American monkey business

Research on chimpanzees — closest cousins to humans — no longer is needed to support most medical advances and should continue with U.S. federal support only under the most stringent conditions, an expert advisory panel said recently.

Research on chimpanzees — closest cousins to humans — no longer is needed to support most medical advances and should continue with U.S. federal support only under the most stringent conditions, an expert advisory panel said recently.

The report from the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science affects the future of some 900 chimpanzees currently available for research funded by the National Institutes of Health.

They’re housed in half a dozen research centers around the country.

Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, said in a statement that he would accept the recommendations.

He said he would set up a working group to implement the standards and consider the “size and placement” of chimp colonies owned or supported by the agency. Meanwhile, NIH will not award new grants for chimp research.

The tighter standards are likely to influence future research use of chimps by other government agencies and research institutions, and may affect proposed congressional legislation calling for bans on research using great apes.

While the committee did not call for an outright ban on experimental use of chimps, its report emphasized a decreasing need as scientists have refined lab research involving genetics, cell culture and less-advanced animals. So, future experiments should be allowed only if there is no chimp alternative, if not doing the research would slow advancements against life-threatening or debilitating illness in people and if the animals are kept in settings as close to nature as possible.

Chimpanzees share at least 97 per cent of their genes with humans and mimic humans in many ways.

“The committee concluded that research use of animals . . . so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs,’’ said Jeffrey Kahn, the panel’s chairman and a senior faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore. “We found few cases that satisfy that criteria.”

Dr. Warner Greene, a panel member and virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said “many studies that previously were funded likely would not be under these new criteria.’’ He also pointed out that some new or emerging disease might require recalling chimps to a lab.

The report stressed that behavioural or cognitive studies should only be done on chimps when there is no alternative and that the animals should face the least stress possible.

It urged limiting use of anesthesia or brain imaging, perhaps only during regular veterinary care.

Animal rights activists have long criticized experiments on chimps and other primates in decades past — involving restraints, sensory deprivation or open-skull brain tests — as excessive and abusive.