In the latest twist in the protracted debate over the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, U.S. senators on 3 August introduced the Great Ape
Protection Act, an identical bill to one that has been stuck in a House of Representatives committee for more than a year. The move comes on the heels
of a letter sent by a who's who of chimpanzee researchers to Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), that sharply
criticizes the bill, warning that it "would put extreme and unreasonable restrictions on future chimpanzee research."
The matching bill would ban invasive research on the estimated 1000 "research" chimpanzees in the country that live in laboratories. A key issue is the
definition of "invasive." The bill would explicitly bar any research that "may cause death, bodily injury, pain, distress, fear, injury or trauma."
When introducing the bill, Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA) said that about 1000 chimpanzees, half owned by the federal government, "languish at great
taxpayer expense in six research laboratories across the nation." Cantwell, whose co-sponsors were Susan Collins (R–ME) and Bernie Sanders (I–VT),
argued that the vast majority of these chimps were "simply wasting away in these facilities" because they were "poor research models for human illness,
and they have been of limited use in the study of human disease." She noted that no country other than Gabon still allows invasive research with
chimps. "The United States is currently behind the rest of the world in outlawing this sad practice." The Humane Society of the United States, which
helped draft the legislation, claimed in a press release that chimpanzees have "historically failed as a research model."
In April 2010, 171 researchers sent a letter to Francis Collins decrying the bill and expressing their "most profound concern about the impending loss
of chimpanzees." Their thoroughly referenced letter includes a citation of Chimpanzees in Research, a report published by the National Research
Council in 1997 that advocated maintaining a self-sustaining population of research chimps. The report also concluded that chimp research "has led to
numerous biomedical advances, including the development of a vaccine for hepatitis B virus."
The letter—signed by chimpanzee researchers from the most renowned universities in the country—asserts that "human-chimpanzee comparisons are
essential for understanding the unique characteristics of human biology." The letter further contends that recent chimp studies for the first time have
identified "unique features of the human brain and have documented the unusual vulnerability of humans to a variety of disorders, including Alzheimer's
disease, infectious diseases, cancer, and heart disease."
The letter does not argue for research that would cause chimpanzees serious harm. Indeed, it focuses on what these researchers see as the overly broad
definition of the term "invasive," which they note would prohibit taking blood from animals or using anesthesia. "Such procedures are used routinely in
humans; to ban them would create a formidable obstacle to almost all studies of chimpanzees," they write. Finally, they urge NIH to hold a public
review of its current policy not to support the breeding of research chimpanzees.
Collins did not reply; instead the researchers received a letter from Margaret Snyder, who works in the Office of Extramural Research's Division of
Communications and Outreach. "I want to assure you that NIH is committed to the continued use of chimpanzees in biomedical research," Snyder wrote.
"With out access to chimpanzees, vital research could not be pursued which would jeopardize scientific progress in several critical health areas."
The current House bill now has 148 cosponsors but has not moved out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce since it was introduced in March 2009. (A
similar bill introduced in 2008 died in committee.) It's unclear whether the Senate bill will help give the stalled act momentum.