NIH to quit funding new chimp studies– but broke past pledges

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 2012

By Merritt Clifton, Animal People


WASHINGTON D.C.–Deferring without delay to recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council,  issued just hours before,  the National Institutes of Health on December 15,  2011 suspended making new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees.  The NIH also agreed,  for the first time,  to apply uniform scientific and ethical criteria to evaluating chimp studies.

Reported the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council,  “Recent advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.”

The joint IOM/NRC report,  titled Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity,  stipulated that it “does not endorse an outright ban on chimpanzee research.”  But the report did investigate chimp use in the development of monoclonal antibodies and hepatitis C therapies and vaccines,  and in cognition studies,   to determine “when,  if ever,  current and future research use of chimpanzees is necessary to treat,  prevent or control public health challenges.”

The report authors concluded that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past,  most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary,”  with the cautionary note that “It is impossible to predict whether research on emerging or new diseases may necessitate [using] chimpanzees in the future.”

Explained the report,  “Over the past decade,  the NIH has financed the largest amount of federal research involving chimpanzees.  A 2010 announcement that the NIH intended to consolidate chimpanzee colonies,  saving an estimated $2 million annually,  generated significant feedback from the public,  state officials,  and members of Congress,”  leading to a January 2011 Congressional request for the IOM/NRC review.
The proposed consolidation would have moved 184 chimps from semi-retirement at the inactive Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base near Albuquerque,  to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio,  Texas.  In San Antonio the chimps were to be integrated into a colony now including 172 other chimps–25 of them previously transferred from Alamogordo.

Boosting chimp studies

For the time being the relocation remains on hold,  but Animal Protection of New Mexico program officer Laura Bonar and Humane Society of the U.S. animal research director Kathleen Conlee alleged in November 2011 that the National Center for Research Resources had on September 5,  2011 approved a grant of $471,185 for 2012 and had recommended funding of $18.6 million through 2016 for studies to be done on the chimps by the Texas Biomedical Research Institute at the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

Summarized Brandon Kelm of, “The program would involve experiments with HIV, hepatitis viruses,  papilloma viruses, and ‘uncharacterized viruses.’  Chimps would be subjected to organ biopsies,  cerebrospinal fluid collection,  and internal probes.  Texas Biomedical also asked for promotional funds.  The program’s long-term goal,”  according to documents obtained by Animal Protection of New Mexico and HSUS under the Freedom of Information Act,  “would be to ‘create a paradigm shift in the way investigators think about biomedical research with chimpanzees’ and ‘attract investigators who haven’t previously used chimpanzees in research.'”

The NCRR told Kelm that the September 2011 grant “expresses NIH’s intention to provide continued financial support for the project, ” but does not include “guarantees by NIH that the project will be funded or will be funded at those levels and create no legal obligation to provide funding” for anything beyond the support of the 25 chimps who have already been transferred from Alamogordo to San Antonio.

Whether the Texas Biomedical Research Institute project would continue would be contingent on the IOM/NRC committee findings, the NIH indicated.  The IOM/NRC committee would appear to have scrapped the project,  but what will beome of the Alamogordo chimps remains unclear.

“The committee’s conclusions were heavily influenced by advances in non-chimpanzee models, such as genetically modified mice,  clinical trials involving human volunteers,  studies that can be done in an artificial environment outside of the living body,  and technologies that leverage computer software or computer simulations,”  said an executive summary of the joint IOM/NRC report.

Noting that “Each NIH-supported center where chimpanzee research is performed has its own procedures to evaluate requests to use chimpanzees in studies,”  the report authors adopted overview requirements including that “The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance public 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;  and the animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.”

“What we did,”  said Johns Hopkins University professor of bioethics and public policy Jeffrey Kahn,  who headed the IOM/NRC committee,  “was establish a set of rigorous criteria that set the bar quite high for use of chimpanzees in biomedical or behavioral research. One of the important themes in the report,”  Kahn said,  “is that there is a trajectory toward decreasing necessity for the use of chimps in biomedical and behavioral research.”

Because the close chimp relationship to humans “demands special consideration and respect,” said NIH director Francis Collins, “Projects that are found not to meet those standards will be phased out,   in a fashion that preserves the value of research already conducted.”  Collins estimated that about half of the 37 studies currently funded by the NIH might be cut.

“Effective immediately,”  Collins said, “NIH will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations [of the joint IOM/NRC report] are in place.”

Altogether,  the NIH has funded 110 chimp studies during the past ten years,  but several branches of chimp research,  including HIV studies,  have already been cut as unproductive. Chimps were involved in just 53 of the 94,000 active projects funded by the NIH in 2011.

“It’s not clear exactly how many of the nation’s 937 research chimps–612 of them owned by the NIH–are in the midst of experiments that would be affected by the new standards and could be moved into retirement instead,”  assessed Associated Press medical writer Lauran Neergaard. “Most of the chimps are fairly old,  as the nation has had a moratorium on breeding since 1995,”  Neergaard noted.

The IOM/NRC report authors projected that the entire U.S. federally funded research chimp inventory will “largely cease to exist” by 2037.

Though accepted by the NIH,  the IOM/NRC criteria for chimp studies “wouldn’t automatically apply to privately funded pharmaceutical research,”  Neergaard continued, “although the industry,  too,  is shifting away from use of chimps.  One drug company, GlaxoSmithKline,  has adopted an official policy ending its use of great apes.”
Chimp research ended in the European Union in 1999.  The EU formally banned experimentation on all great apes–chimps, gorillas,  orangutans,  and bonobos–in 2010. The only nation other than the U.S. known to still be using chimps in research in Gabon,  in western Africa.

Bred despite moratorium

Despite the 1995 moratorium on breeding chimps at U.S. taxpayer expense,  the NIH has allowed the New Iberia Research Center near Lafayette,  Louisiana to continue breeding federally owned chimps for federally funded studies.
Explained the November 24,  2011 edition of the scientific journal Nature,  “The center houses 348 chimps,  of whom 117 are NIH-owned,” receiving about $1 million a year for their upkeep.  “The NIRC has also received more than $6 million since 2002,”  Nature reported,  “to supply very young chimps to the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for hepatitis C studies.   The NIRC has been forced,” by HSUS findings made by using the Freedom of Information Act,  “to admit to the births of 137 infant chimps to NIH-owned animals between 2000 and 2009,”  after initially claiming only 28 such births had occurred.

“In defense of the NIRC,”  continued Nature,   “director Thomas Rowell points to a clause in the written agreement between the NIH and the NIRC,  which stipulates that infant chimps born during the funding period become the property of the center,  not of the NIH.  The taxpayer is thus not responsible,  he arguesŠYet surely the provision was written to protect the NIH from financial responsibility for infant chimps that are born occasionally and accidently-not as the go-ahead for a breeding program conducted with a nod and a wink,”  Nature editorialized.

“After all,  the agreement also stipulates that ‘as a condition of this award, a moratorium on breeding activities…will remain in effect.'”  Nature called the NIRC position “cavalier at best,  and openly defiant of the moratorium at worst.”
HSUS president Wayne Pacelle anticipated that the IOM/NRC report and the NIH moratorium on funding new chimp research might help to pass the Great Ape Protection & Cost Savings Act of 2011, the current incarnation of a bill repeatedly introduced in both houses of Congress since 2008, and might help a petition asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to recognize captive chimps as well as wild chimps as members of an endangered species.

The Great Ape Protection & Cost Savings Act,  however,  currently has just 129 co-sponsors in the 435-seat House of Representatives,  and only 11 in the 100-member Senate,  not nearly enough to move it toward passage.  It remains opposed by many pro-biomedical research organizations,  as well as by users of chimps in entertainment.

“The report acknowledges that some research is needed.  The Great Apes act would totally eliminate it.”  explained Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research director Christian R. Abee to Josh Fischman of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Where will chimps go?

The IOM/NRC report recommended that chimps be housed in behaviorally,  socially and physically appropriate facilities,  but did not stipulate what should be done with the NIH chimps who are no longer used as experimental subjects.

“I’m arguing for the movement of all of them to sanctuaries,”  Pacelle told James Gorman of the New York Times.
The IOM/NRC report was released and the NIH moratorium was announced just one day after Save the Chimps completed the transfer of 266 chimps from the former Coulston Foundation facilities in Alamogordo to the 150-acre Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce,  Florida. Founded in 1997 by primatologist Carole Noon, Save the Chimps bought the bankrupt Coulston property in 2002.  Building facilities to house all the chimps in Florida took nine years.  About half the chimps were still awaiting the move when Noon,  59,  died in 2009 from pancreatic cancer.

“The cost to construct the only federally-funded chimpanzee sanctuary,  Chimp Haven,”  near Shreveport,  Louisiana,  “was $11.8 million,”  primate research consultant Joseph Erwin pointed out to the Speaking of Research online forum.  “Chimp Haven houses 130 animals. In other words,  the initial construction cost was just over $90,000 per chimpanzee.  Most chimpanzees in scientific and educational institutions,”  Erwin contended,  “live in spacious,  social, and secure environments, where they are provided with excellent professional health care,  and are afforded protection under the Animal Welfare Act,  through inspection by the USDA,  and publicly available reports of those inspections.”

The Great Ape Protection & Cost Savings Act,  Erwin objected,  “would require removal of chimpanzees from decent facilities that were built at great public expense, and would deposit hundreds of chimpanzees in sanctuaries that provide no assurance of competent professional care,  are not subject to Animal Welfare Act protection,  and are not publicly transparent.”

But Erwin overlooked that almost all sanctuaries are in fact inspected by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act,  and to keep IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit status as public charities, which are required to maintain considerably more financial transparency than most biomedical research institutions.

As the NIH funding of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute scheme for the Alamogordo Primate Facility chimps and the New Iberia Research Center chimp breeding scheme illustrate,  animal advocates–and taxpayers–have cause to doubt that the NIH can be trusted to act in good faith,  regardless of public declarations. –Merritt Clifton

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