News blog

US chimpanzee research to be curtailed

Posted on behalf of Meredith Wadman.

In a watershed moment for chimpanzee research, the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) today released a report declaring that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary” and recommending the sharp curtailing of government-funded research on Pan troglodytes, humans’ closest genetic relative.  Within an hour, Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds the government’s research on chimpanzees, announced that he accepted the recommendations and would move to implement them as swiftly as possible.

“I have considered the report carefully and have decided to accept the IOM committee recommendations,” Collins told reporters on a conference call today.  “NIH is in the process of developing a complete plan for implementation.”

That plan includes not entertaining new grant applications involving chimpanzee research until further notice.  The agency will complete reviews of applications already at the agency, but will not send money out the door if they are approved until they have been assessed by a soon-to-be-formed expert committee.  Projects already underway will continue to be funded until they can be assessed by the new panel.

Collins said that he is assembling a working group that will include a broad range of experts from outside the agency to assess the roughly 37 projects involving chimpanzees that the biomedical agency currently supports.  He guessed that “something like 50%” would be phased out for failing to pass muster with three stringent criteria laid out by the IOM report.

For biomedical research involving chimpanzees, the IOM committee said that the NIH should limit funding to studies

  • for which there is no other suitable model available,
  • that cannot be performed ethically in humans, and
  • without which important advancements will be significantly slowed or prevented.

The committee then applied these criteria to all existing NIH-funded studies, and concluded that only current – as opposed to future – development of monoclonal antibody therapies passed the test.  The committee split evenly on whether the development of a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C would also meet the standard, but agreed that under the criteria neither development of a therapeutic vaccine nor of drugs to treat hepatitis C could justify the use of chimpanzees.

The bulk of chimpanzee work currently being done is in the area of monoclonal antibodies and hepatitis C.

The report notes the significant progress of alternatives to the use of chimpanzees, from in vitro techniques to mouse models, and urges NIH to support their development, and access to them. However, it also concludes that the emergence or reemergence of infectious diseases may require the use of chimpanzee as research subjects in the future.

“It’s not a ban,” said Warner Greene, an IOM committee member who is director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco.  “It’s a set of criteria [against] which you judge the appropriateness of future” research projects.

However, added Jeffrey Kahn, the committee chair, who is a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics: “What we would say is the bar is very high.”

The report caused  euphoria among animal welfare activists.  “This is the beginning of the end of chimpanzee research,” says John Pippin, the director of academic affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal advocacy group in Washington, D.C.  “There were very few areas [of research] that they left open.”

Another group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, exulted at this blog.

The committee also defined criteria that behavioural research and comparative genomics experiments – which often only involve blood draws – should meet in order to be approved. 

Christopher Walker, a virologist and director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunity at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio,  called the committee’s criteria and its suggestion for an independent committee to apply them “a huge contribution.”  Walker has an NIH grant that is in its third five-year term.   It uses chimpanzees in an effort to understand protective immunity to the hepatitis C virus. “I would want my own experiments to be judged against those criteria,”  he says, provided that a “robust” committee is assembled to assess  proposed studies.  “Most of us will expect it to be a pretty tough review. And if that’s the outcome I think it will be very good,” he says.

Thomas Rowell, the director of the New Iberia Research Center in western Louisiana, which houses the largest number of chimpanzees among  NIH-supported research centers, said  in a statement that  his center “concurs in principal with most of the recommendations”  made by the IOM.   “Committee members confirmed the Center’s position on the importance and necessity of  having continued access to a chimpanzee model to promote public health research.”

Nature previously reported on the New Iberia center and the controversy around chimpanzee research in the United States.

Asked today whether he agreed with the report’s conclusions, Collins said: “I found their recommendations very compelling and scientifically rigorous and in that sense I agree with them.”

The report’s recommendations do not pertain to chimpanzee research carried out by industry,   but some predicted today that its effects would inevitably be felt in the private sector nonetheless.

“I think it’s going to, de facto raise the bar for non-NIH-funded research, because federal government  standards in research generally, with animal and human subjects, tend to set the tone – to set the pace for everybody,” says Gregory Kaebnick, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York.


Comments are closed.