Experts Urge Limits on Medical Research on Chimpanzees

THURSDAY Dec. 15, 2011 -- A long-awaited U.S. government-mandated report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research be conducted only in very limited circumstances.

The IOM, an independent body that is often charged with reviewing medical or scientific issues, has developed two sets of criteria to be used for deciding whether or not chimpanzees were necessary for biomedical research and for behavioral research.

The criteria included factors such as whether another suitable research model might be available, or whether the research could not be ethically performed in human subjects.

Based on this criteria, the panel concluded that the use of chimpanzees is not necessary for most medical research. One area where the committee felt chimpanzee research could possibly still provide a benefit in biomedical research was in monoclonal antibodies (a form of therapy used against cancer and other illnesses). The committee was spilt on whether such research might be necessary for the development of a preventive hepatitis C vaccine.

"When we applied the criteria to a number of disease areas and considered: 'Is there another model that could be used?' and 'Could this be done ethically in humans?' in many cases, the answer was yes," said committee member, Sharon Terry, president and CEO of Genetic Alliance in Washington D.C.

"The trajectory here is clear. While chimps were very useful in prior years, we will see a decline in their use in research," said Terry.

According to the Associated Press, the United States and the West African country of Gabon are the only two countries in the world known to conduct medical research with chimpanzees. The European Union banned this type of research in 2010. The use of chimpanzees for research in the United States has been on the decline, the AP said, with less than 1,000 animals now available in the country for medical research nationwide.

One group that's long lobbied for less medical research on chimpanzees was largely pleased with the IOM's findings.

"The current report is precedence-setting. It's the first time in modern science that anyone other than a human has been given this much attention, but we'll continue to work for the day when there's no research on chimpanzees," said Theodora Capaldo, president and executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society and Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories.

The IOM's report, called Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity, was released on Dec. 15. The report was commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH provides funding for the care of many of the chimpanzees that are currently used in medical research.

In biomedical research, the IOM's criteria for continued use of chimpanzees in research include:

  • There is no other suitable model available, such as in vitro, non-human in-vivo, or other models for the research in question.
  • The research in question cannot be performed ethically on human subjects.
  • Forgoing the use of chimpanzees for the research in question will significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.

Similar criteria were developed for comparative genomic and behavioral research. These criteria also included guidelines that techniques used in research on chimpanzees must be minimally invasive, with care taken to minimize any pain and distress.

In addition, the IOM report says that chimpanzees in either type of research must be maintained in "ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats." However, they added that current research is exempt from these criteria.

One area that met the criteria was monoclonal antibody research. Monoclonal antibodies have been used in the treatment of inflammation, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and transplantation, according to the report. New technology is being developed that would make chimpanzee research unnecessary in this field, but to avoid stalling current research and delaying access to potentially life-saving medications, the IOM committee felt that this research met their criteria.

The committee could not reach a full consensus on whether or not another area -- research for a prophylactic (preventive) hepatitis C vaccine -- met the criteria or not.

More than 3 million Americans are currently infected with hepatitis C, and chimpanzees are the only other animal that is susceptible to this illness. Terry said that the committee was split on whether or not to recommend that hepatitis C vaccine research continue in chimpanzees. One reason is that, despite the genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees, chimps don't always make good models for human disease. In the case of hepatitis C, chimpanzees' immune systems don't mount as vigorous a response to the hepatitis C virus as human bodies do, according to the report.

Proponents of continued use of chimpanzees in medical research say the animals are sometimes necessary. Thomas Rowell, director of the New Iberia Research Center in New Iberia, La., said that stopping chimpanzee research would be detrimental to people with hepatitis C. "Their lifespans are going to be shortened. They will not have a proper quality of life," Rowell told Nature.

But opponents of the research say that chimps aren't a good model of disease in humans.

"There are alternatives in research that are better. And, science itself has already told us that chimpanzees aren't a good model. Approximately 10 percent of the current chimp population is in trials. If chimps were a good research model, we would see 90 percent of chimps being used in research," argued Capaldo.

"Chimpanzees can be a dangerous model, and the use of chimps can actually postpone development of treatments," she said. "Look at HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] -- HIV is certainly not a benign virus in humans, but it is a benign virus in chimpanzees." (Chimpanzees can be infected with simian immunodeficiency virus or SIV, which does not seem to be as potentially deadly as HIV is in humans.)

"The use of chimpanzees in research is bad for chimps and bad for us. They suffer physically and psychologically, and this research isn't leading to cures, preventions or treatments. It's a waste of money and a waste of life. We have to start demanding better science," said Capaldo.

More information

To learn more about chimpanzees, visit the Jane Goodall Institute.

Posted: December 2011


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