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Rule Would List All Chimps As Endangered, Even Lab Animals

Jun 14, 2013
Originally published on June 18, 2013 9:45 am

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new rule that would extend "endangered species" protections to chimpanzees held in captivity. Nearly half of all the chimps in the U.S. live in research facilities, and the regulation changes would make it more difficult to use these animals in medical experiments.

But don't expect an outcry among most scientists. In the past decade or so, "there has been a significant shift away from using chimpanzees in research," says Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.

Scientists first became interested in studying chimps in the 1920s to gain insights into primate psychology — including, they hoped, the psychology of humans.

And then came the Space Age. In 1961, the U.S. sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, and soon the primates became the animal of choice for getting a sense of how humans might fare in rocket flights beyond Earth's atmosphere.

It wasn't until around the 1970s that chimps became a popular model for studying some infectious diseases — and for testing new drugs and vaccines.

"It's not hard to understand why chimpanzees would have been chosen from a scientific point of view," says John Pippin, a cardiologist who is with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "They do share 98 percent of our DNA."

Sometimes chimpanzees did lead to important breakthroughs, researchers say, for example in understanding and treating hepatitis B and C. But more often, as in HIV research, those chimp studies didn't reveal much.

In the 1980s, chimps became very popular among scientists trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS. But as it turned out, Pippin says, chimps don't get AIDS in the same way as humans. "Two decades of research produced 90 or so candidate vaccines," he says. "They have been tested in more than 200 clinical trials and, as you know, we still don't have an HIV vaccine."

Our growing knowledge in genetics and genomics help explain why the animals have been less useful than previously thought. Their genes may be very similar to ours, Pippin says, but "how genes are organized, and how they're turned on, turned off, how they contribute to diseases and to responses to treatment [for] diseases is very different between chimpanzees and humans."

And, over time, animal rights groups and the public seem to have become more concerned about using chimps in research. "The question now is being asked in a different way," says Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University. "Not, 'Is it useful to do research involving chimpanzees?' But [rather] 'is it necessary?' "

In 2011, Kahn was chairman of an Institute of Medicine committee that looked into that question. The committee found that the answer was no, because there are alternatives such as human-cell cultures and other animals. Genetically altered mice, for example are already used to study human diseases. Rodents aren't a perfect proxy for humans, but new genetic tools are making mice more humanlike in the way they respond to microbes and drugs.

"There's work being done, for instance, at the Rockefeller [University] to develop a mouse with a humanized liver," says Kahn. Such mice, he says, would make a great model for studying human diseases like hepatitis.

Animal-rights groups see the proposed Fish and Wildlife rule as a move in the right direction. "The cost of using these animals and the availability of other ways of doing this research are leading to an end of their use," says Conlee, the Humane Society vice president.

In the very few cases where scientists feel they must rely on chimps, the new rule would require a permit. And the researchers would need to prove that their work also benefits chimpanzees.

The agency is taking public comments on the proposed rule until Aug. 12 and hopes to finalize the regulation within a year.

Though chimp research is winding down, Conlee says, the federal government has yet to figure out what to do with the hundreds of chimpanzees no longer needed that still live in research centers around the country.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. This week, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new rule to protect chimpanzees. Wild chimpanzees are already listed as endangered, and the new rule extends that protection to chimps held in captivity. Nearly half of the chimps here in the U.S. are in research facilities. The change will make it more difficult to use these animals for experiments. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, even before this new rule, scientists were already moving away from using chimpanzees.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Chimpanzee research began in the 1920s. At first, they were used to study psychology and then came the Space Age. In 1961, the U.S. sent the first chimpanzee into space.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And here, some 200 of his fellow chimpanzees are taking part in a program designed to probe the limits of man's endurance.

CHATTERJEE: That's a U.S. Air Force documentary from the period. John Pippin is a cardiologist with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

JOHN PIPPIN: It's not hard to understand why chimpanzees would have been chosen from a scientific point of view. They do share 98 percent of our DNA.

CHATTERJEE: That's also why around the 1970s, scientists began using chimps to study human diseases and test new drugs and vaccines. Sometimes it worked, but often it didn't. Pippin says the best example is HIV research. He says, in the 1980s, chimps became very popular among scientists trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS.

But as it turned out, chimps don't get AIDS in the same way as humans.

PIPPIN: Two decades of research produced 90 or so candidate vaccines. They have been tested in more than 200 clinical trials and, as you well know, we still don't have an HIV vaccine.

CHATTERJEE: He says our growing knowledge in genetics and genomics explain why the animals have been less useful than previously thought. Their genes may be very similar to ours, but Pippin says how these genes work in the two species is very different.

PIPPIN: How genes are organized and how they're turned on, turned off, how that contributes to diseases and to responses to treatments to diseases is very different between chimpanzees and humans.

CHATTERJEE: On top of it all, animal rights groups and the public are more concerned about using chimps in research. Jeffrey Kahn is a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.

JEFFREY KAHN: The question now is being asked in a different way, which is not, is it useful to do research involving chimpanzees, but is it necessary?

CHATTERJEE: In 2011, Kahn looked into that question as the chair of a committee put together by the prestigious Institute of Medicine and found that in most cases, the answer was no because there are alternatives like human cell cultures and other animals. Genetically altered mice, for example, are already used to study human diseases.

They're far from perfect, but new tools are making mice more humanlike.

KAHN: So there's work being done, for instance, at Rockefeller to develop a mouse with, effectively, a humanized liver.

CHATTERJEE: Animal rights groups see the proposed Fish and Wildlife rule as another step toward the end of chimpanzee research. Kathleen Conlee is the vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.

KATHLEEN CONLEE: The cost of using these animals and the availability of other ways of doing this research are leading to an end to their use.

CHATTERJEE: In the very few cases where chimps may still be used, the new rule will require researchers to get a permit and prove that their work will also benefit chimpanzees. The new rule could be finalized within the year, but Conlee says the government needs to figure out what to do with the hundreds of chimpanzees still in research centers around the country. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.