Chimpanzee research an endangered species as experts debate usefulness, ethics
They were crucial for vaccines against hepatitis A and B. They took part in hundreds of early studies of HIV. And in 1961, two of them were shot into space.
But the role of chimpanzees in medical research is at a crossroads. Last week, the highest scientific body in the land put the issue on trial as a committee of the Institute of Medicine, part of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, met to deliberate the fate of nearly all of the world's remaining medical research chimps.
The European Union banned the practice last year, leaving the United States and Gabon as the only countries conducting medical research on chimpanzees. At drug companies, chimp research is waning with the emergence of lower-cost, higher-tech alternatives.
"If you're a scientist, a chimp is really a sort of last resort," said Harold Watson, who directs the chimpanzee research program at the National Institutes of Health, which manages 734 of the nearly 1,000 medical research chimps in the United States.
Last year, the issue blew up at NIH. That's when the agency announced it would move 200 older apes from a facility in New Mexico to an active research lab in Texas. A parade of politicians, activists and famous faces — including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) and chimpanzee champion Jane Goodall — mounted an uprising. NIH relented, transferring just 14 of the animals before charging the Institute of Medicine with arbitrating the issue in January.
The Institute of Medicine will issue its findings by the end of the year. Although Watson said NIH officials would "pay attention" to the recommendations — which could include ending all medical research on chimps — he declined to predict the agency's response. "I can't tell you what impact [the report] is going to have," he said.
Already, though, chimps — expensive, difficult to handle and so like humans — are falling out of favor with researchers.
From 2007 to 2010, the number of biomedical chimp studies conducted in the United States declined from 53 to 32, said Robert Purcell, a virus researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of NIH. Just one of those studies involved HIV — which in the 1980s and 1990s was extensively studied in apes. None of the studies involved cancer.
"Use of chimps for HIV decreased dramatically as [research] migrated over to rhesus monkeys," which more faithfully reproduce human HIV infections, Watson said.
At any given time, 20 percent of available chimps are being used in medical studies, Watson said.
One big reason for the drop: Drug companies are forgoing chimp studies. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would no longer use any apes. Biotech giant Genentech also ended the practice, said Theresa Reynolds, director of drug safety assessment at the company. "With advances in technology, chimps are no longer necessary" for developing high-tech drugs called monoclonal antibodies, she said. Before the Institute of Medicine meeting, Reynolds informally polled executives at "six or eight" other biotech firms; none use chimps.