Chimpanzee research that does not meet rules established by the report will be phased out, Collins said. He estimated that about half of the 37 current NIH-funded chimp studies would not rise to standards proposed in Thursday’s report from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences.
The congressionally mandated study concluded that any future studies using the great apes need to clear a “very high bar,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University who chaired the report committee.
“Fewer kinds of studies will be justified based on the criteria that we set out,” Kahn said. “We’re on a trajectory of a diminishing number of chimps necessary for research.”
The report did not endorse an outright ban on chimp research but instead outlined restrictive rules for using the apes.
Chimpanzees’ similarity to humans in intelligence and emotional awareness implies “a moral cost and ethical issues” when mankind’s closest evolutionary cousin is kept captive for invasive medical research, Kahn said.
Chimpanzees are not needed for research on HIV/AIDS, cancer or nearly any other type of disease, the IOM found. After surveying the past decade of medical chimp research, the report committee concluded that only one disease might warrant further research with apes: the development of a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
But even that conclusion was contentious. Half of the 12-member committee of medical experts thought that hepatitis C vaccine research could move forward without testing new vaccines on chimps.
Some 3.2 million Americans have the hepatitis C virus, which attacks the liver and often proves fatal. No preventive vaccine exists.
Since 2001, the National Institutes of Health has funded 110 studies with chimps, the IOM report found, including 44 studies for hepatitis, nine for HIV/AIDS, 11 for brain research and 13 projects on genetics.
Kahn said many of those studies would not be justified under the new rules, which state that chimpanzee research should be allowed only if such work is vital to the public health and cannot be performed any other way.
For nonmedical research, such as studies of behavior and cognition, chimpanzees should be used only if they provide “otherwise unattainable insights” and only if they are “acquiescent,” or willing to participate, the report stated.
Collins said NIH will deploy these strict criteria to scrutinize current and proposed chimp research.
Research chimps should remain available in case a new disease emerges that can only be studied in the animals, the IOM report recommended. In response, Collins said, the new NIH committee will assess how many chimpanzees should be kept “in case some world emergency should arise.”