Critics Decry NASA Radiation Testing on Monkeys
NASA plans to zap squirrel monkeys with radiation to see how cosmic rays might affect humans on a three-year trip to Mars.
But some doctors want it stopped.
A physicians' group petitioned the space agency Thursday to delay a $1.75 million NASA-funded experiment that would blast high-energy radiation at up to 27 squirrel monkeys.
The four-year study would shoot gamma rays through the monkeys once, then observe how they perform certain tasks.
"Nobody knows what the effects on these monkeys is going to be," said Dr. John J. Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "There could be horrible side effects, for all we know."
The nonprofit group of about 100,000 doctors, nurses and laypersons called the experiment "one giant leap backward for NASA," which hasn't experimented on monkeys since the 1970s.
The group, based in Washington, D.C., submitted a petition to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, asking for the space agency to reconsider the experiment.
NASA officials said the monkey experiments would follow the agency's own, as well as widely accepted ethical standards.
"We understand their concern, which is one of the reasons that we followed such rigorous standards and procedures before we do any kind of research on primates," said Ashley Edwards, a spokeswoman at NASA Headquarters.
The experiment would be led by Jack Bergman, associate professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Boston.
Bergman was unavailable for comment Thursday. He has conducted past experiments on squirrel monkeys to learn about addiction.
"I can't imagine why this was ever approved by NASA," Pippin said. "This is a highly speculative protocol design. They really don't know what they're going to learn and how it's going to apply to humans."
On Oct. 27, NASA's Human Research Program announced Bergman's grant among 12 grants it will fund to help answer questions about astronaut health and performance in future missions.
Science and technical experts from university and government laboratories reviewed the proposals before choosing the winners.
NASA wants to predict the risks of cancer, central nervous system problems and other tissue damage.
High-level radiation is among the biggest obstacles to long-term spaceflight. Heavy ions bombard astronauts, increasing the risk of cancer and cognitive impairment.
Ideas for protecting them from dangerous rays include using thick shields of aluminum, water, hydrogen-rich plastics or electromagnetic fields.
But a future Mars craft would weigh too much and cost too much if engineers over-design it.
NASA officials said the test monkeys - all adult males - would be exposed once to radiation via a particle beam at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y.
"In that one beam, we're going to give them the same amount that an astronaut would get over a three-year Mars mission," Edwards said.
"It is going to cause some cellular damage," she added. "It's not enough to kill these monkeys. They are going to live out their natural life."
Squirrel monkeys live for about 20 years, she said.
"We want them to live a long time so we can watch their behavior," she said.
The experiment could help advance cancer studies and other lines of research, Edwards said.
"It's different than any test we've ever done. It's not just for NASA. It's not just for astronauts," Edwards said. "The public needs to know. There have to be standards for what is safe."
Edwards said monkeys make good candidates for the experiment because they're easily trained and genetically similar to humans.
But Pippin, a cardiologist, said using monkeys is unnecessary and unethical.
"This looks like total nonsense to me," he said. "It's almost as if they had some money, they had some monkeys, and they had to find out something to do with it."