Advisory panel calls for end to most experiments on chimpanzees

Friday, December 16th 2011. | Science News

Institute of Medicine says few experiments on the apes are scientifically necessary.

Medical experiments on chimpanzees are largely unnecessary and should be rare, concluded a report released Thursday from special panel of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Science.

The authors did not recommend an outright ban, as Europeans countries have done, but suggested strict parameters for research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Leaders there immediately said they would adhere to the recommendations.

chimpanzees“The bar is very high,” said Jeffrey Kahn, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, who chaired the panel. “In almost all cases, we found that research on chimpanzees was not necessary.”

There are only about 50 grants made a year for chimp research, out of more than 90,000 NIH-funded studies, but they have been a hot-button issue with animal rights groups. Congress ordered the NIH to study their use after the agency suggested last year that some mostly retired chimps be put back in active use.

Much of the studies have focused on therapies and vaccines for hepatitis C, a virus that has infected 170 million people worldwide and is the leading reason for liver transplants. The panel said vaccine experiments could ethically be conducted on humans, but was split on whether the vaccines should first be tested on chimps because they are the only other species that gets the virus.

There was little other research that could meet the new standards, including some genomics and noninvasive behavioral research and studies already under way of lab-produced molecules called monoclonal antibodies that can target viruses and bacteria.

Most other research could be done using other animals, technology or humans without significantly harming progress or safety, the panel said.

Observers, ethicists and animal rights groups said the recommendations seemed appropriate.

“It’s not a stretch to say we’re a hair’s breadth away from an opinion that says there is no need to keep chimps in labs for medical research,” said Dr. John J. Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights group.

Still, he is pushing for federal legislation called the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, which would phase out all invasive research on the 937 chimps in labs around the country and send the federally owned half to sanctuary.

The report did not address what would become of the chimps. But NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said that a working group was being assembled to offer advice on implementing the recommendations and managing the existing chimp populations. He said no new awards will be made until a process is in place.

It’s not clear if other federal agencies, such as the military or private labs that don’t use NIH funding, will follow the NIH’s lead in restricting chimp experiments.

The practical result among NIH-funded medical research, however, will be a winding down of chimp experiments, said David Favre, a Michigan State University College of Law professor and editor in chief of the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center, a repository for information on animal law.

“The criteria for future research are appropriately rigorous and I think if implemented will result in significantly less research and the reduced possibility of future funding by the federal government,” he said. “Then the practicality of the cost of the keeping chimpanzees in these centers will rise up and with future funding diminished, will result in most of them being dismantled.”

Others agreed that was a good goal, including Ruth Faden, director of the Berman Institute of Ethics at Hopkins, which does not experiment on chimps.

Faden, who was not involved in the report, said chimps hold a special place because of their similarities to humans. She said they think, feel, suffer and form strong attachments, like humans.

“They are our closest evolutionary relative,” she said. “For a whole bunch of reasons, doing invasive research on chimps is ethically problematic, so much so that most countries de facto or actually prohibit invasive research on chimps.”

Faden, like the report authors, said a case can be made for chimp experiments when there are not alternatives and public health depends on it, but they are “extremely rare.” She said diseases like HIV can largely be tested using other models.

“If we can get to a reasonable pace of medical progress without harming nonhuman animals, it would be good,” she said. “How much of a slowing down of the pace are we willing to accept? That’s where the ethics trade-offs come in.”

Kahn, the only bioethicist on the chimp panel, said ethics could not be separated from the scientific review. He said chimps are close to humans genetically, but that’s why they make such attractive research subjects.

“However, this close relationship also creates a high moral cost, which the committee agrees must be factored into the assessment of the necessity of any research involving chimpanzees.”

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