The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced on December 15 a suspension of all new grants for studies using chimpanzees. The agency will not issue any new funding for research involving chimpanzees, and will establish an independent oversight committee to review future research proposals.
The decision was made in response to a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the National Academy of Sciences, that concluded nearly all medical research on chimpanzees is scientifically unjustified. The report did not recommend an outright ban on the use of the great apes in research, but established a set of rigorous criteria for the ethical use of such animals. Research that does not meet the guidelines will be phased out, said NIH Director Francis Collins during a press briefing. He estimated that about half of the 37 current NIH-funded chimp studies would not meet the new standards.
The report presented two sets of criteria, one for biomedical experiments and one for behavioral and genomic experiments. The criteria for both types of research are based upon three general guidelines: The knowledge gained by the research must be necessary to advance public health; the research cannot be performed with humans, other lab animals, or non-living models; and the chimps must be given appropriate places to live.
The IOM committee identified two areas of biomedical research for which chimpanzees may be necessary. One is research on a vaccine for Hepatitis C, although half of the 12-member committee thought the research could proceed without testing on chimps. In the second area, immunology research involving monoclonal antibodies, the committee recognized that new technology would replace the need for chimpanzees, but because the new technology was not yet widespread, studies currently under way should be allowed to continue.
Recent cognitive and behavioral experiments with chimpanzees reveal an intelligence and emotional awareness similar to humans. These great apes, our closest living relatives, experience happiness and grief, exhibit empathy and self-awareness, and pass on cultural traditions to their young. Collins, in a statement, said that chimpanzees deserve "special consideration and respect."
Increasingly, the use of chimps in medical research has come under ethical scrutiny. The IOM report concluded that experiments that inflict physical and psychological harm to the apes are justified only when absolutely necessary, and when no other alternatives exist. The committee and the NIH recognize that due to improvements in biomedical technology, research techniques, and experimental methods, research on chimpanzees is rarely necessary.
Anthropologist and world renowned wildlife supporter Jane Goodall welcomed the committee's conclusions and recommendations. "This is a big step in the right direction and one that we hope will lead to the end of all invasive research using chimpanzees," Goodall said in a statement posted on the Jane Goodall Institute's website.
The U.S. is one of only two countries known to still conduct medical research with chimpanzees; the other is Gabon, in Africa. The European Union essentially banned such research last year.
What do you think? Do you support the NIH's decision to suspend all new grants for studies using chimpanzees or are there still areas where their use is still vital?