Chimp Research Curtailed: Will Science Suffer?

Most chimpanzee research would be stopped, based on recommendations from the National Institutes of Health.

Last week, a new study reported that chimpanzees show a sense of fairness previously attributable mostly to humans.

Under recommendations issued to the National Institutes of Health yesterday, most such studies of chimpanzees would be stopped.

All but about 50 of the 451 chimpanzees owned or supported by the NIH would be retired and moved to sanctuaries, if NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins puts the council's recommendations into effect after a 60-day comment period. The housing for the 50 chimps that would be maintained for possible future research would be upgraded to meet specific criteria within five years.

The 83-page report makes clear that the bar for future research would be high. In all, 16 current research projects would be closed, including six of nine biomedical projects.

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Both researchers and animal rights groups generally praised the recommendations, although both sides expressed potential concerns.

"We're pleased with it," said Dr. John Pippin, director of academic affairs for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "A home run would have been to not have those 50 chimps held back. But we are inexorably moving toward the end of invasive chimpanzee research in the U.S. I think we're going to see chimpanzee research dry up."

While some biomedical scientists worry that the new standards will limit medical research, most called the recommendations reasonable, and praised the process.

"What's very positive going forward is that they have tried to figure out how many animals they need in order to have a sustainable research presence," said Alice Ra'anan, director of government relations and science policy at the American Physiological Society in Bethesda, Md. "The idea is, what is the appropriate number of animals to go forward and do the necessary research? This is exactly the way this kind of process should happen."

Much research conducted on chimps can be studied in alternative ways, animal rights groups say. The U.S. is the only country that owns chimpanzees for research.

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"Chimp research makes very little to no advance of medical knowledge," said Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, citing a 2007 study. "The advance of medical knowledge is important, but if you look at the medical literature and ask what's the source of the advance, chimpanzee-based literature is hardly ever cited."

The report caps two years of the NIH re-examining its stance on using chimps in research, and follows a 2011 Institute of Medicine report that issued guidelines advising that chimp research be used only in specific cases, when public health is at stake and no other animal or human study would suffice.

That could potentially include hepatitis C research: The report did not comment on which studies would continue, but chimps are the current best match in hepatitis C study.

May 9, 2012 -

"Santino," a male chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, is devising increasingly complex attacks against zoo visitors. Here, he postures, looking tough, in front of zoo visitors.

At first Santino was famous for throwing rocks and other projectiles at visitors who annoyed him. Now he has improved his technique.

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Here's where Santino has hidden his rock and projectile stashes.

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After a visitor group had left the compound area, researchers watched as Santino went inside and brought out this heap of hay and placed it near the visitor's section. Then he stashed stones under the pile.

Santino playing with little Selma, the youngest chimp in the exhibit at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden.

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After observing the chimp for days, the scientists also suspect that Santino just also "finds it fun" to bug humans.

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Santino may not be fond of human visitors, but he loves playing and spending time with Selma, a young chimp also at Furuvik Zoo.

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