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Spring 2012 Vol. 12 Number 1

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Are Chimps Necessary for Research?

©Ocean/CorbisIn the summer of 2010, the National Institutes of Health ignited a fierce debate over animal rights with a decision to transfer 186 chimpanzees from the primate facility where they were living in retirement to a center that is actively engaged in biomedical research. The ensuing discussion expanded to the ethical and scientific issues of using any chimpanzees in studies and led to a review by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

NIH director Francis Collins cut short the debate in 2012 by declaring a moratorium on funding for new research involving chimpanzees until the recommendations from the review committee could be implemented.

The committee’s report concludes that chimpanzees’ use as biomedical or behavioral research subjects should be allowed only under stringent conditions, including the absence of any other suitable model and inability to ethically perform the research on people. The report does not endorse an outright ban on chimpanzees in research, but instead proposes restrictive criteria that would govern decisions about whether to permit their use. And it encourages NIH to establish an independent oversight committee that would assess the necessity of chimpanzees in grant renewals and new research proposals using the new criteria.

At the heart of the review were the questions of whether these primates offer a research model so unique that no other animals or tools could take their place, and whether research on needed therapies or important behavioral problems would languish without them. As the report notes, many areas of research in which chimpanzees were once used are proceeding well with other animals and tools thanks to technological advances. The committee found only two cases in which chimpanzees may still be needed, namely the development of a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies already in the pipeline, and development of a vaccine that would prevent infection by hepatitis C virus. Even here, the committee members’ debate about the vaccine illustrates the uncertainty of the animals’ absolute necessity.

From the study’s outset, animal rights supporters expressed dismay that the committee’s charge left out reference to the morality of using these intelligent, emotional animals as research tools. While the committee did not delve into the ethics, it noted that chimpanzees’ and humans’ nearly identical DNA and the resulting biological and behavioral traits of that genetic proximity inherently demand greater justification for using them as subjects even as it makes them a unique model for certain kinds of studies. The report’s criteria provide the needed parameters to make such decisions going forward.
  -- Christine Stencel

Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity. Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Board on Health Sciences Policy, Institute of Medicine, and Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2011, 200 pp.; ISBN 0-309- 22039-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies ).

The committee was chaired by Jeffrey P. Kahn, senior faculty member, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Baltimore. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences