A new report from the Institute for Medicine calls for the retirement of most, but not all, of the 600 chimpanzee test subjects held by the National Institute for Health. NIH asked The Institute for Medicine for advice last December after NIH ordered a group of retired chimpanzees back into active research, sparking widespread protest.
A panel of ten independent experts deliberated for nine months about the role of our Great Ape cousins in medical research, and concluded that the need for chimpanzee studies is decreasing thanks in part to technological advances and progress in understanding disease. The report points to powerful computers, new lab techniques and genetic engineering of other animals to mimic the human immune system, as reasons to retire the captive chimps to sanctuaries. The exception, for now, is in the case of studying the safety and effectiveness of targeted immune-boosting medicines. Alternative means of testing, including techniques that gauge human response to tiny doses of these biological medicines, are in development to decrease the need for chimps in such trials, too.
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins accepted the panel’s findings and “predicted that about half of the 37 NIH-sponsored studies that use chimpanzees would be phased out.” He also promised to name a working group to implement the recommendations and consider how many chimpanzees NIH should keep in captivity.
The Los Angeles Timespoints out that the panel was not asked to consider the “ethical ramifications of using nonhuman primates in medical experiments,” but panel chairman Jeffrey Khan acknowledged that the experts' considerations "were suffused with an awareness of the moral cost of such research."
LA Times also notes that the US and Gabon are the only countries that “still permit active experimentation using chimpanzees, a species that exhibits clear signs of love, complex social organization, self-awareness and distress.” Khan says the panel believes chimps “have been a valuable animal model in the past,” with advances in vaccines as well as therapies for cancer, hepatitis and rheumatoid arthritis. The overall conclusion is that NIH “will likely need to support limited use of chimps” in biomedical experiments. Yet, with support from animal rights activists and lawmakers, the panel and resulting NIH work group are much appreciated steps toward balancing animal and human welfare. Hopefully more ethical research will present the opportunity to turn the page on active experimentation.
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