Debate over chimps pits lawmakers against researchers

Is it time for chimps to vacate the lab? U.S. lawmakers have been gradually lining up in favor of a ban on chimps for the bulk of biomedical research programs, but a large group of some prestigious researchers have been lobbying the NIH to do what it can to oppose a prohibition that could threaten research on new drugs for several complex diseases.

The move got underway in the U.S. House last year, according to a feature in Science magazine, and is now gaining steam with a Senate version introduced by Susan Collins and Bernie Sanders. About a thousand research chimps live inside U.S. labs. And urged on by animal rights activists, lawmakers have been migrating to support a ban on their use in invasive experiments that "may cause death, bodily injury, pain, distress, fear, injury or trauma."

The lawmakers in support are arguing that chimps have failed as a resource in biomedical research. But a group of 171 research scientists, including some from the country's most prestigious universities, beg to differ. They note that chimps still constitute one of the best animal models for diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease. And chimps played a central role in developing a hepatitis B vaccine. Banning "invasive" procedures on chimps would essentially prohibit their use, and hamper development work that can help people.

The NIH appears sympathetic to their cause. "I want to assure you that NIH is committed to the continued use of chimpanzees in biomedical research," wrote the NIH's Margaret Snyder. "With out access to chimpanzees, vital research could not be pursued which would jeopardize scientific progress in several critical health areas."

- here's the report from Science magazine