The year 2012 could be a good one for chimpanzees who are research subjects in biomedical labs after a national report recommended the primates should no longer be used in those settings.
According to a report published Dec. 15, the National Institutes of Health should prohibit the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research except under stringent circumstances, "including the absence of any other suitable model and inability to ethically perform the research on people," according to a press release by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, which conducted the study.
"In addition, use of these animals should be permissible only if forgoing their use will prevent or significantly hinder advances necessary to prevent or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions, said the committee that wrote the report. Based on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research."
The committee based its findings in part on the genetic and behavioral similarities between chimpanzees and humans.
While the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary, the committee concluded. However, the committee said that it is impossible to predict whether research on emerging or new diseases may necessitate using chimpanzees in the future.
About 1,000 chimpanzees live in research labs in the United States. According to the NIH, the federal government pays approximately $12 million each year to house chimpanzees in the labs.
The primates, which share 98 percent of the genetic blueprint with humans, have been used as test subjects in the U.S. since at least the 1940s. In the 1960s the Air Force and NASA sent chimpanzees into space before astronaut missions. In recent decades, scientists have used the genetic similarities between chimpanzees and humans to study infectious diseases.
Earlier this year, the NIH, which monitors research labs for compliance with animal welfare laws, requested the IOM study whether chimpanzees are necessary for medical research.
Scientists who testified at a hearing for the IOM disagreed over the future of chimpanzees in research.
"6.3 billion people in the world today will depend on the small number of chimpanzees available for research for some of the most dramatic medical advances of the future," wrote John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, in 2005 for the science journal Nature. In the article, he emphasizes the role chimpanzees played in the development of a hepatitis B vaccine, and how they have helped scientists gain a better understanding of malaria and HIV.
(Project R&R, Release & Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories has a website critical of the Southwest National Primate Center.)
Brian Hare, assistant professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, countered that, at the very least, most scientific research could be conducted at sanctuaries rather than NIH labs. "There's tremendous potential," he said, explaining that it would be cheaper, support conservation, and prevent many chimpanzees from languishing in cages.
Advocates for chimpanzee rights contend that their use in biomedical research is harmful and unethical.
"It's not too different from torture," primatologist Jane Goodall said in a speech to the NIH earlier this year. Advocates argue that keeping chimpanzees isolated in small cages defies their nature as social animals, and can emotionally traumatize them. Many chimpanzees have been living in isolated cages their whole life. In captivity, such as in zoos, chimpanzees live to be about 60. In the wild, chimpanzees have an average life expectancy of 45.
Chimpanzees in research labs may die younger because those used in biomedical research are frequently infected with the disease being studied—such as HIV, and several strains of hepatitis.
Congress is reviewing the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which would permanently retire federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries and prohibit their use in invasive research—defined as any testing that is detrimental to the chimpanzee's health or psychological well-being.
Advocates for chimpanzee rights agree that chimpanzees were important to research in the past, but advances in medical technology have created alternative methods that should be funded and explored. The United States and Gabon, a small country in Africa, are the only countries in the world that continue to use chimpanzees for invasive research. And one major pharmaceutical company in the U.S. has voluntarily prohibited using chimpanzees in its research, including studies on hepatitis C.
Advocacy groups, including the Jane Goodall Institute and the Humane Society of the United States, have also pressured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW) to help strengthen chimpanzee welfare laws. Currently, wild chimpanzees are classified as "endangered" by the FSW under the Endangered Species Act. But medical research on chimpanzees can take place in the U.S. because chimpanzees in captivity are labeled as "threatened," which offers less protection.
Chimpanzees are the only species with a split classification. The FSW is considering elevating the status of captive chimpanzees as "endangered," which could place more restrictions on private ownership and their use in medical research.
No chimpanzees are being used in research labs in North Carolina, but it is one of the few states that doesn't restrict the sale of chimps as exotic pets—another challenge to protecting the species, according to activists.
Many people buy chimpanzees as babies to keep for a pet, but are unable to take care of them as they grow older and more aggressive. The lucky ones end up at chimpanzee sanctuaries.
The Captive Primate Safety Act, introduced in Congress in July, would address this problem by prohibiting interstate commerce of chimpanzees.