Two announcements today have changed the conversation about the use of chimpanzees in research.
The first announcement came from an Institute of Medicine committee and its much-anticipated report on the necessity of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research. The report concluded that most of this research is unnecessary. Though it did not call for a ban on the research, it established a set of restrictive criteria to guide current and future use of chimpanzees in research and called upon the National Institutes of Health to support the development of alternative testing models.
Scarcely an hour later, in response to the IOM report, the National Institutes of Health announced that it was temporarily suspending funding for all new research involving chimpanzees. “We will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place,” said Francis Collins, director of NIH, in a statement. The U.S. and Gabon are the only two countries where invasive research on chimpanzees is legal.
The IOM committee recommended that three principles be used to guide assessments of whether chimpanzees were necessary for proposed research projects:
- The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be performed ethically on human subjects
- The animals used in the proposed research must be housed in conditions that are appropriate to their physical and social needs or studied in natural habitats.
Based on these principles, the IOM's specified three criteria for assessment: there is no other suitable model; the research in question cannot be performed ethically on humans; and forgoing the use of chimpanzees in the research will significantly slow or prevent important advances to prevent, control, and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.
In characterizing the recommendations at a news conference, Jeffrey Kahn, chairman of the IOM committee, said repeatedly that “the bar is high.” Kahn, the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, is also a participant in a Hastings Center project on animal research ethics.
With the IOM’s criteria, many studies involving chimpanzees that would have been funded previously would not be funded now, said Warner Greene, a committee member and director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. The report concluded that alternative research tools, such as cell-based technologies, “have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.”
The committee identified only a few areas of the research where chimpanzees may still be needed: the development of a prophylactic vaccine for hepatitis C, short-term use for development of monoclonal antibody research, and comparative genomics. Even so, the committee was divided on the need for using chimpanzees to develop a prophylactic hepatitis vaccine.
The committee’s report was restricted to the scientific need for chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research. There are 937 chimpanzees in U.S. research facilities, 612 of them supported by NIH.
Although the IOM was not asked to consider the ethical implications of using chimpanzees in research, the committee said that it had to do so because “any assessment of the necessity for using chimpanzees as an animal model in research raises ethical issues, and an analysis must take these ethical issues into account.” Research involving chimpanzees is perhaps the most ethically controversial of all animal research because chimpanzees are humans’ closest relatives and as such they can feel anxiety, grief, and other humanlike responses to distressing conditions. “For the committee, this ethical context is reflected in its assessment of when, if ever, the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is necessary.”
Given the intense ethical and scientific controversy around this kind of research, it is not surprising that the IOM committee’s work was the subject of intense public interest. Harvey Feinberg, president of the IOM, said at the news conference that there were 5,800 public comments and that he had received more e-mails than he recalled ever having gotten about an IOM report.
Susan Gilbert is the editor of Bioethics Forum.