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.