Panel Finds That Nearly All Invasive Chimp Research is Unnecessary; NIH Agrees

By Veronique Greenwood | December 16, 2011 1:17 pm


After seven months of deliberation, the US Institute of Medicine has released a report that marks a turning point in the use of chimpanzees, humanity’s closest relative, in medical research. An IOM panel found that chimpanzees were in the vast majority of cases no longer required for disease research and laid out three stringent rules against which all current and future chimp research should be judged. Within two hours, Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, announced he had accepted the group’s analysis and would set up a committee to apply the rules to proposed and ongoing research projects funded by the NIH.

The recommendation is a reflection of our growing realization that chimps may be capable of self-awareness, empathy, grief, and happiness, and may possess basic morality as well as a culture; Brandon Keim, who has covered chimp research extensively for Wired, notes that some scientists have begun to think they should qualify as nonhuman people. Subjecting them to disease, pain, and psychological trauma in the service of research thus has grown to seem ethically dubious, especially after it was revealed that the NIH planned to send 209 chimps who had been allowed to retire from medical research back into the lab and that an NIH division had illegally bred captive chimpanzees. At the same time, scientists’ increasing skill with using cells in Petri dishes and cheaper, less ethically daunting lab animals like mice in experiments with potential drugs have meant that there are today relatively few research projects for which chimpanzees are the best option. The only projects that the committee believed might have potential need for chimpanzees are those researching vaccines for hepatitis C and a few current projects looking at certain types of antibodies.

Accordingly, the IOM has recommended that the NIH approve chimps as research subjects only in cases when no other suitable model is available, when the experiment cannot be performed ethically in humans, and when important progress will be significantly delayed or stopped altogether without the use of chimps. Noninvasive behavioral research in which chimps live in near-natural conditions and comparative genomics work, which usually just requires a blood sample, are not prohibited but will need to meet another set of conditions under the committee’s recommendations. All future chimp research projects submitted for funding to the NIH will be assessed according to these criteria, and current publicly funded projects that use chimps, which number roughly 37, will also be reviewed to make sure that they meet the guidelines. Collins told Nature News that he believes about 50% will wash out under the new rules.

Image courtesy of the Buffa Family / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • alex fairchild

    This is fantastic news. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow hominins.

  • steve

    They are closest relative,share 98% of our dna, so why did anyone think chimps could not be capable of the same emotions? we never had a moral right to murder these animals and a more enlightend species would not practise vivisection on any ape or monkey for the same reason.

  • Rilwen

    “The recommendation is a reflection of our growing realization that chimps may be capable of self-awareness, empathy, grief, and happiness, and may possess basic morality as well as a culture;” – “may be”, “basic”… whatever, it is still a very good news for our furry brothers and a good sign about us. Empathy, morality, … — they were all developed as an evolutionary trait, so there’s no reason for any animal not to have them.

  • Jezebel

    Way to spin the report. There is actually disagreement in the panel itself about the results of the committee findings.

    From Science: “Reactions differ widely, in part because it is difficult to sort out how the proposed new restrictions differ from existing ones. …. Most of the new recommendations simply reinforce existing policy, says Preston Marx, a primatologist at the Tulane National Primate Research Center who from 1990 to 1994 managed a chimp colony at the New Mexico Regional Primate Research Laboratory. “It’s largely an endorsement of chimpanzee biomedical and behavioral research with new limits,” says Marx, who now studies monkeys. “The committee sees its value.” Thomas J. Rowell, who heads the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette—which houses more research chimpanzees than any facility in the world—had a similar reaction. “After a thoughtful and comprehensive review, the committee confirmed the center’s position on the importance and necessity of having continued access to a chimpanzee model to promote public health research,” Rowell said in a prepared response to the report.”

  • Liz

    It took them way too long to figure this out, but the research is welcomed by me. I understand the need for test animals and I wish there was a way to avoid it completely. Anyone that can inflict pain or suffering on an animal lacks enough empathy to be considered a test subject themselves. Rats, additionally, show signs of empathy, but I doubt they will change up the rules for testing on them.

  • Geack

    Looks like some pretty serious spin the other way too – bascially, “They didn’t place an outright ban on all research on chimps. therefore we’re OK”. It clearly won’t have a huge practical impact right away – the small number of existing studies suggests that chimp research has been self-limited to some extent already – but making it harder to justify using chimps in the future is a good thing.


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