Arguing that in most cases there are better alternatives, the National Institutes of Health announced Thursday it will drastically limit future biomedical research using federally owned chimpanzees.
No new awards for research involving chimps will be issued pending a review of some three dozen current studies to see whether they meet the new guidelines, and as many as half may be phased out, NIH director Francis S. Collins told reporters during a news conference. But he left open the possibility of maintaining a population of potential research subjects in the event of an unforeseen future medical emergency.
The agency’s actions follow rigorous new guidelines suggested by a report — released alongside the NIH’s announcement — conducted by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. “I found their recommendations compelling and scientifically rigorous,” Callins said of the blue-ribbon panel, “so I agree with them.”
Animal welfare activists, who have long campaigned to end research on chimpanzees, the closest living relatives to humans, hailed the IOM report and the NIH announcement as a watershed.
“We’re pleased with the fact that they said they’re not scientifically necessary for any area of biomedical research that is going on,” said Kathleen Conlee, a program manager with the Humane Society of the United States who has worked with great apes. “We would argue that it’s time to get out of this business.”
The IOM report identified a total of 932 research chimpanzees in the United States, 612 of them federally owned. As of October, 83 of the nation’s research chimps were 41 or older — considered geriatric — and some of the oldest date back to the early years of the U.S. space program. The U.S. is the last developed nation in the world to permit invasive chimpanzee research.
In its report, the IOM panel identified key criteria that must be met to justify chimpanzees in biomedical research:
• The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
• There must be no other research model available (such in vitro or other nonhuman in vivo), and the research cannot be performed ethically on humans.
• The chimpanzees used in the proposed research must be cared for in either ethologically appropriate physical and social settings or in a natural habitat.
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“I think what we would say is that the bar has been set very high,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a professor at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University who chaired the 12-member IOM committee.
The IOM committee was appointed a year ago at the behest of U.S. senators Tom Harkin, Jeff Bingaman, and Tom Udall in the wake of a controversial NIH move to relocate 186 federally owned research chimps from semi-retirement at a facility in Alamogordo, N.M., to a primate research lab in San Antonio, where they could have been subjected to renewed experimentation. The panel conducted several public hearings and received 5,800 comments from people and groups who wanted to weigh in.
Although the committee was tasked with reviewing the “necessity” of using chimps as research subjects and was not asked to decide whether it was ethical to do so, “the committee felt ethics was at the core of any discussion of what we were there to work on,” Kahn said.
The members found that although chimpanzees had been “a valuable animal model” in the past, new technology has provided cheaper and better research alternatives. Under the new guidelines, only two remaining areas of research might justify the continued use of chimpanzees as experimental subjects, Kahn said.
One is in testing newly developed monoclonal antibody therapies. Due to new innovations, these therapies can be ethically tested on human subjects and in other animal models, such as genetically engineered mice, Kahn said, but the chimp-based studies already in the pipeline should be completed.
The committee was evenly split on whether the new guidelines justify the use of chimpanzees in the development of a prophylactic vaccine against hepatitis C, a virus that infects 170 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of liver transplantation, Kahn said. Because testing such a vaccine in an at-risk human population “would be complicated and difficult to perform,” some committee members “felt that it was necessary to first test the vaccine in a chimpanzee and then challenge the chimp with hepatitis C before moving to test on humans,” Kahn said.
In separate recommendations regarding the less-controversial use of chimpanzees in behavioral and genomic research, the panel offered two criteria: that the studies provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition, and that all experiments be performed on acquiescent animals in a way that minimizes pain and distress and is minimally invasive.
Collins said he plans to appoint a working group of outside scientists to review NIH policies in light of the IOM recommendations and pledged that the process would be transparent.
In the meantime, he said, “Any chimpanzees that are currently in inactive status will remain inactive.” Given that there has been a moratorium on breeding new research animals since 1995, the review will also weigh how large a population of research chimpanzees should maintained as a precaution in the event of newly emerging or re-emerging biological threat, he said.
“With more than 600 chimpanzees already available and owned by NIH, it seems as if we have a pretty substantial population to work with,” Collins said.