The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has accepted recommendations from an outside review committee to curtail the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.
"NIH will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place," said NIH Director Francis Collins at a press teleconference today.
Following a congressional inquiry, the NIH last year asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council to form a committee to review the current and future need for chimpanzees in research. A 190-page report issued today, "Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity," received high praise from Collins, who described it as a "thoughtful and careful analysis" that he plans to act on immediately.
In one change, Collins said he plans to replace an oversight group made of federal government employees, the Interagency Animal Models Committee, that now reviews proposals for chimpanzee research. The new oversight group, which he said will be part of the NIH's Council of Councils, will consist of independent experts from a "wide variety of perspectives" to judge research proposals and see whether they meet criteria spelled out in the report. Specifically, the IOM committee says NIH should support only biomedical research with chimpanzees if it promises to advance public health, cannot be done with another research model or ethically performed with humans, and the animals are kept in ecologically appropriate housing or habitats.
Collins said his staff estimates the NIH currently funds only 37 biomedical and behavioral projects that use chimpanzee (the IOM report puts the number at 53), and that he wants the new working group to review each one to make sure it meets those criteria. "Projects that are found not to meet those standards will be phased out, but in a fashion that preserves the value of the research already conducted," Collins said.
As the IOM report explains, many of the research projects supported by NIH involve minimally invasive procedures—such as blood draws or brain imaging—that the committee thought should continue. It called for an end to studies of drugs for hepatitis C and respiratory syncytial virus and producing new monoclonal antibodies in chimpanzees. It could not reach consensus about the testing of hepatitis C vaccines.
Collins did not have a timeline for forming the working group. "It will not happen overnight, but we will certainly be motivated to move as quickly as possible," he said.
In all, the new report says U.S. facilities housed 937 chimpanzees as of October, 612 of which are owned or supported by NIH. The IOM committee left open the possibility that chimpanzees may be a necessary animal model to address future emerging or reemerging diseases, which raised the question of whether NIH will readdress its 17-year-old ban on funding the breeding of chimpanzees for research.
"We do not have at the present time an analysis to tell us what would be an appropriate size of the population of chimpanzees that would need to be kept on hand should the need arise from some sort of new pandemic for their use," said Collins. "With more than 600 chimpanzees already available and owned by NIH, it seems as if we have a pretty substantial population to work with."
Chimpanzees, an endangered species in the wild, can no longer be imported for research. The new report cites an analysis that says the federally funded population of chimpanzees will "largely cease to exist" by 2037 unless breeding restarts soon.
Click here for Science's full coverage of the IOM report.