Biomedical Research Using Chimps Curtailed

Dec 15, 2011
Originally published on December 15, 2011 5:10 pm

Updated 1:30 p.m.: The National Institutes of Health accepts the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine report on chimpanzee research, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in a statement. "We will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place," he said.

Most of the biomedical research currently being done on chimpanzees is unnecessary and the need for chimps in medical studies will soon decline even further, according to a highly-anticipated new report from an independent panel of experts.

The report says that the National Institutes of Health should allow experiments on chimps only if a new set of strict criteria are met, and recommends setting up an independent oversight committee that includes members of the public.

"The bottom line is, the necessity of chimpanzees is diminishing. We were able to only identify two areas of biomedical research where there is any continuing necessity, and one of those is actually going away quite rapidly," says Jeffrey Kahn of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, who chaired the committee convened by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

The committee's study was requested by Congress and the NIH in the wake of a controversial plan to take nearly 200 aging chimps housed in New Mexico and make them again available for medical research. Animal welfare activists argued that these "retired" chimps had endured enough and should be left alone.

That uproar came just as groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have been pushing to end all invasive research on lab chimps and retire them to sanctuaries. Congress has been considering legislation that would ban research using chimps and other great apes. Many other countries already ban invasive research on these species, which are closely related to humans.

The expert committee wasn't asked to look at the ethics of research on chimps. It was only supposed to assess the scientific need. "But the committee felt very strongly at its first meeting that we couldn't talk about the necessity of chimpanzees without also thinking about the ethics of the use of chimpanzees, and so we did include that in our deliberations," says Kahn.

The new report says that about 1,000 chimps, ranging in age from less than a year old to more than 41 years old, are currently available for research in the U. S., which is largely conducted at four facilities.

The NIH sponsored 110 research projects from 2001 to 2010 that involve chimps, the report says. About half of the projects were hepatitis research —chimps are the only animal other than humans that can be infected with hepatitis C — and others ranged from studies of HIV/AIDS to comparisons of chimps' genes to those of other species.

The committee members could not agree and were evenly split on whether chimps are needed to develop a vaccine that can prevent hepatitis C infection, although they did agree that chimps were not currently necessary for research to develop antiviral drugs for the disease.

The committee also found that, given the state of the science and the availability of other research models, chimpanzees are currently unnecessary for studies of respiratory syncytial virus, which is the leading cause of hospitalizations for U. S. children less than 1 year old.

The panel did say chimp research was justified for a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies that are in development, but said labs are already adopting new technologies that should eliminate the need for chimps in just a few years.

According to the new report, biomedical researchers should not use chimps unless their proposed work meets three criteria:

  • There's no other animal or research model that can be used instead.
  • There's no way to ethically do the research on people.
  • Not doing the research on chimps would mean significantly slowing or preventing advances to treat or prevent life-threatening or debilitating conditions.

And chimps should only be used for behavioral research, such as psychology experiments, if there's no other way to obtain insights into things like cognition and mental health. Chimps used in such experiments should be "acquiescent," the report says, and not forced to participate against their will.

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Chimpanzees are humans' closest living relative. They're so similar to people that some activists say it's unethical to subject them to invasive medical research. Congress is considering legislation that would ban chimp experiments. Today, a closely-watched panel of independent experts announced their assessment of the need for chimp research. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's already had an impact.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The National Institutes of Health is a major funder of research that uses chimpanzees. Last year, an NIH plan to take nearly 200 chimps out of unofficial retirement and send them to a research facility sparked public outcry. So the NIH asked the Institute of Medicine to assess the state of the science.

DR. JEFFREY KAHN: No one said I'm totally against any chimpanzee restriction, or I'm totally for it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jeffrey Kahn is a bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He chaired the committee that issued the new report.

KAHN: We were all people of open mind and very good will and worked very well together to look at the information.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: About 1,000 chimpanzees live in research colonies in the United States. Some scientists say they're needed for life saving medical research, but animal welfare activists say that modern technology provides alternative ways to study disease.

The committee spent months studying the issue and came to this conclusion: Most of the biomedical research currently being done on chimpanzees is unnecessary. Kahn says the need for chimps will soon decline even further.

KAHN: There is a fairly rapid trajectory towards a decreasing necessity in the use of chimpanzees and we can see, in a relatively near term, where we might not need them at all.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says one major disease still studied in chimps is hepatitis. The hepatitis C virus only infects chimps and humans. The committee found it would be possible for anti-viral drugs against hepatitis C to be developed and tested in people without the need for chimps.

But committee members were evenly split on whether the animals were needed for tests of potential hepatitis C vaccines. Kahn says they did agree that, in the future, there may be new needs for chimp research.

KAHN: We don't have a crystal ball, so we don't know what may come in the future in terms of an emerging new infection or a reemerging infection.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report recommends that the NIH only allow biomedical research on chimps if it meets a strict set of three criteria: There is no other animal or research model that can be used other than chimps; there's no way to ethically do the research on people; and not using chimps would mean significantly slowing or preventing advances to treat or prevent life threatening or debilitating conditions.

KAHN: Now, that's a very, very high bar, and in fact, a much higher bar than is currently in place for the use of chimpanzees.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kahn says the report recommends setting up a new advisory committee that includes members of the public to make sure all research meets those standards.

The director of the National Institutes of Health is Francis Collins. He immediately accepted the report's recommendations.

FRANCIS COLLINS: We intend to absolutely follow these next steps with the greatest intention towards openness and integrity and recognition of the special nature of chimpanzees.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Collins is assembling a working group to advise the NIH on what to do with all the chimps it owns or supports. While that review goes forward, the chimps housed in New Mexico will remain in place and will not be used for experiments. Any new grants for chimp research will have to wait and the working group will review about 37 projects that the NIH is supporting now.

COLLINS: We can't tell how many of those would now fall into areas that would not be supported by the current recommendations, but we'd guess about half of those would need to be phased out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One head of a major primate research lab said he was pleased that this new working group would help in his lab's ongoing efforts to ensure that research conducted with chimps is both necessary and appropriate.

The Humane Society of the United States has been pushing for a ban on chimp research. Kathleen Conlee works for the society. She welcomed the new report, but doesn't think all changes should be left up to the NIH.

KATHLEEN CONLEE: We need Congress to step in and make sure that this really does happen and that chimpanzee experimentation ends and that we get chimpanzees retired to sanctuary.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She expects that the committee's findings will help them get more support for that effort. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.