.
According to the research protocol, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Virginia-based organization, the tiny monkeys with large brown eyes would be proxies for humans during the tests. The experiments are designed to investigate the cognitive effects of galactic radiation during a years-long voyage, such as an extended flight to Mars.
"They still have a few hurdles before they can get started," said Dr. John J. Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the physicians' committee. "We want to make those hurdles insurmountable.
"This is a futile attempt, using the wrong species and is not the least bit applicable to human space travel," Pippin said. He said his review of the research suggests it's inhumane and that the monkeys would die of radiation exposure. He identified the radiation as iron-56 and silicon-28 as well as other ionizing components of cosmic radiation. He said his organization planned to file a formal legal petition Thursday with NASA's inspector general. Brookhaven Lab spokeswoman Mona Rowe said there is no certainty the experiments will proceed, and even if they do, would not involve Brookhaven scientists, but experts from NASA. She said the investigation has to pass muster with three Brookhaven safety and ethics committees, but so far has gotten approval from only one: an animal care panel.
"The other committee looks at the science that would be done in the experiment and the third committee looks at safety," Rowe said.
The research was designed by behavioral pharmacologist Jack Bergman of McClean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated center in Belmont, Mass. His study is a $1.75-million project, which involves transporting the animals from Massachusetts for the radiation exposures, then taking them back for years of study.
A spokeswoman for McClean said in a statement Wednesday the monkeys "will receive a one-time exposure of low levels of space radiation similar to what an astronaut would encounter on a Mars mission."
Primates in the study, she added, will spend the rest of their natural lives in a vivarium with full veterinary oversight.
Squirrel monkeys are used widely in biomedical research. In the wild, they are considered a "species of special concern" (by the World Conservation Union) due to the loss of their native habitat in Central and South America.
Appearance: All species have white masks of fur around their eyes; depending on species, fur on body ranges from gray to black to orange-brown.
Size and weight: About a foot tall; 1.5 to 3 pounds, with females a bit larger.
Diet: Insects and fruit.
Predators: Snakes, raptors, and wild jungle cats.
Life span: 20 years.
Source: University of Texas; Wisconsin Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.