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Chimpanzees gaining new protections that may further limit medical use at SA lab

December 20, 2011

I was on my way back from Spain when I saw the New York Times write-up announcing the Institute of Medicine’s report that will seriously curtail medical research on our closest genetic relative — the chimpanzee — in the United States. In a report released last Thursday, IOM researchers wrote that chimps have been rendered “largely unnecessary” in research and that the proximity of our two species means invasive research on chimpanzees comes at a heightened “moral cost.”

Interestingly, Spain granted great apes, the family Hominidae including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans (and humans, though military experimentation on our kind supposedly stopped late in the last century) legal rights back in 2008. Yet, even in that, Spain was somewhat of a latecomer. Most developed countries have passed the U.S. by in their rules regarding experimentation on apes. New Zealand passed a ban similar to Spain’s in 2000 and the UK stopped granted research licenses for chimps back in 1997.

So as my airplane chased the sun, I was also heading back in ethical time.

The report is significant in San Antonio, home of the largest colony of baboons used for medical research in the world. John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at Texas BioMed, told Nature magazine that two chimp-centered studies here would likely still qualify under the new guidelines. Perhaps for a time.

The IOM authors report that the “committee was evenly split and unable to reach consensus on the necessity of the chimpanzee for the development of a prophylactic hepatitis C virus (HCV) vaccine,” but that “the present trajectory indicates a decreasing scientific need for chimpanzee studies due to the emergence of non-chimpanzee models and technologies.”

Then there are also evolving popular attitudes that continue to track in a more animal friendly direction. Consider the proposed Great Ape Protection and Cost-Savings Act as one public expression of such.

The IOM study was prompted by furor over a recent decision to move a colony of “retired” research chimps, some descendents of NASA’s Mercury space program, from New Mexico to the SNPRC as subjects for research on Hepatitis-C (important, researchers argue, because chimps are the only other species susceptible to the virus). Caught up in the political and scientific debate, only a couple dozen chimpanzees actually made the trip to San Antonio.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been fighting the transfer, hailed the decision not to move the rest of the originally proposed 176 chimpanzees into San Antonio and experimentation.

Meredith Wadman writes for Nature this week:

Although the IOM report leaves the door partly open for HCV vaccine research, in other disease areas it is less equivocal. Jeffrey Kahn, the committee chair and deputy director of policy and administration at Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, Maryland, notes that only one other active research area meets the IOM standards: existing studies in which chimps are used to produce monoclonal antibodies and to test their safety. “No other current biomedical research areas were seen as meeting the committee’s criteria,” Kahn says.

During a media briefing after the report’s release, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, which supports 612 chimps and oversees most of the government’s chimp research, said that 37 agency-funded chimp studies would be evaluated under the report’s criteria. Those that do not pass muster will be phased out; no new studies involving experimentation on chimps will be funded unless the criteria are met.

But animal-welfare activists are pleased that the committee came down resoundingly on the side of less is better. Even in the case of a preventive HCV vaccine, says Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington DC, “it didn’t say, ‘We absolutely need chimps for this’, but rather, ‘We couldn’t decide.’”

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