WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health said Thursday that it would curtail its use of chimpanzees in medical research, suspending new chimp research grants and agreeing to accept the recommendations of an outside panel that found the apes are “not necessary for most biomedical research."
NIH Director Francis Collins said he'd decided to accept the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, which had weighed in earlier Thursday on the contentious issue of whether chimps — one of man’s closest genetic cousins — should be used to help medical researchers understand and combat human disease.
The panel decided that most of the time, the answer was no. The NIH’s Collins said he’d follow their guidance.
“I think it was a very thoughtful set of recommendations from a distinguished group of experts who spent many months taking in input from lots of different perspectives,” said Collins, who oversees the nation’s premier biomedical research facility, based in Bethesda, Md. “I found their recommendations very compelling and scientifically rigorous.”
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Animal rights activists generally cheered the institute’s report and the NIH’s reaction to it. While neither institution went as far as the outright ban on chimp research that activists desired, they did acknowledged that science was moving away from chimps as a necessary research model.
“The NIH has funded a lot of research that’s just been deemed unnecessary,” said Jarrod Bailey, the science director for the chimp-release campaign of the anti-animal testing New England Anti-Vivisection Society. “Even though they have stopped short of the ban, it’s a welcome first step.”
After reviewing the current state of science and the demand for chimps in research, the institute concluded that changes in science “have rendered chimpanzees largely nonessential as research subjects.”
The 190-page report didn’t rule out chimps for research, saying there are some situations in which they still could prove useful. Beyond that, chimp experimentation could be indicated in later years if new diseases emerge.
For the most part, however, the panel determined that chimps as research subjects weren’t as valuable as they once were.
“Science is evolving. We have alternative ways of testing drugs,” said committee member Warner Greene, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. He noted that the last two blockbuster hepatitis drugs were produced without using chimpanzees, and said that under the committee’s new guidelines “many existing studies that use chimps would not clear the bar.”
The NIH, which funds much of the nation’s chimp research, had said previously that using the animals was crucial to understanding and combating diseases, particularly hepatitis C. There are more than 900 chimps at the main research labs in the U.S. While the number of chimpanzee experiments at any time is small, the chimps have lived a lifetime of research that involves dart-gun knock-downs, biopsies and repeated infections.
On Thursday, the NIH said it would appoint a committee to implement the institute’s recommendations. The NIH won't issue any new awards for research that involves chimpanzees until that review is complete.
The Institute of Medicine's report said committee members split on whether chimpanzees were necessary to develop a preventive hepatitis C vaccine. The committee concluded that research to develop a therapeutic vaccine for people who already had been infected with hepatitis C can be performed without using chimps.
It also established guidelines for any use of chimps, saying they should be used in biomedical research only if there's “no other suitable model available,” if the research “cannot be performed ethically on human subjects” and if forgoing chimps would “significantly slow or prevent” important advances.
The institute's findings largely echoed a McClatchy series in April that examined the ethics and science of chimpanzee research.
While controversies over chimpanzee research have simmered for years, the issue boiled over last year when the NIH said it planned to move about 180 chimps from a facility in New Mexico _ where they'd been withheld from experimentation _ to one in Texas, where they'd be thrown into the testing mix. Animal rights groups protested, saying the chimps should be retired to a grassy sanctuary.
Under pressure from activists and some members of Congress, the NIH asked for the Institute of Medicine study that was released Thursday. The institute held public meetings, and took in more than 5,700 comments.
In its April special report, McClatchy found that science had moved beyond chimps. Relying on tens of thousands of pages of never-before-published medical records on the New Mexico chimps, McClatchy found that the medical and psychological impact on the chimps was great, and that scientists were increasingly wary of using chimps in research.
The reaction to the McClatchy report, “Life in the Lab,” was swift, with hundreds of readers from around the world emailing McClatchy and many citing the stories in their comments to the Institute of Medicine panel.
At the same time, a bill that would phase out the use of chimpanzees for invasive biomedical research has gained steam in Congress, and one of the key animal-rights groups involved in the chimpanzee debate urged its followers to write Congress, citing McClatchy’s “groundbreaking” report and noting that the “McClatchy series constitutes the most compelling evidence yet why chimpanzee experimentation should end now.”
In September, Scientific American — one of the nation’s premier scientific publications — cited McClatchy’s findings in an editorial headlined “Ban Chimp Testing: Why it is time to end invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees.” The magazine’s editorial highlighted Bobby, one of the chimps McClatchy had singled out when detailing the psychological impact of medical experimentation.
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