Bioethics Forum Essay

Research Bias Compromises Chimpanzee Protection Efforts

In December 2011, a landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) report concluded that advances in science and medicine “have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.” Yet a recent search on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database indicates that in just the last few months at least five new papers (herehereherehere and here) reporting results of hepatitis C virus studies on chimpanzees – and one review paper actively promoting the practice – have been published and not one of them mentions that the IOM cast serious doubts on the scientific need for chimpanzees use in such research.

Regarding therapeutics for HCV, the IOM unequivocally found that, “chimpanzees are not necessary for development and testing of a therapeutic HCV vaccine,” and that forgoing their use and instead doing direct testing in humans “might accelerate development of an efficacious therapeutic vaccine for HCV.”

With respect to a preventive vaccine for HCV, the IOM committee could not reach consensus, but half of the members concluded that given the alternatives now available, chimpanzees were not needed to develop and test a prophylactic HCV vaccine.

As previously reported here and in a recent article in the Hastings Center Report, these findings were not trivial. Among other things, the IOM’s robust conclusions prompted the National Institutes of Health to suspend funding for all new experiments on chimpanzees and announce that many currently-funded projects would lose federal support. One laboratory that has been conducting experiments on chimpanzees for nearly three decades recently announced it was ending the practice.

None of the aforementioned research papers – four of which were co-authored by scientists at the NIH – cite the IOM report, even though at least three were submitted in original or revised form after the high-profile IOM findings were released.

The review paper mentions the IOM report, but only to illustrate that the use of chimpanzees for experimentation in general has attracted scrutiny for ethical, financial, and logistical reasons. It does not say that the IOM questioned the science on the use of chimpanzees for HCV work specifically. It even goes as far as to say that for “studies of HCV infection and progression, and for prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines . . . Chimpanzees currently remain the only model available . . . .”

Similarly, a paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine reports the results of experiments in which two chimpanzees were infected with hepatitis A and subjected to repeated liver biopsies. Three of the coauthors actually spoke on panels during the IOM deliberations, and yet their new paper – which was only accepted for publication last month – fails to mention, even as a footnote, that the IOM deemed hepatitis A research an area where chimpanzees were not needed at all. To its credit, after receiving a letter of concern from my organization about this issue, the journal promptly added text in the acknowledgements section of the paper recognizing and linking to the IOM report.

At best, these omissions were careless. At worst they were conscious decisions and amount to academic dishonesty. Expert reviewers at the journals should have caught these glaring omissions as well. But whatever the cause, these biased, inadequate analyses are problematic, and the harm of disseminating them isn’t hypothetical.

One needn’t look any further than the IOM’s own conclusion that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary” to appreciate that – due to institutional inertia, personal biases, and plain old misinformation – obsolete research models will not necessarily be voluntarily abandoned. Chimpanzees have been subjected to pain and distress when their use has been deemed scientifically unnecessary and scarce resources have been squandered on expensive, time consuming, and ineffective experiments whose utility had been questioned even for many years prior to the IOM report. These recent biased publications could very well exacerbate the problem by similarly misleading researchers.

Ultimately, this situation highlights precisely why federal legislation to ban invasive experiments on chimpanzees, as is currently being considered by Congress, is so badly needed.  Otherwise, people and institutions with entrenched interests will continue to promote and engage in the practice even though it is widely considered to be cruel, outmoded, ineffective, and otherwise unnecessary.

Justin Goodman is the associate director of the laboratory investigations department of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 07/24/2012 01:40:18 PM |

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Hastings Bioethics Forum essays are the opinions of the authors, not of The Hastings Center.