U.S. Will Not Back Future Chimpanzee Research

03rd Dec 2011 Press Releases


The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has suspended all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees and accepted the first uniform criteria for assessing the necessity of such research, dramatically limiting the use of great apes as test subjects.

The guidelines require that the research be necessary for human health, and that there be no other way to accomplish it.

NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins, said that chimpanzees, as the closest human relatives, deserve “special consideration and respect” and that the agency was accepting the recommendations released earlier in the day that concluded most research on chimpanzees was unnecessary.

Although the NIH announcement does not definitively rule out future research, it was hailed by wildlife conservation, rights and welfare groups that have been battling for decades to end chimpanzee experimentation.

Jeffrey Kahn, chairman of the Institute of Medicine committee that produced the report and a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said the group’s recommendations would make it harder to use chimpanzees in research.

“What we did was establish a set of rigorous criteria that set the bar quite high for use of chimpanzees in biomedical or behavioral research,” he said. He also said that, in effect, the writing was on the wall: “One of the important themes in the committee report is that there is a trajectory toward decreasing necessity for the use of chimps in biomedical and behavioral research.”

The United Nations’ Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), which collectively represents African and Asian range states, conservation organizations, U.N. agencies and donor governments, welcomed both the report and the NIH decision.

“While GRASP’s focus is the conservation of great apes and their natural habitat, it is impossible to overlook the obstacles imposed by biomedical research on chimpanzees,” said GRASP coordinator Doug Cress. “Studies have shown that the commitment to conservation is compromised when research is carried out, and we are pleased that the United States is finally rectifying that double standard.”

At the same time, people involved in chimpanzee research said they, too, were happy.

Dr. Thomas Rowell, director of the New Iberia Research Center in New Iberia, La., which houses 471 chimpanzees, more than any other center in the country, also said he was “quite pleased” with the report. “It just confirms what we’ve been saying all along in regard to the chimpanzee model for advancing public health research,” he said.

Dr. Collins said the N.I.H. would set up a working group to decide how to carry out the recommendations. Until the group finishes its deliberations, no new grants would be awarded and all N.I.H. chimpanzees that are not already enrolled in experiments would not be involved in any further research projects. Dr. Collins did not offer a timeline or say how many chimpanzees were currently involved in research.

Use of chimpanzees has already been waning, partly because it is expensive. The report covers only chimpanzees owned or supported by the government, 612 of a total of 937 available for research in the United States. Only a few are in experiments at any one time.

The committee identified two areas where it said the use of chimpanzees could be necessary. One is research on a preventive vaccine for hepatitis C. The committee could not agree on whether this research fit the criteria and so left that decision open.

In the second area, research on immunology involving monoclonal antibodies, the committee concluded that experimenting on chimpanzees was not necessary because of new technology, but because the new technology was not widespread, projects now under way should be allowed to reach completion.

The N.I.H. commissioned the report after an outcry over its plan in 2010 to move a colony of chimpanzees it owned out of semiretirement in Alamogordo, N.M., and back into medical research at a primate center in Texas.