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NIH nixes chimpanzee research

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
chimpanzee research, animal rights, medical research, AIDS research

WASHINGTON, DC - On December 16, 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it was temporarily barring federally funded experiments on chimpanzees while it reviews a report that concluded most research done on the animals is not necessary. The report was compiled by a committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM); it reported that most chimpanzee research is not ethically justified. This ban will garner much favor with animal rights advocates who oppose such research.

Jeffrey Kahn, the NIH committee chair, noted that the panel decided that "research use of animals that are so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs." He added, "We found very few cases that satisfy these criteria.” The report did not ban research on fatal or debilitating human diseases that cannot be performed another way.

The committee also deemed that ongoing research was allowable on monoclonal antibody therapies, comparative genomics, and non-invasive studies of social and behavioral factors that affect the development, prevention or treatment of disease.

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Chimpanzees are man’s closest living cousins; they share more than 98% of human DNA. The primates are highly intelligent and social beings who have language and distinct cultures. They use tools, teach their young, plan for the future, and make moral choices. Chimpanzees in captivity have been taught American Sign Language and their proficiency shows that they can understand and use abstract symbols in their communication. Furthermore, Chimpanzees can even pass these acquired language skills onto their offspring.

Primate researchers such as Jane Goodall and Roger Fouts have reported that chimpanzees are capable of skills and behaviors once thought uniquely human. They claim that the line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom has been arbitrarily drawn.

Historically, chimpanzees have been used in a wide variety of invasive trials, ranging from head injury experiments to space research in which they were spun giant centrifuges and placed in decompression chambers to induce unconsciousness. At present, chimpanzees are used predominantly in infectious disease experiments, most commonly hepatitis and AIDS. Once infected, these chimpanzees often remain isolated from other chimpanzees and confined indoors for life.

The AIDS epidemic was the driving force behind the federal government’s chimp breeding program. However, the chimpanzee model for AIDS has been a failure. Although chimps are the only known animal other than humans that can get infected with HIV, the infections seldom develop into full-blown AIDS, because the virus replicates differently in chimpanzee cells than in human cells. Chimpanzees are also tremendously expensive to use in research. Because euthanasia of chimpanzees is against the law, researchers must include funds for of long-term care into the research budgets of protocols using chimpanzees. Since chimpanzees can live for 50 years; thus, the cost of their care can be huge. Investigators involved in the study of human diseases contend that the chimpanzee’s similarity to humans makes the primate an invaluable research animal to develop new life-saving treatments for a wide variety of conditions ranging from infections to malignancies.

Animal rights advocates point to the dark side of chimpanzee research: an appalling exploitation of chimpanzees. An estimated 6,000 wild chimpanzees were exported from West Africa by just three dealers in the decades before the U.S. signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which designated chimpanzees as endangered. The dealers were financed primarily by the biomedical research industry, which created a huge market for wild-caught infant chimpanzees. The predominant collection method of chimpanzees involves shooting mothers to collect babies. Estimates range from 5-10 chimpanzees killed for every one exported alive. About 50 years ago, several million chimpanzees were estimated to reside in Africa. Currently, less than 200,000 exist. Following CITES, the United States began a chimpanzee breeding program at five primate centers: Yerkes Regional Primate Center, Arizona Primate Foundation, University of Texas/Bastrop, Southern Louisiana University at New Iberia, and New Mexico State University Primate Center (now The Coulston Foundation). At present, an estimated 1,700 chimpanzees are housed in U.S. research laboratories. The majority of them have been captive bred and born.