BETHESDA, Maryland, July 3, 2013 (ENS) – The National Institutes of Health plans to use fewer chimpanzees in future NIH-funded biomedical research and retire most of the several hundred chimpanzees it currently owns or supports.

NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said, “Americans have benefited greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary. Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use.”

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Chimpanzee in a cage at a U.S. research facility (Photo by J. Feuerstein courtesy Project R&R)

Dr. Collins accepted most of the recommendations made by an independent advisory council for implementing the principles and criteria defined by the Institute of Medicine for the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded research.

In a set of recommendations issued in December 2011, the Institute of Medicine concluded that most current use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is unnecessary and that the use of chimpanzees in research that may still be needed should be guided by a set of principles and criteria.

“After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do,” Dr. Collins said, announcing the new NIH policy on June 26.

The Institute of Medicine report indicates chimpanzees might still be used in experimental research on hepatitis C therapies and vaccines and for research on monoclonal antibodies used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and cancers.

The IOM committee would not close the door on the possibility that chimpanzees may be needed in future research to develop treatments or preventive tools against as yet unknown diseases or disorders.

“Chimpanzees’ genetic closeness to humans and their similar biological and behavioral characteristics not only make chimpanzees a uniquely valuable species for certain types of research but also demand greater justification for conducting research with them,” the IOM committee wrote.

The National Institutes of Health decision to retire most of its chimpanzees follows an indication that the United States will soon classify captive chimps as endangered.

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A research chimpanzee in a U.S. lab facility (Photo courtesy Project R&R)

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule that lists captive chimpanzees as endangered in addition to wild chimpanzees. Published in the Federal Register on June 12 and now open for public comment, the rule comes after the Service determined that the Endangered Species Act does not allow for captive-held animals to be assigned a separate legal status from their wild counterparts.

The Service received a legal petition in 2010 from a coalition of organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute, to list all chimpanzees as endangered, prompting a formal review of the status of chimpanzees under the Endangered Species Act.

“Chimpanzees are one of the world’s most iconic species because of their connections and similarity to humans,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “We all know the important work that British primatologist Jane Goodall has done to understand chimpanzees in the wild and raise worldwide awareness about their plight. Our hope is that this proposal will ignite renewed public interest in the status of chimpanzees in the wild.”

“I was so pleased to hear about the proposed rule. This is exceptional news for all chimpanzees and for all the petitioners, especially the Humane Society of the United States, who have worked so hard on this issue,” said Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace. “This decision gives me hope that we truly have begun to understand that our attitudes toward treatment of our closest living relatives must change.”

At the turn of the 20th century, two million chimpanzees lived in the forests of 25 African nations. Today, only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and possibly Cameroon have significant populations of wild chimpanzees, and their numbers have dwindled to between 150,000 and 300,000, according to the Jane Goodall Institute.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says chimpanzees are found in a wide but discontinuous distribution in 22 countries of Equatorial Africa. Across the range of the species, high deforestation rates are destroying and fragmenting forests. Widespread poaching, capture for the pet trade, and outbreaks of disease are impeding chimpanzees’ ability to sustain viable populations in the wild.

Dr. Collins said, “The National Institutes of Health will work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it finalizes its proposed rule over the coming months. NIH policies for research projects using chimpanzees will be adapted to comply with the final conservation guidelines for captive chimpanzees.”

NIH plans to retain but not breed up to 50 chimpanzees for future biomedical research. The chimps that will remain available for research will be selected based on research projects that meet the Institute of Medicine’s principles and criteria for NIH funding.

The new NIH decision will affect roughly 300 federally owned chimpanzees currently housed in two NIH-supported research centers.

In a separate decision last September Dr. Collins decided to cease funding the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, and retire that center’s 110 chimps.

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Chimpanzees at the Michale E. Keeling Center (Photo courtesy Michale E. Keeling Center)

By August, 10 of the New Iberia animals will be relocated to Chimp Haven, a federally funded sanctuary in Keithsville, Louisiana. The other 100 will move to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, which already houses 141 chimpanzees.

The only remaining center for NIH-funded invasive chimp research is the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas, which has 167 animals.

The chimps designated for retirement could eventually join more than 150 chimpanzees already in the Federal Sanctuary System, if resources and space are available within the system.

The Federal Sanctuary System was established in 2002 by Congress and is operated by Chimp Haven, overseen by the National Institutes of Health.

Some technical changes in NIH’s legal authority are needed to retire additional chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System. Dr. Collins says NIH will work with Congress to change a provision that limits the amount of financial resources NIH may put toward retiring chimpanzees and caring for them in the Federal Sanctuary System.

Accepting the advisory council recommendations, NIH plans to provide appropriate facilities for the chimps that will be used in future reseach. These facilities will be similar to the chimps’ living arrangements as they would occur in their natural environment with space requirements yet to be determined.

Due to the lack of scientific consensus, the NIH did not accept the advisory council recommendation that the primary living space of research chimpanzees be at least 1,000 square feet per chimpanzee.

The NIH will engage chimpanzee behavior and facilities experts to determine the appropriate minimum space requirement for research chimpanzees.

The agency will establish a review panel to consider research projects proposing the use of chimpanzees. Research projects using NIH-owned or NIH-supported chimpanzees that do not meet the Institute of Medicine principles and criteria in a way that preserves the research and minimizes the impact on the animals will be wound down and discontinued.

“Today’s decision by NIH culminates more than two years of intensive deliberations among NIH leadership, independent chimpanzee experts, researchers, bioethicists, and members of the public,” said James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We are grateful to all who have contributed their insight and expertise during the advisory process.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

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