NIH Urged to Retire Most Research Chimps, End Many Studies

Retirement. Advisers to NIH say several studies of chimps should end.

Retirement. Advisers to NIH say several studies of chimps should end.

Frans de Waal/Emory University

A working group advising the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on chimpanzee research today urged that the agency sharply scale back biomedical and behavioral studies involving these animals. NIH should retire most of the nearly 700 chimps it supports, end many research projects, and make sure that chimps still being studied are kept in proper living conditions, the panel's report says.

If NIH follows through on the report, "Clearly there is going to be a reduction in the use of chimpanzees in research," said veterinary researcher K. C. Kent Lloyd of the University of California, Davis, who chaired the working group of the NIH Council of Councils, to reporters. "I don't believe that will be at the cost of research advances."

Today's 84-page report is a response to a December 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that found that most research on chimps was unnecessary. Today's working group, part of the NIH Council of Councils, was asked by NIH Director Francis Collins to help NIH implement the IOM report, which laid out specific criteria for when chimp studies are justified. For example, such a study should take place only if it could not be done ethically in humans or in another animal model and if the chimps were maintained in an ethologically appropriate environment.

After reviewing 22 NIH-funded research studies using chimps, the working group found that half should be shut down. That includes six of nine biomedical projects that are using 81 of 93 chimps in those studies; only three of these projects, all involving infectious agents or immunology, should continue. The working group also recommended ending five of 13 comparative genomics and behavioral studies that use 10 of about 300 animals. NIH would continue to fund seven of an additional eight projects supporting care of chimp colonies; some overlap with the research studies.

Other projects could continue if they are modified to meet new criteria for living conditions laid out in the report. For example, each chimp should have at least 1000 square feet of outdoor space and live with no fewer than six other animals.

The working group also examined the number of chimps NIH now owns or supports. This includes 451 chimps at research or research reserve facilities and 219 in chimp retirement homes. NIH should retire most of the research chimps and reduce its research supply to a single colony of just 50 chimps within 5 years, concluded the working group. Behavioral and genetics studies requiring more animals could potentially be done in nontraditional research setting such as sanctuaries or zoos, suggested working group co-chair neurologist Daniel Geschwind of the University of California, Los Angeles.

The panel also laid out new criteria for approving future projects. Proposals that are approved by scientific reviewers should go before a new, yet-to-be-created, independent NIH oversight committee that would weigh in on whether the project complies with the IOM principles.

Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., praised the report. "We're very pleased … and we hope that NIH will move forward to implement the recommendations. I think they largely reflect what the public has been asking for," she said.

The full Council of Councils voted 13-0 to accept the report. Collins will now open a 60-day comment period on the report, then decide whether to accept it, probably by late March, said James Anderson, NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives.

One question is how NIH will pay for the costs of chimp retirement. In 2000, Congress capped how much the agency can spend on construction and care at federal chimp sanctuaries at $30 million, a limit NIH will reach this summer. "It is a concern and something we would have to have addressed at the congressional level," Anderson said.

*Correction, 24 January: This article originally stated that the working group recommended ending five studies that use 290 chimps out of 13 comparative genomics studies that use 300 chimps. Those five studies are using 10 chimps.

*Correction, 2:40 p.m., 29 January: The article incorrectly stated that Congress has capped NIH spending on federal chimp sanctuaries at $30 million per year. The cap is the cumulative amount since 2000.