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.
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"It took far too long for a consensus to be reached that chimps were not useful in HIV/AIDS research. All the while, chimps were suffering in labs and precious research dollars were being wasted, while people were waiting for progress," said Jarrod Bailey, Ph.D., a geneticist and science director for NEAVS. The organization has made the point that the longer researchers wait to find and implement alternative models, the longer it will take to establish progress in research that will improve human health in a significant way. Continuing to use a model that has limited potential is to handicap the research these animals have been suffering for in the first place.Skip to next paragraph
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Hepatitis C is another area that the IOM committee did not come down firmly against. Aside from humans, chimps are the only species that can be infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) – but infected chimps do not develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer the way humans do. The report says that chimpanzees are not necessary for the development of antiviral drugs for the treatment of HCV, or for therapeutic vaccines for already-infected people, but reached no definitive conclusion on the development of a prophylactic vaccine.
Exactly half of the committee felt that chimps are not necessary for vaccine research, while the other half was uncertain about human clinical trials and whether research on chimps "would provide otherwise unattainable information on the safety of candidate vaccines." But in-vitro testing on human cell cultures and tissues has proved an effective alternative research model. Essentially, this involves testing the toxicity of substances on living cells in a petri dish: It's a faster testing method than animals are able to provide, it's more accurate because it uses culture systems of human cells, and it has already proved effective for some vaccine studies.
In a paper published in May, Bailey wrote: "It is now possible to investigate the complete HCV life-cycle, from host-cell attachment to release of progeny, immune responses to infection, the roles of host factors, identification of therapeutic targets, testing of new therapies and vaccines, and so on, in a human, and therefore completely relevant, context."
Animal groups have praised the IOM committee's conclusion that most research on chimpanzees is unnecessary. But the exceptions allowed for by the report are not excluded from what critics say about research on chimps generally.
First, there are 937 chimpanzees in the country that are kept for research. They live up to about 60 years in captivity, and are used for all kinds of research over the years. It's not like there's a group of chimps used just for hepatitis research or for HIV research. So the same animal is subject to one experiment after another – there's no such thing as a "clean sample."
Bailey points to Jeannie as a good example of this:
“Jeannie spent nine years at LEMSIP (the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, now closed) undergoing intensive and invasive research, including repeated vaginal washes; multiple cervical, liver punch, wedge and lymph node biopsies; and infection with HIV and hepatitis NANB and C virus (Bradshaw, Capaldo, Grow, & Lindner 2008). She experienced over 200 “knockdowns” (i.e., anesthetization by dart gun) at LEMSIP alone. After seven years at LEMSIP, personnel documented that she suffered “a nervous breakdown” characterized by serious emotional and behavioral problems.”