News blog

Chimpanzee research on trial before blue-ribbon panel

ChimpanzeeAaronLogan.jpg 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


  1. Report this comment

    John Pippin, MD, FACC said:

    I’m a physician and former animal researcher who has been paying close attention to the IOM meetings on chimpanzee experimentation, and it’s clear to me that the strongest arguments made during these meetings are those made against the use of chimpanzees. A remarkable result of questioning from committee members has been the reluctant admissions from NIH representatives and researchers that chimpanzees are NOT necessary to advance research for HIV/AIDS, cancer, neuropsychiatry, malaria, RSV, mAb, biodefense, and drug development. These are all areas where chimpanzee research has been called “essential” for many years by these same scientists, raising the very real possibility that chimpanzees are not essential for any area of human disease research.

    The GSK speaker explained how the company does its drug development without chimpanzees, and proof of concept for HCV is provided by the fact that both recently approved HCV protease inhibitors (from Vertex and Merck) were approved without the use of chimpanzees. HCV seems to be the last area of legitimate dispute, and the successful concurrent use of in vitro and ex vivo methods strongly suggests that chimpanzee use is not essential for this research either.

    The toothless arguments for continuing chimpanzee research have been exposed. This research has shrunk precipitously in the last decade, and it is now small enough to drown in the bathtub. It’s time to end chimpanzee experimentation and focus on methods that are humane and human-based.

  2. Report this comment

    Koi said:

    Given new behavioral data it is clearly unethical to use chimps in medical research.

  3. Report this comment

    brian hare said:

    I gave a talk at the meetings and attended all the public presentations. I am disappointed that continually in Nature the distinction between animal rights and welfare advocacy is not made (see quote above “in public comments from animal rights groups”). The majority of groups that are arguing for ending chimpanzee research are NOT animal rights groups. They are welfare advocates that are very much pro-science and research. They do not hope that animals (i.e. chimpanzees) have special rights under the law – they only want existing welfare laws to be followed and that the principles of the three Rs (reduce, refine and replace) to be followed. In the case of the chimpanzee it may be time to majorly reduce or even replace – this is not an animal rights position. This is animal welfare that our Animal Welfare Laws require that we pursue as animal researchers. It would be very helpful in all discussions of animal research to remember to draw this distinction. Everyone would benefit and we could avoid unhelpful polarity where there is plenty of room for agreement.

  4. Report this comment

    Andrew Knight PhD, CertAW, MRCVS, FOCAE said:

    Few bioethical issues are as contentious as invasive research on chimpanzees. Their advanced psychological and social abilities confer a unique capacity to suffer in laboratory environments and procedures. As Congressman Bartlett stated (NY Times, Aug. 10, ‘Stop Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs’), “Americans have to decide if the benefits… outweigh the ethical, financial and scientific costs.”

    A sizeable body of studies published in the scientific literature have recently examined exactly these questions. These are reviewed in detail in my recent book, ‘The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments’ ( and elsewhere (

    Despite poorly-substantiated claims to the contrary, the scientific evidence is quite clear. Chimpanzee studies do advance knowledge, as most experiments do. Yet this does not mean that knowledge leads to useful applications, or is worth the costs incurred in gaining it. In fact, chimpanzee experiments rarely contribute significantly to the development of cures for human diseases. Our limited public health resources would be more responsibly spent elsewhere.

  5. Report this comment

    For Tomorrow said:

    From an ecological standpoint, chimpanzees should not be used in laboratories. They are internationally classified as ‘endangered’ in the wild. Unfortunately, chimpanzees in captivity are omitted from this classification in the United States, and thus are not afforded the protections associated with the ‘endangered’ status. If wild chimpanzees are to have any hope of increasing their numbers, the root of the problem needs to be adressed. Namely, the demand for chimpanzees as exotic pets and lab testing animals need to be curbed. Visit our blog to learn more and voice support for captive chimpanzees. Sign the Humane Society of the United States’ petition to include captive chimps in the ‘endangered’ category.

Comments are closed.