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National Institutes of Health to wind down use of research chimps

Gerald Herbert / AP file

Two chimps walk together at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., on Feb. 19, 2013. The government is about to retire most of the chimpanzees who've spent their lives in U.S. research labs.

In a major victory for animal-rights advocates, the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday it will retire most of its chimpanzees and usher in “a compassionate era” in treatment of man’s closest relative.

The NIH will retain, but not breed, up to 50 of the approximately 360 government-owned chimpanzees used for NIH-funded biomedical research. These chimpanzees will be kept in ethologically appropriate environments. All existing research projects that do not meet Institute of Medicine recommendation will wind down, and retired chimpanzees will be moved to sanctuaries over the next few months and years, as space allows.

"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," said Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director.

"Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. 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."

Collins says that the challenge “for this dream to come true,” will be getting congress to lift the $30 million cap in the Chimp Act on payments to sanctuaries.

In 2010, the NIH commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine to closely look at the scientific need for chimpanzees in NIH research. In December 2011, the IOM announced that the current use of chimpanzees is generally unnecessary and should be guided by a set of specific principles and procedures to evaluate whether the use of chimpanzees in disease research is the best and only option. An independent council of councils was asked to make recommendations on how to implement the IOM findings while taking into consideration public opinion.

“This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories — some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States in a statement.

“It is crucial now to ensure that the release of hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary becomes a reality, and we look forward to working with NIH and the sanctuary community to make that happen.”

While virtually all of the government-owned chimpanzees will be sent to sanctuaries, Wednesday’s decision does not eliminate chimpanzee research. If it can be proved that chimpanzee research is beneficial to helping biomedical research, such as in the case of researching Hepatitis C and some cancers, then research can continue as long as the IOM principles are met.

Alice Ra’anan, director of government relations and science police for the American Physiological Society in Bethesda, said she is pleased that the NIH will not retire all chimpanzee research, calling the decision “a prudent step to retain research capacity.”

However, Ra’anan is concerned that the NIH did not think to provide a provision to add research chimpanzees if need in the future: “this is a concern, but the fact of the matter is that they are retaining a research capacity.”

Chimpanzees in research facilities that are supported, but not owned, by the NIH will not have to comply with this decision.

Dr. John Pippin, director of medical affairs for the nonprofit Physicians Committee, who was invited to testify in front of the IOM panel, and found that chimpanzees are not essential in any area of disease research, thinks the decision does not go far enough. He called on private institutions to follow suit.

The NIH will establish a review panel that will re-consider the use of the 50 remaining research chimpanzees in five years.

"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, NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives. "We are grateful to all who have contributed their insight and expertise during the advisory process."