US Research Chimps Retire

The US National Institute for Health (NIH), the largest funder of medical research in the US, is slashing medical research on chimpanzees, hoping to transfer most of the chimps to sanctuaries.
Great news for chimps, but it might slow down the development of the Hepatitis C vaccine.

This decision follows the recommendation from the Institute of Medicine in December 2011, which declared that the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research was ‘unnecessary’ and a ‘specific set of guidelines’ were needed. 

The NIH currently uses 360 of 1000 research chimps in the US, and has created an advisory committee to monitor the use of chimps for scientific purposes.

Chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, a national chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana, grooming and playing with Imageone another.
Credit: Chimp Haven Flick

The large majority of chimps are set for retirement in sanctuaries, such as Chimp Haven, a US government controlled facility. However a colony of 50 chimps will be retained for “future biomedical research”, situated in settings similar to their natural environment in order to promote their innate behaviour; large groups, large open area and lots of activities.

This decision was long anticipated and has followed a chain of efforts to protect chimpanzees both in the wild, and captivity. However, some researchers aren’t happy about the decision.

Just last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Services stated that all chimpanzees, even those currently in captivity, would be listed as endangered, placing a further hurdle in the way of scientists demanding to use this animal for experiments.  This would ensure that medical researchers apply for a permit for all experiments, unless they were purely observational or could take place during a normal veterinary visit.

Professor Kevin Kregel, Department of Health and Human Physiology, University of Iowa, USA.

Kevin Kregel, professor and chair of the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa has stated that the NIH decision is “somewhat controversial”, as chimps are the key in understanding many prevalent human diseases such as Hepatitis C.

Chimps are the only non-human animal that the virus infects, so could the vaccine development slow down, putting human lives at risk?

Many scientists believe that there are plenty of ways to ensure that drugs are safely tested without using chimps during experiments, such as mice or human cell culture to safely test drugs.

However, the genetic profile of a mouse is more significantly different to a humans profile than chimps, and so testing drugs on mice may not be a viable alternative.

Adding another obstacle to the scenario, Chimp Haven, the US sanctuary where the vast majority of the chimps would be relocated, can’t currently house all the chimps. The executive director said that “It would take between three and five years before Chimp Haven would be ready to take in more animals”, but the more pressing issue is funding.

In 2000, the US congress passed the ‘Chimp Act’, assigning $30m for the care of retired research chimps and the construction of Chimp Haven. However, today, there is less than $1m left, and the congress is yet to renew or extend the funding which covers 75% of the sanctuary’s costs.

So until the issue of housing the relocated chimps is resolved, the chimps are staying where they are, and they might be safe from Scientists.

The NIH is currently working with Congress to begin moving funds from chimpanzee research towards funding sanctuaries, but will the reduction of chimp-based research cause a rise in the Hepatitis C virus?