December 15th, 2011
12:47 PM ET
An Institute of Medicine committee has released a report recommending stringent limits on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral lab work performed at the National Institutes of Health. The report comes amid Congressional pressure to make sure such research is completed humanely.
The IOM’s recommendations focus on the scientific need for chimpanzees as research subjects, but they also took ethical issues into consideration. According to the IOM, chimpanzees' genetic closeness to humans and their similar biological and behavioral characteristics not only make these mammals a valuable species for certain types of research but these animals also demand “greater justification for conducting research with them,” the committee said.
"We worked with researchers, doctors, veterinarians and other experts to come up with the best recommendations possible,' said Harvey Fineberg, President of IOM. "And we had a lot of public input, taking public comments, as well as holding public hearings," Fineberg continued.
The IOM recommends that chimps should be used only if the research project cannot be ethically performed on people and that the use of these primates should be allowed only if their use will prevent humans from being treated to a life threatening or debilitating condition. According to the IOM, based on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.
The IOM also stated that NIH should also limit the use of chimps in behavioral research in studies that provide very few insights into normal and abnormal behavior, mental and emotional heath or cognitive skills. And if the chimps are used in these experiments, NIH should use techniques that do little harm to the animal both physically and mentally.
"The report's recommendations answer the need for a uniform set of criteria for assessing the scientific necessity of chimpanzees in biomedical, comparative genomics, and behavioral research," said committee chair Jeffrey Kahn, senior faculty member of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Baltimore. "The committee concluded that research use of animals that are so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs. We found very few cases that satisfy these criteria."
The IOM report stressed that animals used in either biomedical or behavioral studies must be properly cared for and held in appropriate “physical and social environments or in natural habitats,” the report adds.
According to the IOM, because of advances in research tools and methods, it’s no longer necessary to use chimpanzees as research subjects in many research projects. In a briefing on Thursday, the Institute did recognize two possible uses for chimps: The development of a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies for cancerous tumors that are already part of ongoing investigations, and for the development of a vaccine that would prevent infection by hepatitis C virus.
Roughly 3.2 million Americans are chronically infected with hepatitis C and about 17,000 new infections occur each year just in the United States. The infection can lead to liver disease and cancer and it’s the most common cause of liver failure in the United States. Chimpanzees and humans are the only two species that can be infected with hepatitis C and no other animal model exists to test a vaccine. However, according to the IOM, a chimp’s immune system clears the virus from its body more effectively, and is less likely to develop liver damage. Because the vaccine testing would not be as dangerous to chimps, the IOM committee was evenly split on the necessity of testing various hepatitis C vaccines in chimpanzees before proceeding to human trials.
"NIH has always considered the care of chimps in their research and have been selective in their use," said NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins. "I have considered the report carefully and have decided to accept the IOM committee recommendations, " continued Collins. "NIH is in the process of developing a complete plan for implementation of the IOM’s guiding principles and criteria. I will be assembling a working group within the NIH Council of Councils to provide advice on the implementation of the recommendations, and to consider the size and placement of the active and inactive populations of NIH-owned or supported chimpanzees. We will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place."
In response to the report, the organization known as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wrote in a statement: "The report is the first step toward ending all experimentation on these remarkable animals. PETA welcomes the Institute of Medicine committee's landmark report confirming that in the 21st century, the current use of chimpanzees—complex, intelligent, emotional individuals—in virtually every single area of testing, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, and the majority of hepatitis work, is scientifically and ethically indefensible."
The IOM group would not commit itself to declaring that chimpanzees should no longer be used in the development of treatments or preventive tools against unknown diseases or disorders. The IOM said it was “impossible” to know in advance whether the use of chimps would be effective tools for future medical discoveries.
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