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New guidelines show chimps are rarely needed for medical research

The National Institutes of Health issued new guidelines indicating that the use of chimpanzees to study diseases is rarely necessary.

By Rachel / December 20, 2011

A young chimpanzee named Sembe rests atop her mother Shiba in their temporary enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. New guidelines suggest that most medical tests conducted on chimpanzees in laboratories are unnecessary.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters/File


Aside from the small African country of Gabon, the United States is the only nation in the world that still conducts research on chimpanzees.

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Last Thursday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced new guidelines stating that most chimp research is not medically necessary. For any research to continue, experiments must be "necessary to advance the public's health" and have no viable alternative methods, the NIH said.

The good news is that there are plenty of viable, even superior alternatives to most of research currently conducted using chimps.

The reaction to the new guidelines has been largely celebratory: The New York Times wrote that animal welfare groups cite it as a victory in their fight against chimp research, and Theodora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), which has fought for years against the practice, said, “This pivotal report is the first step toward ending all chimpanzee research in U.S. laboratories. The science guided the IOM [Institute of Medicine] to its conclusion that they are 'not necessary' – a promising outcome for chimpanzees and better science for humans.”

Some in the industry, however, see it another way. John VandeBerg, scientific director of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, told the AP that he believes the new guidelines will have little or no impact on his facility, which runs one of the four large active chimp research programs in the country. Answers about which chimps will be released and when are vague, and the report leaves some potential loopholes.

The Institute of Medicine report specifies a couple of areas of research in which it believes the use of chimps can continue: "comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition." But even within these areas, there are other scientific methods – not involving animals – that have proven to be as effective or even more effective than using chimps.

Behavioral and cognitive research: use of pediatric imaging 

Behavioral and cognitive research is one of the key areas specified by the report as potentially necessary for continued chimp research. NEAVS has cited numerous studies that use pediatric imaging – and no chimpanzees – which have made advancements in understanding brain development, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders, social reintegration after traumatic brain injury, and other brain-related topics.

According to NEAVS, which itself has a body of published scientific work, researchers can also rely exclusively on human imaging for studying source and spatial memory; cognition/brain activity; attention, perception, vision; pain, hearing, sensation; brain structure and architecture; drug effects on the brain; and other areas.

A NEAVS paper published in August adds: "Most (behavioral researchers) believe that more funding for intervention programs, qualitative clinical research, etc., using human subjects in noninvasive research and research that might in situ benefit them, is the direction behavioral research must go."

The committee that released the report last week recognized that chimps have not proved useful in HIV research, which for a long time was one of the primary areas of chimpanzee use. Opponents of chimp research – and animal testing generally – believe that someday there will be a general understanding that the same can be said for other areas of research.

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