Chimpanzees Aren’t Necessary for Most Research, Says IOM

Retiring from research? Chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to a new report. (Image: Peter-John Freeman/iStockphoto)

The era of the chimpanzee as a research tool in federally funded biomedical studies has, for the most part, come to an end.

After 9 months of meetings, workshops, and an unprecedented number of public comments, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report said today that chimpanzees aren’t necessary for most biomedical research that’s funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“There is… decreasing scientific need for chimpanzees due to the emergence of nonchimpanzee models and [new] technologies,” said Jeffrey Kahn, PhD, MPH, chair of the IOM committee that produced the report and a senior faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore.

The committee made it clear that its recommendations are not an outright ban on using the animals in NIH research. But the report outlines the first criteria ever established to determine whether chimpanzees, which are genetically and behaviorally similar to humans, should be used in a given research project.

In biomedical research, the committee concluded that chimpanzees may be used if no other suitable model, including in vitro and nonhuman in vivo methods, is available; if a study can’t be ethically carried out in humans; and if forgoing chimpanzee use would substantially slow or prevent work on agents to treat severe or life-threatening conditions.

Two additional criteria addressed research in comparative genomics and behavioral research. Chimpanzees may be used in studies that provide otherwise “unattainable insight” through minimally invasive techniques that do not cause excessive pain or distress.

In addition, chimpanzees used in any NIH-funded research must be housed in environments similar to their natural surroundings.

In a press briefing, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, said an estimated 37 research projects using chimpanzees will be reviewed to see if they meet the IOM’s criteria. He said that about half will not and those projects will be phased out. The NIH now owns 612 chimpanzees, but many are not actively involved in ongoing research.

Collins said he agreed with the IOM’s recommendations and called the report “very compelling and scientifically rigorous.”

From the vast array of medical research the IOM committee studied, only a handful of projects met the criteria: a small number of monoclonal antibody therapies already in the pipeline, development of a preventive hepatitis C virus (HCV) vaccine, and “joint attention” research that examines communication using vocalization and gestures.

Committee members noted that apart from humans, chimpanzees are the only other species known to be vulnerable to HCV infection, which affects 170 million people worldwide and 3.2 million in the United States. Infection is a pressing public health problem, but the committee was split on using chimpanzees to develop a preventive vaccine. The criteria do not justify use of the animals in developing a therapeutic vaccine, the report said.

Therapeutic monoclonal antibodies now can be produced in mice instead of chimpanzees. But the committee noted that a few ongoing projects may not have access to these technologies and halting them could cause years of data collection to be wasted.

The report also noted that procedures used with chimpanzees in joint attention communication research are comparable with those used in comprehensive veterinary examinations.

IOM President Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, said the report was the subject of “intense public interest.” The IOM received more than 5800 comments from concerned individuals. “I’ve never received so many emails as I received for this report,” he said.

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