Coalition to petition NIH to return research chimps to New Mexico

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rosie the chimp's rocky road in life took another bad turn recently.

After being taken from her mother before age 1, she was anesthetized or immobilized about 100 times and stuck with a stainless steel needle for kidney biopsies at a research center in New Mexico, according to her medical record. In 2000, she was granted a semi-retirement from the rigors of lab research, but last year the National Institutes of Health ordered her back.

Now a group of activist physicians are saying enough is enough. On Tuesday, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said that it plans to file a legal petition asking the NIH to return Rosie and 13 other chimpanzees to the Alamogordo Primate Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where they were immune from experiments.

"They were old. They had disease. They were already used up," said John Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the physician's group. "The research is cruel and unproductive."

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D), federal politicians and activist groups persuaded NIH last year to delay the transfer of 186 other chimpanzees at the facility until the Institute of Medicine can complete a review to determine if the use of the animals in experiments is merited.

The removal of the 14 chimps revived a debate over using nonhuman primates such as Rosie for medical research. "Because chimpanzees are so sophisticated, there has been a long-standing discussion worldwide about the justification of using them," said Lori Gruen, an associate professor of philosophy at Weslyan University who studies chimpanzees in captivity.

The NIH Office of Extramural Research declined to comment on the petition, saying it has not received it. "OER will respond when it arrives," a spokeswoman said.

Studies have shown that chimpanzees are poor models for cancer and AIDS research, and their usefulness for hepatitis research - which they would be part of at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio - is in dispute.

The United States is the only developed nation where medical experiments on chimps are ongoing, activists said. Slightly fewer than 1,000 chimpanzees are being held at research facilities nationwide.

Chimpanzees in captivity have an average life span of 30 years, but can live up to 50 years. A U.S. ban on breeding at research facilities has caused the number of captive apes to dwindle, and those available for experimental research could die out within several decades.

"We've made a lot of progress in research on hepatitis using chimpanzees," said John L. VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, which requested the Alamogordo chimps.

VandeBerg said the experiments led to the development of "many drugs for treating both hepatitis B and C." VandeBerg acknowledged that the European Union, Japan, Australia and other developed nations no longer use chimpanzees for medical experiments.

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