Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research

The future of behavioral and biomedical research with chimpanzees is the focus of current discussion by a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the request of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  The second public meeting of the IOM convened Wednesday and Thursday. The meeting includes both experts on a broad range of topics that are investigated with chimpanzee studies, as well as members of the public, conservation, animal welfare and animal rights groups. The agenda and speaker list can be viewed here.

The charge of the committee is described as follows:

Specifically, the committee will review the current use of chimpanzees for biomedical and behavioral research and:

  • Explore contemporary and anticipated biomedical research questions to determine if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries and to determine the safety and efficacy of new prevention or treatment strategies. If biomedical research questions are identified:
  • Describe the unique biological/immunological characteristics of the chimpanzee that make it the necessary animal model for use in the types of research.
  • Provide recommendations for any new or revised scientific parameters to guide how and when to use these animals for research.
  • Explore contemporary and anticipated behavioral research questions to determine if chimpanzees are necessary for progress in understanding social, neurological and behavioral factors that influence the development, prevention, or treatment of disease.”

The IOM Committee and public meetings represent the kind of serious, thorough, and fact-based discussion that is essential to inform public decisions about animal research.

In striking contrast to this reasoned approach, however, was the emotional New York Times opinion piece from Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) that appeared on the opening day of the IOM’s latest meeting. Bartlett is a co-sponsor of legislation that would end much of the chimpanzee research in the United States, including studies like the recent tests of an Ebola virus vaccine intended to protect wild chimpanzees, and that proposes to move all chimpanzees to federally-subsidized sanctuaries.

Bartlett’s op-ed opens with an anecdote about his experience with primate research in the 1960’s and his more recent conclusion that such research is no longer necessary because:

“… many new techniques are cheaper, faster and more effective, including computer modeling and the testing of very small doses on human volunteers. In vitro methods now grow human cells and tissues for human biomedical studies, bypassing the need for whole animals.”

Bartlett makes this assertion as though it were undisputed, whereas the reality is that the overwhelming majority of biomedical scientists, leading scientific organizations, and medical charities recognize that animal studies are crucial to current and future advances in medicine. In vitro and other research methods are nowhere near capable of replacing the use of animals in many areas of research, indeed our science news blog contains many examples of how animal research is helping to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and medicine in emerging fields including tissue engineering, gene therapy, stem cell medicine, nanotech smart drugs and personalized medicine. In fact, the purpose of the IOM committee and hearings is to review evidence from a large number of experts with knowledge of the current state of knowledge and needs of the field. Bartlett does not have this expertise and it is unclear why he would make such an ill-informed statement, particularly in a venue like the NYT and particularly in light of the IOM committee meetings.

Furthermore, it is unclear that Bartlett is well-informed about current conditions for chimpanzees in research facilities in the US, or fully aware of the complex issues and challenges inherent in managing chimpanzee populations in either research setting, or the sanctuary settings that he advocates. Although he may have another source of knowledge, those that he references are his own research experience with primates in the NASA space program– which appears to have been prior to the 1966 passage of the Animal Welfare Act, videos, and the recently released movie, Project Nim, about research that took place decades ago.

As evidence of poor treatment of apes, the congressman makes the point that chimpanzees are sometimes darted to deliver anesthesia and “If you’ve seen video of a knockdown, you know it is clearly frightening and stressful.”  In fact, few people—including those working in primate laboratory research settings– would disagree with that statement, just as few would argue that continued efforts to improve management of captive chimpanzee populations are unnecessary. That is why major research facilities that house chimpanzees also have extensive behavioral management, training, and enrichment programs and research personnel who are committed to improving the animals’ welfare.  And included in the accomplishments of behavioral management and research personnel is progress in training animals for cooperative injections (e.g., voluntarily extending an arm to a trainer) in order to reduce stress.

Many people might imagine that the living conditions for chimpanzees in research facilities and sanctuaries are dramatically different. In reality both face similar challenges. For example, Bartlettimplies that things like “knock-downs” only occur at research facilities. In actuality, sanctuaries also require animals to be anesthetized for physical exams and health procedures, also have chimpanzees that are not trained for cooperative injection, and also employ darting. And while the housing conditions for chimpanzees in laboratories vary across facilities, Bartlett’s statement that “… even the mere confinement in laboratory cages deprives chimpanzees of basic physical, social and emotional sustenance” fails to acknowledge the more complex reality. Housing environments for laboratory chimpanzees can also be quite similar to those found in sanctuaries, including large spaces, social groups, complex climbing structures, and varied environmental enrichment.

The future of behavioral and biomedical research with chimpanzees merits serious and sustained discussion that is based in fact, advances in research technologies – ranging from new in vitro techniques, to genetically modified mice, through to studies in humans – mean that it is now time to consider what chimpanzee research is still necessary and ethically justifiable. One of the best avenues for understanding the complex issues that are involved in choices about both continued research and about how to best house and care for chimpanzees lies in listening not only to those who oppose research, but also in hearing from those currently engaged in research, husbandry, and animal welfare efforts within both sanctuary and research facilities.

The content of Representative Bartlett’s op-ed suggests that he may have allowed videos, movies, decades-old experience, and one very biased set of voices to inform his understanding of the current state of great ape research in the US.  If this is the case, we hope that Representative Bartlett listens to the IOM panel discussions and learns more about current conditions, ongoing research, and the full range of challenges involved in decisions about animal research.


Allyson J. Bennett

One response to “Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research

  1. William C. Satterfield

    Allyson’s review of the contentious chimpanzee debate is the most cogent review that has been voiced to date – and I have read >90% of the postings of all sides of this issue.
    I agree that those of us that are close to the issue are unable to address all of the outdated misconceptions that are purposely provided to misinform the general public. I watched a UTube of Representative Bartlett speaking about his background that is
    decades out of date.
    All of the advancements in husbandry, housing, enrichment , training and clinical care for captive chimpanzees have come principally from the research facilities in the last 2 decades.
    The GAP Act wants the public to believe that it will save money. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of maintaining federally owned animals will continue to be federally supported and will require millions for construction of new facilities to hold the animals. And that doesn’t begin to address what the total costs will be.
    My biggest concern is the management for extinction of the current captive population – and the bleak outlook for the wild populations.