New Grants Suspended For Chimpanzee Research
December 16, 2011

New Grants Suspended For Chimpanzee Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Thursday suspended all new grants for research on chimpanzees after a panel of independent experts´ nine-month deliberation found that most medical experiments on man´s closest primate relative were unwarranted.

The Institute of Medicine noted in a report on the ruling that chimpanzees remain indispensable for biomedical and behavioral research that benefits humans, but only in a small number of circumstances and likely not for long.

Despite the ruling, the panel of experts stopped short of asking the federal government to retire nearly 600 chimps it has in its care, cautioning that unseen threats to human health “may require the future use of the chimpanzee.”

NIH imposed guidelines requiring that research be necessary for human health, and that there be no other way to accomplish the research, in order for chimpanzees to be used.

Bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, lead researcher for the Institute of Medicine report, said the ruling comes after years of disagreement between animal rights activists and medical researchers over the 937 chimps currently held in five institutions around the country.

“I have decided to accept the Institute of Medicine report recommendations,” National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins said Thursday. “Effective immediately, NIH will not issue any awards for research involving chimps” until new rules that follow the report recommendations are made. He estimated that half of the 110 NIH-supported medical research projects, studying hepatitis, malaria and other ailments, would end as a result of the ruling.

Collins estimated that number to be around 37 NIH-supported studies using chimps. The working group will consider how many chimpanzees the government should keep in captivity for possible future use, and how many can be retired to sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives peacefully, he said.

The NIH asked the Institute of Medicine for advice on using chimps in biomedical experiments last December after the agency ordered a group of retired animals housed at a government holding facility in Alamagordo, N.M., moved to an active research site in Texas. That proposal drew fire from animal rights activists, primatologists and lawmakers who have repeatedly failed to pass legislation banning the use of chimps in biomedical research.

The United States and the African nation of Gabon are the only countries that still permit biomedical research on chimpanzees, a species capable of expressing signs of love, self-awareness and distress.

Research published in June found plentiful evidence of distress in 168 chimps previously used in biomedical research. Comparing the retired biomedical subjects to a wild population of chimps, the study in the scientific journal PLoS ONE found signs of depression in 58 percent of the biomedical retirees and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 44 percent -- afflictions virtually absent in wild populations.

“Chimps are clearly emotionally sensitive and intelligent beings,” said Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, the lead author of that study and a former director of research policy with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which lobbies against using the animals for research. Chimps live in large social groups with tight bonds between mother and child and among friends, Ferdowsian said. “Their needs clearly cannot be met in a lab setting.”

US medical research has relied on chimps for decades to test drugs, perform medical experiments and conduct behavioral tests on the species that most closely represents humans. Chimp studies have led to advances in understanding malaria and in identifying Hepatitis C, a disease that infects more than 130 million people worldwide and can lead to liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the independent panel of experts has now concluded that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary,” after reviewing medical and behavioral problems among chimps subjected to those experiments. The 12-expert panel suggested few ongoing drug tests justified chimp experiments, largely because other animals or human tests worked just as well, and divided over preventive hepatitis vaccine experiments on chimps.

Kahn, in a briefing on the report, said the bar is set “very high” on whether any future medical experiments will be conducted on chimpanzees.

“If chimpanzees were not available for research, science would still go forward,” infectious disease expert Stephen Barthold of the University of California, Davis told Dan Vergano of USA TODAY.

“The report emphasized that the current need for chimpanzees in research is minimal or non-existent “¦.” said Barthold, who reviewed the report but was not on the panel.

“The very same reason why chimpanzees are biomedically important, they are so like us, offers excellent moral reasons against their use,” primate researcher Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta told Vergana.

“We´re tremendously encouraged,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which is strongly opposed to any experimentation on chimpanzees, told The New York Times. He said the report´s “overarching conclusion was that chimps are largely unnecessary” for research, and that the report and NIH action could influence two other continuing efforts to stop research on chimps.

One is the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, currently before both houses of Congress. The other is a petition before the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare captive chimpanzees endangered, as wild chimpanzees are. The exemption has allowed research to continue and also permits the use of chimps in entertainment and as pets.

Giving them ℠endangered´ status will stop all those uses, Pacelle remarked, noting that the report´s skeptical assessment of the value of chimps in research would provide support for the Fish and Wildlife Service to categorize all chimps as endangered.

Dr. Thomas Rowell, director of the New Iberia Research Center in New Iberia, LA, which houses 471 chimpanzees, more than any other center in the country, told The New York Times he was “quite pleased” with the report. “It just confirms what we´ve been saying all along in regard to the chimpanzee model for advancing public health research,” he said.

Collins said the NIH will set up a working group to decide how best to carry out the recommendations. Until deliberations are complete, no new grants will be awarded and all NIH chimpanzees that are not already enrolled in experiments will not be involved in any further research. Collins did not offer a timeline for when the deliberations would be complete or say how many chimpanzees were currently involved in research.

The committee identified only two areas where it said the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research may be necessary. One is research on a preventive vaccine for Hepatitis C. The committee could not agree on whether this research fit the criteria and so left that decision open.

The second is research on immunology involving monoclonal antibodies. The committee concluded that experimenting on chimps was not necessary because of new technology, but because the new technology was not widespread, projects now under way should be allowed to reach completion.

For behavioral and genomic experiments, the report recommended that the research should be done on chimps only if the animals are cooperative, and in a way that minimizes pain and distress. It also said that the studies should “provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion or cognition.”

The report also recommended that chimpanzees be housed in behaviorally, socially and physically appropriate conditions similar to what they experience in the wild. All US primate research centers are already accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, and Kahn said that this accreditation meets the committee´s recommendation.

However, the Humane Society disagreed with that one area of the report. “That language,” said Pacelle, referring to the requirements for adequate housing conditions, “was disappointing to us” because it could mean that chimps that were not in experiments would stay at research centers.

“I´m arguing for the movement of all of them to the sanctuaries,” said Pacelle, where large open enclosures are much more common.

The expert panel did not consider the cost of maintaining chimps, which can live nearly as long as humans, but both Barthold and de Waal suggest that expense also argues against continuing chimp medical experiments.

Collins, however, said that chimps cost NIH only about $45 a day to house, and suggested that some population of chimps would be maintained in case “future pandemics” require their use in medical research, a possibility allowed for in the report.


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