Researchers presented their best case for the use of chimpanzees in research when the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research met today in Washington, DC.
Spurned by a Congressional request last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked the IOM to form a committee that would evaluate the current and future need for federally funded research on chimpanzees – increasingly controversial in the public eye and legal in only one other country, Gabon. The committee held an introductory meeting in May, but got to the heart of the issues today, the first of the two-day meeting.
As biomedical and behavioral researchers from around the country gave presentations, the committee made it clear that it needed to be convinced of the necessity of using chimpanzees, the closest living relative to human beings, for both non-invasive and invasive studies. It especially wanted to know whether alternative small animal or cellular models were advanced enough to do the job.
The strongest case for continued use of chimpanzees came from Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) researchers, who emphasized that the animals were still needed for vaccine development. The liver disease-causing virus is the most common chronic blood borne infection in the United States, infecting 3.2 million individuals. Human vaccine trials aren’t feasible, they said, and neither mice nor cellular models can mimic human infection as well as chimpanzees – the only other animal naturally susceptible to the virus. “These technologies have advanced, but they are clearly not there yet,” said Alexander Ploss, a virologist at Rockefeller University in New York.
But chimpanzees may no longer be necessary for the development of drugs for HCV and other diseases. “I would be disingenuous if I said you cannot develop a HCV drug without the use of chimpanzees – it’s clearly possible,” said Robert Lanford of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. But he added that trials in chimpanzees can decrease the time it takes those drugs to get to the clinic, can increase clinical success rates and can increase the benefit-risk ratio.
While the committee is not supposed to consider the ethics of chimpanzee research, as outlined by the NIH’s charge, the theme pervaded the first half of the meeting, in public comments from animal rights groups, in a lecture from famed primatologist Jane Goodall (who joined by videoconference from the UK) and even in some of the talks from the researchers themselves.
“We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue,” said primate researcher Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who detailed his behavioral research. Goodall enthusiastically described her field research and its benefits for the health of wild chimpanzees. But she does not support the use of chimpanzees held in labs, which she says are like prisons to them.
Ethics have been at the heart of this study from the beginning. The impetus for the study arose after the NIH proposed to move 176 aging former research chimps from semi-retirement at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to active research at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas. The proposal sparked fierce opposition by groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who say the chimps are too old and in poor condition to undergo further invasive studies. The group issued a petition yesterday for the removal of 14 of the chimps that were moved to the New Mexico facility before the study was initiated.
The meeting will continue tomorrow with discussion of the potential role for chimpanzees in future biodefense and malaria research. Members of the public can listen in here.
On October 3 and 4, the committee will hold its third and final meeting, which will be closed to the public, during which they will deliberate about what they’ve heard. It will issue its recommendations to the NIH by the end of the year.
Image Credit: Aaron Logan