An Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that will recommend whether the US government should continue to support chimpanzee research opened its inaugural meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C. and began wrestling with the thorny questions it has been set.
The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research is charged with determining “if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries” to improve public health
– and for determining the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines. Its task also includes looking at whether the animals, humans’ closest living relatives, are necessary for progress in behavioral research.
Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, told the committee: “We are expecting a highly objective study, one that is going to consider the scientific ramifications of the use of chimpanzees….If they are needed, why are they needed? You need to describe that to us.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency that supports chimpanzee research, asked the IOM to undertake the study in January, after three senators wrote this letter to NIH director Francis Collins. They were reacting to a controversial NIH proposal to move 176 government-owned chimpanzees out of semi-retirement and back into active research.
Yesterday, in a public session in a small, crowded room at the National Academies’ Keck Center in downtown Washington, the committee members asked pointed questions of invited guests that included officials from the NIH.
Committee member Jeffrey Kahn, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, asked Rockey why the committee’s statement of task did not touch on the ethics and morality of chimpanzee research, but only on the whether the science warrants continued research.
On the heels of a closed committee session yesterday morning, “Many of us have questions about the scope of the task,” Kahn said. “It talks mostly about necessity of chimp research….it doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness of using chimps in research.”
Rockey replied: “We are trying to have this focus on the science behind this. When is there a scientific need to use chimpanzees?” She added: “Obviously, when you look at things like alternatives…you are going to be touching on some of these issues. But our main focus again is to look at the scientific need for chimps in research.”
A little later, Diane Griffin, a committee member and virologist who is chair in molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pressed Rockey on the reason that NIH commissioned the study.
From Rockey’s presentation, “I deduce that the NIH right now doesn’t see a problem with vetting these different chimpanzee studies,” Griffin said, because the agency feels that rigorous oversight is in place and that the use of chimpanzees is scientifically justified.
“So I assume,” she continued, “that the main driving force for requesting the study is the senators’ letter and the general public interaction with the various issues, rather than the NIH perceiving that they don’t have a good policy in place now for making these decisions.”
“You’re correct,” Rockey replied.
Chimp research opponents Jarrod Bailey, a geneticist and scientific advisor to the New England Antivivisection Society and John Pippin, a senior medical and research adviser for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also spoke to the committee. Kevin Kregel, the chair of the department of health and human physiology at the University of Iowa, spoke in favor of the research on behalf of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
The committee will meet again on August 11 and 12 and October 3 and 4. One of the August meeting days will be open to the public; the rest are closed. The committee aims to produce a report by the end of the year.
It has its work cut out for it. Near the end of the meeting, Jay Kaplan, a committee member who directs the primate center at Wake Forest University in North Carolina noted, with a touch of irony, the diametrically opposed opinions of the invited guests. “This certainly offers a challenge to the committee as to where the evidence lies,” he said.
Animal rights activists have complained that the membership of the committee is tilted in favor of continued chimpanzee research. But one drug company representative who was initially proposed as a committee member wasn’t present yesterday: Letty Medina, a veterinarian who is Associate Director of Animal Welfare and Compliance at Abbott Laboratories, has withdrawn from the committee. Similarly, Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive publisher of Science, will not serve on the committee, although he was initially nominated to do so.
Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for the National Academies, said in an email today that it is standard procedure for the credentials of proposed committee members to be reviewed for conflict of interest and bias — and for candidates to be withdrawn if a member’s position and background indicate a conflict of interest, or could be perceived as a conflict. “That’s what happened here,” Stencel wrote.
UPDATE: 1:40 pm, May 27
Yesterday’s testimony from Jarrod Bailey of the New England Antivivisection Society can be viewed here.