Thursday marked an important moment in the history of animal research. The long-anticipated report of a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IoM) to consider whether chimpanzee research is scientifically necessary released its report, quickly followed by a statement from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, the director accepting the committee’s recommendations.
The report acknowledged that chimpanzees were vital to past progress, but that at present there is limited necessity and justification for them in research. It did not endorse a ban on chimpanzee research, nor the continuation of the moratorium on breeding, stating that these could potentially cause “unacceptable losses to the public’s health”. It also made clear that “animal research remains a critical tool in protecting and advancing the public’s health”. Both animal activists and biomedical researchers were simultaneously pleased and disappointed by different aspects of the report.
Speaking of Research believes there are many positive elements in the IoM report and to the surrounding discussion. Above all, the report encouraged public dialogue, education, and serious civil conversation about the scientific and ethical (as well as practical and political) issues that surround animal research. The IoM report provides a thoughtful, expert review of a range of issues involved in the consideration of the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research.
There were, however, a couple important points to note within the IoM report and its deliberations.
First, the charge of the IoM committee to assess the “scientific necessity” of the work, while specifically avoiding ethical issues, was clearly ill-posed, and – as the committee quickly realized – nearly impossible to carry out.
We acknowledge the committee held serious discussions about the science of chimpanzee research and the availability of alternative methods, but it is notable that these were guided by principles that are ethical in nature. Namely:
- The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
- The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained in either ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.
Moreover, the IoM committee explicitly recognized that “ethics was at the core of any discussion [...] on the continued used of chimpanzees in research”.
It is evident that the tension about the use of chimpanzees in research is not merely about science. In fact, it is not even primarily about science, as arguably chimps can stand as valid scientific models in many areas of research. It isn’t even about the cost of research.
It is largely about ethics.
Consequently, the panel appears to have felt, at points, uncomfortable in their own shoes. On one hand it maintained that considering ethical issues was not part of its charge; on the other, it produced a list of guiding principles that reflect ethical rather than scientific considerations, finally concluding that it did not have the required expertise to evaluate the ethical dimensions of chimpanzee research.
We believe discussions on the science and ethics of animal research are inextricably linked and both should be part of any public discussion on animal research. An honest, open and civil discussion on both the science and ethics of animal research that includes animal advocates, animal welfare organizations, scientists, patients and their families, patient advocacy groups, public health officials and the medical leadership of the country.
We would like emphasize that the guiding principles “adopted” by the panel are in fact very similar to the three Rs and current NIH guidelines that already guide decision-making regarding animal research. By quickly adopting the IoM committee’s recommendations without additional comment, NIH may be sending the unintentional message that such principles are not at play in work with other species. We think this issue needs to be addressed and clarified by the NIH.
The IOM panel clearly demonstrated the power of a comprehensive and critical analysis that accounts for progress in research, changes in technologies, models, and questions. However, proceeding in critical analysis on a species-by-species basis is problematic for a number of reasons. We argue that a more general appraisal of the ethics and science of animal research is warranted.
a) As illustrated by the IOM report and surrounding discussion, the “species-wise” approach ignores the more basic and important questions that are at the heart of the issue (the ethical dimension) and that this deserves a much more thorough and broader public discussion based upon empirical data and facts.
b) There is no reason to think that changes in the technology, questions, and need for certain projects that contributed to a reduction in the requirement for chimpanzees in research might not also apply to other types of animals. One may productively ask, for example, whether some studies currently conducted using mice might turn to zebra fish or drosophila instead?
c) A broad review, beyond a single species, is also requisite to addressing the value of comparative studies, which are an integral part of strong science. Repeating work in more than one species is sometimes essential. Just because a finding is demonstrated in one species doesn’t mean it is a commonality in all. Whereas the US Guiding Principles require that the lowest possible species be used, there are legitimate scientific reasons to repeat some studies in multiple species.
We believe that conducting a broader review of animal research could significantly advance public understanding of the role that it plays in medical and scientific progress. In many ways, such an exercise is long overdue. The report’s conclusions clearly show the value of a rigorous, thoughtful, and public review of even the most controversial type of research. But public interest in animal studies extends far beyond chimpanzee research.
Addendum: There is an interesting discussion of the implications of the IOM report in Nature News this week, which highlights the fact that the majority of biomedical research projects that currently use Chimpanzees are likely to meet the new criteria proposed by the IOM panel http://www.nature.com/news/chimp-research-under-scrutiny-1.9693
Speaking of Research
This is the fifth of a series of posts aimed at encouraging thoughtful and fact-based consideration of the full range of complex issues associated with chimpanzee research and both short- and long-term responsibility for their welfare, care and housing. Previous Speaking of Research posts on chimpanzee research include:
10/13/11: Joseph M. Erwin, PhD Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.