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Taking chimps out of medical research

Advances in medical research and technology have made experimentation on chimpanzees unnecessary in all but a few biomedical projects.

December 24, 2011
  • Sabrina Bourgeois, a senior research assistant at Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio and the manager of its behavioral training program, works with Veronica, a chimpanzee.
Sabrina Bourgeois, a senior research assistant at Texas Biomedical Research… (Lisa Krantz / AP Photo )

Chimpanzees have long done their part for medical research. They have been inoculated and infected; they have donated their blood. Their contributions have aided the understanding and treatment of hepatitis and autoimmune diseases. As man's closest primate relative, they are extraordinary stand-ins for humans.

But advances in medical research and technology have made experimentation on chimps unnecessary in all but a few biomedical projects. That was the conclusion of a recent study by a committee of scientists and ethicists assembled by the Institute of Medicine. The study, requested by the National Institutes of Health last year, found that chimps' human-like qualities "demand a greater justification for their use in research than is the case with other animals."

The study proposed a uniform set of criteria for deciding when and whether to use chimps in federally sponsored scientific work. The government has access to about 600 chimps. In biomedical research, the study suggested, chimps should be used only when no other animal subjects will yield as valuable results and only when it is too dangerous to use humans. Further, the research must be necessary to advance public health. And it would have to be shown that not using chimps would slow the advancement of the science. Applying those protocols, the committee found that much of the research in the last 10 years that has relied on chimps need not have done so.

Genomic and behavioral research on chimps should be allowed to continue as long as the experimentation is minimally invasive and involves only chimps that seem cooperative, the report says. The study recommends the establishment of an oversight committee, operating publicly to review projects according to the new criteria.

On the day the study was released, NIH officials accepted the committee's recommendations, and NIH director Francis Collins predicted that about half of all agency-sponsored studies with chimps would be phased out. This is a wise decision on the part of NIH and unlikely to sacrifice scientific progress. Research on chimps has already been tapering off, and NIH has had a moratorium on breeding chimps that it owns since 1995. Some drug companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, already ban research on chimps, and others may follow.

Although this new directive does not foreclose the use of chimpanzees, it does set the bar high. Of the 94,000 NIH-funded projects active in fiscal year 2011, only 53 used chimps, the study said. That's less than one-tenth of 1%. But people are right to be concerned about these one percenters. As the committee wrote, "The use of higher animals comes at higher moral costs."

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