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Commentary on Institute of Medicine's Dec. 15 Chimpanzees

Commentary on Institute of Medicine's Dec. 15 Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research Report

December 30, 2011

It is two weeks since the landmark Dec. 15 Institute of Medicine report Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity was released. Generally favorable and sometimes gushing reviews have come from scientific, advocacy, and ethics communities, and now we face the critical next step: implementation of the report's intended outcomes. In the following commentary, PCRM’s director of academic affairs John J. Pippin, M.D., describes the challenges ahead.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., gave the agency's response, calling the report “very compelling and scientifically rigorous.” Dr. Collins stated that NIH accepts and will carry out the committee's recommendations. Funding of new chimpanzee research proposals was suspended, and a working group from the NIH Council of Councils will review the 37 current NIH chimpanzee protocols for compliance with the IOM committee's recommendations. For the time being, the 176 remaining Alamogordo chimpanzees appear to be safe from a planned transfer to Texas Biomedical Research Institute for invasive experimentation.

However, Dr. Collins also wedged his foot in the door the IOM committee left ajar, and this likely is where future battles will be fought. Back to this later.

The IOM committee concluded that there are no current areas of medical research for which chimpanzee use is demonstrablynecessary. The committee expanded its comments by addressing two specific areas of current research: the development and testing of monoclonal antibodies and hepatitis C preventive vaccine candidates. All other research areas, including the contentious areas of development and testing for hepatitis C drugs and therapeutic vaccines, were dismissed.

Despite stating that currently active monoclonal antibody studies using chimpanzees should be allowed to finish, the committee concluded that no future chimpanzee studies addressing monoclonal antibody development and testing should be approved. While the committee was divided on the question of chimpanzee use for the development, screening, and testing of hepatitis C preventive vaccines, those members of the committee members who concluded that chimpanzees are not necessary for this purpose clearly have the upper hand scientifically.

The committee held that future research questions cannot be confidently anticipated and made no specific recommendation regarding whether (or how) some chimpanzees might be made available for possible future experiments. However, there is no ethical or scientific basis for suggesting that chimpanzees should be held in captivity against this uncertain future. Up until now, the use of chimpanzees has turned out to be a poor scientific and ethical choice, and this should be a decision avoided rather than regretted.

The committee expressed the view that genomic and behavioral research in some instances may justify the captivity and use of chimpanzees. However, scientific and ethical principles would argue the reverse and would not support the use of chimpanzees for any such experimentation that requires anesthesia or invasive procedures. The committee's suggestion that such procedures should be performed only on "acquiescent" chimpanzees introduces a notion of implied informed consent that is absurd in this context. It is nonetheless important to note that observational and behavioral research can be conducted in natural habitats or sanctuaries and does not require that chimpanzees remain in laboratory environments.

Perhaps the weakest element of the IOM committee's report is the recommendation that NIH form "an independent oversight committee" to apply the very restrictive eligibility criteria developed by the IOM to all future chimpanzee research proposals. This likely-to-be-stacked committee, plus NIH's subjective interpretation of those eligibility criteria, leave the unclosed door mentioned earlier. Having taken away nearly all chimpanzee experiments with one hand—while pointing the way toward a complete end to chimpanzee research in the not-distant future—the committee handed back to NIH the manipulative tool that may permit the agency to parse the language and subvert the recommendations and intent of this report.

It is regrettable that the committee was not permitted to incorporate ethical concerns that would have allowed its report to conclude definitively that no captive research involving chimpanzees is acceptable. The poverty and lost opportunity of this exclusion were exposed in a response from Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics that included this statement: "Given that a chimpanzee is as close to a human being as this report correctly indicates a chimpanzee is, it is hard to understand why the same level of protections should not be provided to chimpanzees as are provided to humans. It is disappointing that the report never addresses this central issue." And one might go further and ask what ethical principles provide a serious basis for any sort of experimentation on sentient beings.

In that solid ethical context, especially when added to the compelling scientific evidence against chimpanzee experimentation, no eligibility criteria and no oversight committee are necessary or even relevant. But even flawed as they might be, appropriate application of the intentionally restrictive criteria recommended by the IOM committee should truncate chimpanzee experimentation and lead to its end by attrition. The hazard, of course, is that NIH is not bound by the IOM report and may not apply the stringent criteria as intended by the IOM committee.

There is an answer for all this remaining uncertainty. The federalGreat Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 (H.R. 1513 and S. 810) would phase out all invasive chimpanzee experimentation, prohibit chimpanzee breeding for research purposes, and retire all of the more than 600 federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries. A similar result would be achieved by ending the split-listing of chimpanzees by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (currently under review by FWS), whereby captive chimpanzees do not receive the protections afforded wild chimpanzees as an endangered species under the Environmental Protection Act. If the FWS review is favorable, captive chimpanzees would be protected from experimentation.

This watershed IOM report deserves to be treated with cautious optimism. At the same time, it is essential that we see its intended outcomes through to implementation.