January 9, 2012

IOM committee calls for end to most research on chimpanzees

In a report released Dec. 15 on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science called for a dramatic shift away from federally funded experimentation on humanity’s closest relative in the animal kingdom.

The report concludes that scientific advances now provide effective alternatives to the use of chimpanzees, and that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” The IOM studied the use of the animals in research in collaboration with the National Research Council and at the request of the National Institutes of Health, which has financed the majority of federally supported experimentation with chimps.

“We were charged with determining if chimpanzees are necessary for the success of current and future research, and we set a high bar for determining that necessity with uniform criteria,” said the IOM committee chair, Jeffrey Kahn, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “In almost all cases, we found that research on chimpanzees was not necessary.”

The committee stopped short of recommending an end to all research on chimpanzees, finding sufficient cause for continued work in three specific areas: comparative studies of chimpanzee and human brain function; studies, in the short term, on monoclonal antibodies which precisely target viruses and bacteria, until recombinant technologies can fully replace the need for chimpanzee models; and development of a prophylactic hepatitis C vaccine, an issue that evenly split the committee over whether a challenge study is necessary in such vaccine development since such research could not ethically be performed in humans. The hepatitis C virus infects only humans and chimpanzees.

The United States and Gabon are the only countries known to allow invasive research on chimpanzees. Though the European Union has an exception for using the animals in the event of “a serious pandemic,” no EU nation keeps chimpanzees in captivity or conducts research on them.

Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, said, “The IOM’s recommendations bring us closer to the ethically correct policy of not allowing any invasive research on chimpanzees. With these new criteria, the government can begin phasing out its support of this research.”

Kahn, the only bioethicist on the IOM committee, notes the challenge of chimpanzee research.

“Chimpanzees are attractive research subjects for the same reason that conducting research on them is ethically troubling,” he said. “They are humans’ closest genetic relative, with immune systems that are nearly indistinguishable from ours. However, this close relationship also creates a high moral cost, which the committee agrees must be factored into the assessment of the necessity of any research involving chimpanzees.”

The full report is available online.