NIH to retire 110 research chimpanzees

September 21, 2012

In a move that signals that the United States is further backing away from medical research with chimpanzees, the National Institutes of Health will retire 110 of its 563 research chimpanzees over the next year, the institutes’ director, Francis S. Collins, said Friday.

All of the chimps will be moved from a controversial research facility in Louisiana, the New Iberia Research Center, and made permanently ineligible for future research.

“This is a significant step in winding down NIH’s investment in chimpanzee research based on the way science has evolved and our great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals, our closest relatives,” Collins said in a telephone interview.

Ten of the the chimps will move from New Iberia, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Keithville, La. The remaining 100 will move to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio but will not be used for research.

A longtime home for NIH chimps, the research center decided not to seek NIH funding for its chimpanzee program beyond August 2013, Collins said. That decision provided an opportunity for NIH to permanently move those chimps out of research.

“We’re very pleased. It’s a good number; 110 is a large number to retire,” said Wayne A. Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, which advocates ending all invasive medical research on chimpanzees.

In 2009, the group released a video made at New Iberia documenting what Pacelle calls unacceptable treatment of chimpanzees. “Some of the chimps had gone mad; they were obviously emotionally disturbed from long-term isolation and throwing themselves around cages,” Pacelle said. The video also showed chimpanzees being anaesthetized with dart guns and falling from tables onto the floor.

Two incidents at the center — including the death of three macaque monkeys and the death of an 8-year-old chimp during transportation to New Iberia — are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

New Iberia will continue to maintain a colony of about 240 chimpanzees not owned by NIH, said Aaron Martin, director of communications at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They are made available to pharmaceutical companies for research.

The United States is the only country that conducts invasive medical experiments with chimpanzees, Pacelle said, after the African country of Gabon pulled back from such work this year.

A confluence of forces is pressuring NIH to drastically reduce its population of research chimpanzees. Last December, an influential report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) called nearly all medical research with the great apes unnecessary. Collins responded by suspending new NIH-supported chimp research. And in Congress, a bill to ban all ape research in the United States, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, cleared a key hurdle in July when a Senate committee moved the legislation forward.

Pacelle is hopeful that Congress will pass the bill and send it to the president during a post-election lame-duck session.

Meanwhile, an NIH group called the Council of Councils is deliberating how many research chimps the NIH should maintain. The group is also evaluating the 38 NIH-funded research studies that currently use chimps and will develop strict rules for when chimps should be used. Its recommendations to Collins will be delivered in January.

The bottom line: NIH will need drastically fewer research chimps in this “new environment where chimpanzee research is limited to very specialized and compelling circumstances,” Collins said. “It’s appropriate to really move in the direction of getting many of those animals out of the research arena, and today that’s what we’re starting to do.”

Collins said it was important to keep some chimpanzees available for research in the event that a disease emerges that infects only humans and chimps.

Collins delivered the news to Jane Goodall, the famous chimp champion and informal adviser to NIH on the issue, early Friday. She was “quite pleased,” Collins said. Goodall was speaking at the United Nations on Friday morning and not immediately available for comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that it has ceased all chimp research after wrapping up hepatitis C vaccine studies. “Consistent with the findings of the IOM panel, CDC no longer conducts chimpanzee research,” the CDC’s Tanja Popovich, the deputy associate director for science, wrote to an animal rights group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The NIH, the nation’s primary funder of biomedical research, owns 705 chimpanzees, some of them already retired.

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