NIH Temporarily Halts Research with Chimpanzees

"Most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary," according to a landmark Institute of Medicine report titled Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity. The report, released on December 15, 2011, also recommended that the necessity of research with chimpanzees (whether biomedical, behavioral, or involving comparative genomics) be assessed against set criteria.

Commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the report was produced by a committee of medical and scientific experts convened by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. The committee used the following principles to develop criteria to evaluate research with chimpanzees:

  1. The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
  2. There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
  3. The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.

Within an hour of the report’s release, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins accepted the recommendations in the report and suspended all new research with chimpanzees until its suggestions can be implemented. Current research that doesn’t conform to the new rules will be phased out. At present NIH funds 37 projects with chimpanzees, and Collins believes that about half of the research will fail to meet the new criteria.

Approximately 937 chimpanzees are maintained in five facilities in the United States. The report applies only to the 600 or so of these animals who are owned or involved in projects supported by the NIH. Many of these chimpanzees are old and have been retired from research. The issue of research with chimpanzees drew widespread attention in late 2010 when NIH started moving some of the older chimpanzees from a retirement facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to a San Antonio, Texas, research facility. This movement of chimpanzees has been suspended, and Collins has stated that the Alamogordo animals will not be drafted back into research for the foreseeable future.

An important message of the report doesn’t relate to chimpanzees at all, but rather to all animals who are undergoing experimentation and testing. If a thorough overview was done of all of the research with animals other than chimpanzees, would the findings be similar - i.e. is there a significant amount of research that perhaps shouldn’t be conducted? Certainly it would appear that all protocol reviews should be more rigorous. Further, the same three principles that guided the committee on chimpanzees ought to apply to research on all animals.