Most of the biomedical research currently being done on chimpanzees is unnecessary and the need for chimps in medical studies will soon decline even further, according to a highly-anticipated new report from an independent panel of experts.
The report says that the National Institutes of Health should only allow experiments on chimps if a new set of strict criteria are met, and recommends setting up an independent oversight committee that includes members of the public.
“The bottom line is, the necessity of chimpanzees is diminishing. We were able to only identify two areas of biomedical research where there is any continuing necessity, and one of those is actually going away quite rapidly,” says Jeffrey Kahn of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, who chaired the committee convened by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
The committee’s study was requested by Congress and the NIH in the wake of a controversial plan to take nearly 200 aging chimps housed in New Mexico and make them again available for medical research. Animal welfare activists argued that these “retired” chimps had endured enough and should be left alone.
That uproar came just as groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have been pushing to end all invasive research on lab chimps and retire them to sanctuaries. Congress has been considering legislation that would ban research using chimps and other great apes. Many other countries already ban invasive research on these species, which are closely related to humans.
The expert committee wasn’t asked to look at the ethics of research on chimps. It was only supposed to assess the scientific need. “But the committee felt very strongly at its first meeting that we couldn’t talk about the necessity of chimpanzees without also thinking about the ethics of the use of chimpanzees, and so we did include that in our deliberations,” says Kahn.
The new report says that about 1,000 chimps, ranging in age from less than a year old to more than 41 years old, are currently available for research in the U. S., which is largely conducted at four facilities.
The NIH sponsored 110 research projects from 2001 to 2010 that involve chimps, the report says. About half of the projects were hepatitis research —chimps are the only animal other than humans that can be infected with hepatitis C — and others ranged from studies of HIV/AIDS to comparisons of chimps’ genes to those of other species.
The committee members could not agree and were evenly split on whether chimps are needed to develop a vaccine that can prevent hepatitis C infection, although they did agree that chimps were not currently necessary for research to develop antiviral drugs for the disease.
The committee also found that, given the state of the science and the availability of other research models, chimpanzees are currently unnecessary for studies of respiratory syncytial virus, which is the leading cause of hospitalizations for U. S. children less than 1 year old.
The panel did say chimp research was justified for a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies that are in development, but said labs are already adopting new technologies that should eliminate the need for chimps in just a few years.
According to the new report, biomedical researchers should not use chimps unless their proposed work meets three criteria:
- There’s no other animal or research model that can be used instead.
- There’s no way to ethically do the research on people.
- Not doing the research on chimps would mean significantly slowing or preventing advances to treat or prevent life-threatening or debilitating conditions.
And chimps should only be used for behavioral research, such as psychology experiments, if there’s no other way to obtain insights into things like cognition and mental health. Chimps used in such experiments should be “acquiescent,” the report says, and not forced to participate against their will.