By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:58 AM
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.
"Scientists in Europe come here to do their research on chimpanzees," VandeBerg said. "Their societies made a decision that was driven by animal rights advocates. But they need chimpanzees just as badly as we do. In order to avoid animal rights campaigns against them, their governments decided not to use chimpanzees."
The 200 chimpanzees, including Rosie, were the last of 600 nonhuman primates and hundreds of monkeys that resided at Alamogordo. They were once used for toxicology and pre-clinical drug testing by the Coulston Foundation until the late 1990s.
The NIH took ownership of the animals in 2000 when it was determined that Coulston was responsible for the deaths of 13 monkeys and 35 chimpanzees, according to activists. Rosie went into semi-retirement there until she was whisked to San Antonio last summer.
VandeBerg said that the 14 chimpanzees he claimed for experiments last year are enjoying the same habitat they had at Alamogordo - outdoor and indoor habitation, with air conditioning and heating.
The chimps, each infected with hepatitis, have undergone two medical examinations where blood was drawn to gauge the levels of the virus, and two needle biopsies extracted tissue from their livers for examination.
"The animal rights people make it seem like it's a horrible thing to do," VandeBerg said. "It's a very simple clinical procedure. It's not painful."
In Rosie's case, that is not so clear. As early as age 8, she suffered from seizures after being placed under anesthesia, according to a veterinarian who reviewed her heavily redacted medical record, obtained from NIH following a Freedom of Information Act request.
Rosie continued to suffer seizures under anesthesia for 11 years, the vet, Mel Richardson, wrote in a synopsis of her medical record. Her current condition is "at-risk," "due to her extreme morbid obesity," he wrote before recommending that she be returned to New Mexico.