The federal government announced Thursday it will impose strict new guidelines limiting the use of chimpanzees in medical research it funds, and will phase out current studies that don't comply.
The changes will have a major impact on the Texas Biomedical Research Institute — one of only four large, active chimpanzee research programs in the United States. A second, the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, run by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is in Bastrop, about 90 miles northeast of San Antonio.
The new guidelines were recommended by the Institute of Medicine in a new report, which described most current research involving chimpanzees as unnecessary.
“Effective immediately, NIH will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
If current studies comply with the guidelines, they will be allowed to continue. The rest — perhaps as many as half — would be phased out gradually, he added.
Collins, describing chimps as “our closest relatives in the animal kingdom,” said they've played a big role in advancing human health in the past. The NIH owns about two-thirds of the nearly 1,000 research chimps in the United States and pays for the upkeep on most of the rest.
Work on the IOM report began with an attempt last year by the NIH to move 186 “inactive” chimpanzees it owns from an Alamogordo, N.M., facility back into active research in San Antonio.
After a firestorm of criticism from advocates, celebrities and politicians, NIH halted the move and asked the IOM for guidance, as did some members of Congress.
Collins said the review also would determine the fate of those animals.
Texas Biomed houses about 150 chimps, including some that already had been moved from Alamogordo. Currently, it has four studies involving chimps under way or about to begin, said Dr. John VandeBerg, scientific director of the facility.
“By endorsing the continuation of vital research that requires chimpanzees, Dr. Collins encourages us to continue creative efforts to design critical studies aimed at developing vaccines for hepatitis C and other diseases that affect millions of people worldwide,” VandeBerg said in a statement. “Hepatitis B research also remains a concern because this disease affects some 380 million people worldwide, despite the major reduction in new infections as a consequence of the vaccine that was developed from intensive research with chimpanzees.”
Collins said a working group of experts would review existing chimp studies paid for by NIH and would look at how many research chimps might be needed in the future.
That could lead to the retirement of many to animal sanctuaries, although the government's cost to support the animals is the same in both settings — more than $600,000 over the lifetime of each animal, the report estimates.
Animal advocates praised the decision.
“When one takes into account the scientific findings of the IOM, along with the obvious financial and moral costs of using chimps in invasive experiments, then there's only one reasonable conclusion: It's time to end the use of chimps in harmful, invasive research,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
The guidelines say any study involving chimps should be governed by three principles — that the work is necessary to advance public health; that no other research alternatives exist and the studies can't be ethically performed on people; and that the animals must be kept in settings and social groups similar to their natural habitats.
In a review of current chimp studies, the committee found only two narrow areas where their use might be justified — the hunt to find a vaccine to protect against hepatitis C infection, and to allow ongoing research into treatments called monoclonal antibodies to finish.
Made from human antibodies, they're designed to attach and deliver medicine to highly specific targets in the body.
The decision falls short of an outright ban, and the committee emphasized it couldn't predict if some new disease might surface in the future that might require the need for chimps.
However, a bill being considered in Congress would ban chimps in research completely. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which lists captive chimps as threatened with extinction, is considering elevating that designation to endangered, which also would halt chimpanzee research.
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