Fewer chimps to be used in NIH-backed biomedical research

The National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday its plans to significantly reduce the number of chimpanzees it uses in NIH-funded biomedical research.

The decision means that NIH will retire most of its chimps--about 310--to sanctuaries over the next few years. It will keep but not breed up to 50 chimpanzees for future research projects that meet standards set by a 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report. The advisory committee submitted its final recommendations to NIH in January, which proposed closing 16 current research projects, including 6 of 9 biomedical projects in immunology, bioterrorism, infectious agents and hepatitis.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins accepted most of the recommendations put forth by an independent advisory council and those outlined in the IOM report, published in December 2011. Collins said new scientific methods and technologies largely negate the need for chimpanzee subjects in biomedical experiments. He also cited ethical considerations as another reason for the policy change.

"After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do," Collins said in a statement.

The IOM report did not call for an outright ban on chimpanzee research, but it endorsed putting a stop to the use of chimps for most invasive medical research and laid out a set of criteria as to when, if ever, current and future medical studies should use chimps.

In a telephone press conference, Collins said to reporters that the agency's decision represents "a compassionate era" and one that "recognizes the importance of adapting medical research."

The decision was long expected by the research community, but some scientists have noted that studies involving a potential vaccine for hepatitis C might still require the use of chimps. Collins said in the conference call that noninvasive research, including behavioral and genomics research, could still be done with chimps under the new guidelines.

What's not yet known is where the retired chimps will live out the rest of their days. Currently, NIH is legally limited as to the amount of financial resources the agency may allocate toward retiring chimpanzees and caring for them in the Federal Sanctuary System, the home of federally owned chimps since 2002.

- here's the NIH press release
- read NIH's full response to the advisory council's recommendations