Chimp Research Is Sharply Curbed After Critical Report to NIH

Nancy Megna

There are nearly 1,000 chimps housed at five primate laboratories in the United States. A bill now before Congress would end all invasive testing on them and other great apes, but it appears to have limited legislative support.
December 15, 2011

Using chimpanzees in medical studies involving AIDS, malaria, much of neuroscience, and several other areas is unnecessary, a major scientific report said on Thursday. After hearing these conclusions, Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, announced that "effective immediately, the NIH will not issue new awards for chimpanzee research."

The agency, which asked for the report about chimp research from the Institute of Medicine, will continue to support 37 projects while it convenes a committee to evaluate them using new measures specified in the report. But, Dr. Collins said, "we estimate that 50 percent of them would not meet the IOM criteria." Those measures say chimps should be used only if there is no other good animal or human test available. Some work to develop a vaccine to prevent hepatitis-C infection was just one of two areas like this. In most other cases, the report found, better alternatives are available.

There are nearly 1,000 chimps housed at five primate laboratories in the United States. A bill now before Congress would end all invasive testing on them and other great apes, but while animal-rights advocates claimed the new report would add momentum for its passage, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act appears to have limited legislative support. And critics said it would cripple research in areas like hepatitis C, where many people—including half of the group that wrote the new report—think chimpanzees are essential.

"The report acknowledges that some research is needed," said Christian R. Abee, director of the Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, which houses one of the five primate laboratories and is part of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "But the Great Apes act would totally eliminate it. If you were a logical person, would you do that?"

The chair of the group that wrote the new report, Jeffrey P. Kahn, a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said that the close genetic relationship between chimps and humans made the committee "set the bar quite high" for use of the animals.

The bar Mr. Kahn and his colleagues devised specifies that chimps should be used only if, in addition to the absence of other tests, avoiding them would hinder the pace of research on life-threatening conditions. And behavioral research should be performed only if pain and distress are minimized, and the insights into emotion or cognition are otherwise not attainable.

Until now, Mr. Kahn said, "there has been no uniform set of criteria to assess NIH-funded studies."

'A Decreasing Need for Chimp Studies'

The report also highlighted the surprisingly small role that chimp studies actually play in biomedical research. Every year between 2001 and 2010, the NIH supported between 40 and 50 of those projects. That's a tiny fraction of the 90,000 or so projects that the agency finances each year, Mr. Kahn pointed out.

Over all, "there is a decreasing need for chimp studies," he said. Better small-animal models, in rats and mice, have been developed. As one example, he highlighted the genetic work on a mouse strain with a human immune-system complex.

And chimps have proven to be poor models for some diseases, such as AIDS, said a report co-author, Warner C. Greene, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Another author, Sharon Terry, chief executive of the Genetic Alliance, a nonprofit disease research-advocacy group, added that most biomedical areas have the same problem. "We looked at all 50 or so projects in a given year, and we did not find compelling evidence in these other areas," she said. Malaria research, neuroscience, and general immunology were just some of the subjects that fell short. "If it was up to us, they would not meet the criteria," she said.

The hepatitis-C preventive vaccine work might past muster because tests in people will be difficult to carry out, and chimpanzee work might speed up the identification of a good preparation. And immune therapies called monoclonal antibodies already depend on chimps, although the committee said that will not be the case in the near future, and this work should be phased out.

For many years, animal-rights groups have been saying good science does not support most chimp use. "There's been a lack of critical assessment of whether chimps are necessary," said Jarrod Bailey, science director of the New England Anti-vivisection Society. In his group's analysis of the 1,000 chimps in the United States, he said, only 10 percent are being used in active research. "So if they are such a valuable resource, why are they just sitting in labs?" asked Mr. Bailey, who gave a presentation to the Institute of Medicine committee earlier this year.

His society and other critics of research involving apes have been pursuing the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act since 2008. It would ban all invasive research on chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons.

The bill (HR 1513 /S 810) had only 129 sponsors in the 435-seat House of Representatives and just 11 in the 100-member Senate. As such, it appeared to have little chance of passage before the IOM report, critics said. They have not changed their stance. "I wouldn't want to draw hasty conclusions about its implications for this legislation," said Alice H. Ra'anan, director of government relations and science policy at the American Physiological Society, which opposes the bill. And Mr. Abee, from Texas, says the report only "reinforces what we are already doing. I believe very strongly in the three R's: reduction, replacement, and refinement."

Supporters of the bill, such as the Humane Society, were more optimistic. "I think we already have support in Congress, and a favorable IOM report will only improve that," said Kathleen M. Conlee, the Humane Society's senior director for animal-research issues.

(Another initiative, a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add chimps to the Endangered Species Act, is now getting comments from the public. The service will have all of 2012 to consider how to act on it.)

Adding to the ambiguity in the chimps' future, Dr. Collins said that when his agency's working group convenes—and he refused to put a timeline on that—one thing they will have to consider is as-yet-unknown diseases. "We will need to assess what population of chimps we need in reserve in case of a world pandemic."

Paul Basken contributed to this article.