If IOM report suggests chimpanzees are not necessary in research, will their use become a thing of the past?

by Andrew N Rowan, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of The Humane Society of the United States, PRIM&R Board Member, 1985-2010

The use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments has been a controversial issue for decades with proponents arguing that chimpanzee use is necessary to advance human health and opponents arguing that the practice is both unnecessary and unethical. Recent developments could lead to a possible resolution of this issue.

A National Academies’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee spent approximately eight months last year examining the necessity of using chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research. The final report, which was released in December, did not identify any area of biomedical research for which chimpanzees are critically necessary. In fact, the report was very clear in saying that most of the biomedical research that chimpanzees are currently being used for is unnecessary and their use should be curtailed.

According to the IOM report, the only areas in question are (1) pipeline monoclonal antibody studies—which are expected to conclude in the next year or so and (2) prophylactic hepatitis C vaccine efficacy studies—though the committee was evenly split on whether chimpanzees are necessary for this purpose. In addition, the committee, driven in part by its inability to predict future research needs, laid out a set of strict criteria that any biomedical study using chimpanzees should meet. As a result of the report, the National Institutes of Health immediately suspended new projects involving chimpanzees, and is currently working to implement the IOM recommendations.

The public clamor over the 1,000 or so chimpanzees remaining in laboratories led to the IOM’s critical examination of the relevance and necessity of their use in laboratory studies. The IOM findings, when combined with economic and ethical considerations, lead to the conclusion that society should focus on the further development of alternatives rather than keeping a tight grip on an increasingly irrelevant and ethically costly model. Invasive research on chimpanzees should come to an end and the animals should be given the retirement they deserve.

The IOM findings are in sharp contrast to recent claims (over the past two years) by biomedical research interests that laboratory chimpanzees still provide a vital research model. There are many other instances where the importance of animal research for biomedical advancement is trumpeted in the absence of any systematic and careful examination of the science. As biomedical research technology continues its meteoric advance, how many other types of animal research may be found to be superfluous? In 1969, Nobel Prize-winning immunologist, Sir Peter Medawar stated that “we must grapple with the paradox that nothing but research on animals will provide us with the knowledge that will make it possible for us, one day, to dispense with the use of them altogether.” We are approaching a period where animal research studies will become less common and less essential. Care should be taken not to continue to press for laboratory animal studies just because they may have been important in the past.