By Dr. Becker
In late January, a recommendation was made to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to stop using chimpanzees in studies. It was further recommended (by an NIH-created “Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research”) that 400 of the approximately 450 chimpanzees currently owned or supported by the NIH be retired and moved to sanctuaries.
The remaining 50 chimps would be maintained for possible use in future research projects, but within five years, their housing must be upgraded to meet specific criteria.
Move to Retire NIH Study Chimps Began in Earnest in 2010
What prompted the investigation into whether chimpanzees should continue to be used as research subjects by the NIH began in late 2010, when three U.S. senators requested the National Academies evaluate the current and future need for chimpanzees in biomedical research. At the same time, the NIH commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies to determine current and future needs for chimpanzees for biomedical and behavioral research.
A year later in December 2011 the IOM, in collaboration with the National Research Council (NRC) released its findings in a report titled Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity.1 The report brief2 gives the following background:
“For many years, experiments using chimpanzees have been instrumental in advancing scientific knowledge and have led to new medicines to prevent and treat life-threatening and debilitating diseases. However, recent advances in alternate research tools, including cell-based technologies and other animal models, have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.
Over the past decade, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has financed the largest amount of federal research involving chimpanzees. A 2010 announcement that the NIH intended to consolidate chimpanzee colonies, saving an estimated $2 million annually, generated significant feedback from the public, state officials, and members of Congress, and raised questions about the necessity for chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research.
At the request of the NIH and in response to congressional inquiry, the Institute of Medicine, in collaboration with the National Research Council, conducted an in-depth analysis of the scientific necessity of chimpanzees for NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research.”
The IOM/NRC committee concluded that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” But the committee also stated that certain areas of research might continue to require use of chimpanzees. It also conceded that new, emerging and reemerging diseases could also require their use.
Rigorous Criteria for Future Chimp Studies
The NIH responded to these recommendations by creating a “Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research” to implement the IOM committee’s guiding principles and criteria. The three guiding principles that will be used to assess the need for chimps in biomedical and behavioral research studies are:
- The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
- The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.
The criteria for evaluating the need for chimpanzees for biomedical research would insure the following standards are met:
- There is no other suitable model available, such as in vitro, nonhuman in vivo, or other models, for the research in question.
- The research in question cannot be performed ethically on human subjects.
- Forgoing the use of chimpanzees for the research in question will significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control, and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.
The criteria for evaluating the use of chimpanzees for comparative genomics and behavioral research mandate that:
- Studies provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition.
- All experiments are performed on acquiescent animals, using techniques that are minimally invasive, and in a manner that minimizes pain and distress.
In addition, the chimps must be maintained in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.
The report produced by the Working Group3 sets a comparatively high bar for future research and effectively closes 16 current research projects.
Recommendations Well Received
The Working Group’s recommendations have been generally well received. Dr. John Pippin of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, speaking to Discovery News, said his committee is pleased. “A home run would have been to not have those 50 chimps held back. But we are inexorably moving toward the end of invasive chimpanzee research in the U.S. I think we're going to see chimpanzee research dry up,” said Pippin.
And according to Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, citing a 2007 study4 titled The Poor Contribution of Chimpanzee Experiments to Biomedical Progress:
"Chimp research makes very little to no advance of medical knowledge. The advance of medical knowledge is important, but if you look at the medical literature and ask what's the source of the advance, chimpanzee-based literature is hardly ever cited."
The U.S. is the only country that owns chimpanzees for research.