Friday, December 16, 2011

Chimp Research Coming to an End

While there have been a few negative responses to the Institute of Medicine’s report assessing the necessity of chimpanzee use in biomedical and behavioral research, released yesterday, I find the report surprisingly good. It is certainly more than I realistically expected coming from a scientific committee commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (the largest source of funding for animal experimentation in the world).

The IoM committee had a very narrow charge – to explore the scientific necessity of current and future research using chimpanzees. Many of us commented that the ethical issues associated with keeping highly sensitive, intelligent, social animals such as chimpanzees in captivity to be used in often painful, sometimes lethal research, could not be separated from the questions of scientific necessity. In large part, the committee agreed “the committee feels strongly that any assessment of the necessity for using chimpanzees as an animal model in research raises ethical issues, and any analysis of necessity must take these ethical issues into account.” But given their limited charge, they were not able to fully explore the ethical issues. (as they note on p. 15 “the committee was neither tasked nor appropriately composed to evaluate and reach consensus” on the ethical issues.) Nonetheless, their conclusions raised the bar for justifying research with chimpanzees and, importantly, the committee found that most of the research that is currently being done with chimpanzees is not scientifically necessary and would not pass their much more rigorous new criteria. This is a major finding for chimpanzees in laboratories. It marks the beginning of the end of research with chimpanzees. Using chimpanzees in research is expensive and has been lucrative for those doing it. If the funding dries up, the remaining laboratories that use chimpanzees will stop -- certainly not for ethical reasons, not necessarily for scientific reasons, but for purely financial reasons. The conclusions reached by the committee and the NIH announcement that they will not fund new research with chimpanzees means that the 70 year era of using our closest living relatives in laboratory experiments is coming to a close.

As happy as this prospect makes me, I realize that those of us interested in promoting and protecting the well-being of captive chimpanzees still have a lot of work to do.

Four immediate issues strike me as important to explore (this isn’t in order of importance):

“Ethologically appropriate” housing – if, after going through a serious oversight committee and being judged by the stringent new criteria, a particular biomedical research protocol using chimpanzees is approved, “the animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.” Most of the chimpanzees at research facilities today are not provided with ethologically appropriate housing. Chimpanzee experts Jill Pruetz and William McGrew suggested ten years ago (in “What does a chimpanzee need? Using natural behavior to guide the care of captive populations” in Linda Brent’s The Care and Management of Captive Chimpanzees (2001)) that, at a minimum, chimpanzees need:

1) Nesting: sites for elevated nesting and nesting material

2) Space for subgrouping & escape

3) Resources for foraging and processing rather than eating.

4) Three dimensional structures for travel and movement

5) Equitorial photo periods (12 hr)

6) Mixed age and sex groups

7) Rivals and allies for dominance

8) Community level affiliation

9) Extended mother offpring associations

10) Mental Stimulation (characteristic of wild chimps)

While there are obviously challenges to providing for all ten needs, this is what would minimally constitute ethologically appropriate housing. The committee suggests that AALAC accreditation satisfies this standard for housing. This misperception needs to be addressed and quickly.

"Minimally Invasive" Behavioral Research -- The report allows behavioral research with chimpanzees as long as “experiments are performed on acquiescent animals, using techniques that are minimally invasive, and in a manner that minimizes pain and distress.” However, the report provides an example of what the committee thinks is “minimally invasive” that seems dubious. The report seems to find it acceptable to separate individuals from their groups and to administer anesthesia for behavioral research purposes (as opposed to restricting separation or anesthetization to occasions in which it is necessary to promote the interests of a particular individual or her social group):

“In performing some comparative genomics or behavioral research, it also may be necessary to temporarily isolate an animal from its social group to perform behavioral tasks or for anesthesia. It is anticipated that anesthesia may be necessary for noninvasive imaging studies, the collection of biological samples (including blood, skin, adipose, or muscle) that do not involve surgical invasion of body cavities, the implantation of radio transmitters to measure autonomic nervous system function or physical activity, and the use of biosensors for recording central nervous system responses in freely moving animals” (page 34 of the report).

This needs to be challenged.

Oversight committee

In 1989, recognizing that chimpanzee research required greater oversight, the NIH created an Interagency Animal Model Committee (IAMC) to “review all federally-supported research protocols involving the use of chimpanzees.” The committee consisted solely of government employees. The IoM committee has recommended the establishment of a new oversight committee, that includes members of the public, to apply the new criteria proposed in their report.

This may sound like a small thing, but it is actually extremely important as it will create more accountability and transparency. The period of chimpanzee use from the time the IAMC was established is a dark one in which far too many chimpanzees suffered and died in unspeakably bad conditions (e.g. during that period the Coulston Foundation had over 600 chimpanzees). Trustworthy oversight must include public representatives and NIH needs to be pressured to establish such a committee.

The biggest, most complicated question, one brought up by April Truitt at the briefing when the report was released, one that goes beyond the scope of the IoM committee's charge and the report, is the question “Where are these chimpanzees going to live and who will pay for their retirement.” The North American Primate Sancutary Alliance members, including Chimp Haven, are working on these issues and need support.