NIH should retire most chimpanzees from medical research, panel says

Hundreds of chimpanzees at NIH facilities should no longer be used as test subjects, the panel said, but 50 should be kept as a contingency, adding that all the chimps should be housed more comfortably.

Courtesy of Save the Chimps /PBS
Ron, featured in the film 'Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History', was born in a research lab and spent most of his life in isolation. Subsequently, he went to live at the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida.

A senior scientific advisory panel at the National Institutes of Health, in a step toward phasing out the use of chimpanzees in federally funded medical research, has found "no compelling evidence" to support keeping hundreds of chimpanzees at NIH facilities and recommends that all but about 50 chimps be retired.

This small group would remain available as a contingency should some unforeseen disease emerge for which chimps would be the best stand-ins for humans. But they, along with the retirees, would be housed in facilities designed to more adequately accommodate the full range of normal chimp physical and social activities – from climbing, foraging, and daily nest-building to hanging out in sizable groups on branches high off the ground, according to the panel.

The panel also recommends ending 16 of 30 research projects involving chimpanzees that the NIH currently is funding. The largest proportional hit falls on biomedical research, one of three categories of projects. Six out of nine current biomedical projects would end.

The ultimate driver behind the recommendations: concerns about the value and ethics of using chimpanzees, biologically the nearest relative to humans, for physically painful and intrusive infectious-disease research.

If the 28 recommendations are implemented, the effort would represent "an historic step forward" in moving chimps out of the lab and into sanctuaries, says Kathleen Conlee, vice-president for animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington.

Even foes of federal legislation to greatly restrict the use of chimps and other "great apes" in biomedical research see merit in the new recommendations.

As a stand-in for humans, "the chimpanzee has played a very important role in the evolution of biomedical research," notes Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington, which fought against the Great Apes Protection and Cost Reduction Act of 2011, which died in December with the end of the 113th Congress.

But biomedical science has advanced, Ms. Trull continues. And keeping chimpanzees is expensive; chimps are not euthanized but must be cared for until they die naturally. Researchers have found alternative animal models for some of the kinds of studies that once centered on chimps.

Although NABR opposed the Great Ape Protection and Cost Reduction Act, the group is comfortable with the recommendations the NIH is now considering, Trull says.

The case for change and the steps to take came from the scientific community, she observes, adding, "scientists should determine what animal models should be used, not Congress."

Chimpanzees represent a tiny proportion of animals used in biomedical research. The overwhelming majority of animals used are either rodents or zebra fish.

The recommendations represent the outcome of a process that began at the end of 2010, when three US senators asked the US National Academies to examine the issue, as did the NIH. A year later, the National Academies' Institute of Medicine released its report.

The 86-page report released for comment on Jan. 22 was pulled together by a senior working group that the NIH gathered to turn the Institute of Medicine's report into specific recommendations.

If adopted, the recommendations would apply only to NIH-owned chimps and those used in the course of NIH-funded research. Of 670 chimps the NIH owns or supports, 219 have been retired. Some 282 are research-ready. Another 169 have been labeled "research inactive," a kind of bridge category between the first two.

By some estimates, another 350 chimps would fall outside the purview of these recommendations because they are owned either by private pharmaceutical companies or by universities.

Indeed, the Human Society's Ms. Conlee suggests the Great Ape Protection Act is likely to be reintroduced this year to broaden restrictions to chimps not covered by the new recommendations.

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