Since the amount of shared genes between humans and non-human primates such as chimps is significant, the animals were once considered valuable test subjects in cutting-edge clinical studies. Essentially, because of this gene overlap, a trial medicine can be tested on a chimp and its subsequent effects used as a reliable signifier of that drug's effect on humans.
Since 2011, the United States and Gabon have been the only two countries in the world that use chimpanzees in medical research. There was a time when other countries did so as well. High-tech drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies, used to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and different kinds of cancers, were among the ones tested on chimps. The research involved infecting the primates with pathogens and then treating with these medicines. The animals also had blood drawn, tissue samples extracted and organ biopsies conducted. Chimpanzees were also considered critical in creating vaccines against hepatitis A and B, researching HIV, and helping make progress in other medical studies.
European countries stopped using the chimps first. In the United States, the issue came to a head in 2010, when the National Institute of Health (NIH), which has a chimpanzee research program, tried to move 200 older chimps from a facility in New Mexico to an active lab in Texas. People were outraged. Politicians, activists, former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, and chimp champion Jane Goodall came together to protest the move. The NIH relented and only 14 animals made the trip.
It was at this juncture that the Institute of Medicine was asked to deliberate the issue. In August 2011, a committee from the institution, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, was formed to debate the scientific value and scientific value alone of using chimps for research, but ethics were brought in anyway. The committee asked Jane Goodall to offer her opinion based on her deep experience. "From their point of view, it's like torture," she said of chimpanzees kept captive for developing new medicines. "They are in prison and have done nothing wrong."
The committee concluded that most chimp research is unnecessary. Scientists can do testing with computer simulations and in smaller animals such as fish and mice. After the findings, the NIH decided that ninety percent of the chimpanzees in their care would be sent to Chimp Haven sanctuary. In November 2013, President Obama signed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, which gave the NIH approval to spend money moving the chimpanzees to the sanctuary.
In addition to moral outrage, the high expense of keeping chimpanzees has been a practical deterrent, and many drug companies have stopped the practice of using them for research. In fact, in early 2014, drug company Merck joined the two dozen other pharmaceutical companies who have committed to not using chimpanzees. It is the largest company to date to do so.
However, limiting chimpanzee research does not mean that all non-human primate (NHP) research is a thing of the past. Marmosets are used in immune system research because they are susceptible to many viruses and, specifically, infectious hepatitis. Squirrel monkeys are used in malaria research, as well as vaccine and toxicology studies. Again, based on their specific biological characteristics, they are often the subject of atherosclerotic disease research, the hardening and narrowing of arteries. Baboons are used as well, both because they have about a 90% genetic similarity with humans and because of their large size (which makes them easily able to provide tissue and fluid samples). Heart and lung diseases are studied on these large primates. And the list goes on.
In September 2010 the EU took measures to not stop primate research, but to "stabilize the environment" for it. From a recent article in Nature, the international weekly journal of science: "…After more than a decade of anguished public debate, the EU adopted a directive governing the use of animals for research purposes. With its careful balance of animal-welfare and research needs, the directive seemed destined to ease tensions. Among other things, it established minimum welfare requirements for all animals, laid out definitions of pain intensity, and banned most research on great apes. It also included a hard-won clause — added at the last minute after intense lobbying by the biomedical community — explicitly permitting basic research on non-human primates, provided the work could not be carried out in any other species." This directive was supposed to be put into place by January 2013, but it has seen delays due to pressure by animal activist groups. The debate about using NHP in research continues.
As for chimpanzees, some researchers don't want to stop using them. Robert Purcell, a virus researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the animals are vital for developing drugs and vaccines against hepatitis C. This is because chimps are the only animals, besides humans, that are susceptible to the disease. "It's also important to keep chimps available for diseases we haven't seen yet, future 'Hot Zone' agents we can only speculate about," Purcell said. The bottom line is that no other animal comes closest to the likeness of humans. Chimps are invaluable to research for that reason. But this is also what makes those studies hard to justify.
This article was originally published in March 2014, and has been updated for the
August 2015 paperback release.
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