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Chimpanzees to retire from US government research

Chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, Louisiana file picture
Image caption It is not clear where the chimpanzees will live in retirement

The National Institute of Health, the largest funder of medical research in the US, is planning to stop using chimpanzees in laboratory experiments. But where will the chimpanzees go and how will it affect scientific research?

The head of the National Institute of Health (NIH) said its decision to retire more than 300 chimpanzees from research would help usher in a "compassionate era" of scientific research.

NIH director Dr Francis Collins said that chimpanzees, as man's closest relative in the animal kingdom, "deserve special respect".

"These amazing animals have taught us a great deal already," he said, as he announced the policy change at the end of June.

The use of chimpanzees in biomedical research has been on the decline for some time.

But for activists seeking to end the practice, the NIH decision is still a "game-changer".

At the Humane Society, Kathleen Conlee says that for several years the NIH has barely used the chimpanzees it owns.

The NIH spends about half its huge $32bn annual budget on animal research, but only 1% of that involves research with chimps, Ms Conlee says.

Even then, most of the costs are associated with feeding and caring for the animals because the majority of them are on standby in warehouses.

But Kevin Kregel, professor and chair of the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa, says that in the scientific community, the NIH decision is "somewhat controversial".

"There is a clear understanding in the industry that there will be reduced utilisation of chimpanzees," Mr Kregel says, adding that chimpanzees are still needed in some key areas of research.

One such area is the development of vaccines, he adds.

In particular, the development of a vaccination for Hepatitis C is one research area where chimpanzees are still used.

Mr Kregel also says that studying and developing "monoclonal antibodies", which help treat cancers, lymphomas and auto-immune diseases, are another area where some scientists still think it is necessary to work with the apes.

But activists say there are alternatives to chimpanzee research even in these last remaining areas.

"There are plenty of other ways to make sure drugs and treatments are safely tested without using chimpanzees in experiments," Ms Conlee says.

"For example, in vitro experiments that use human tissue are one possibility, or the use of transgenic mice could be another option."

Interim pool

Mr Kregel agrees that mice or human cell cultures are good alternatives for most areas of research.

But he says that particularly in the study of viruses, which have a complex impact on the whole body, testing a drug on just one kind of human cell, or using mice - which have a significantly different genetic profile from humans - may not be sufficient.

"I am still worried that these alternatives that are being presented are not fully developed at this point," Mr Kregel says, "Otherwise there would be no need to still use chimpanzees."

He also warns that extreme scenarios in the future - such as the outbreak of a new pandemic - might call for the rapid development of a treatment or vaccine - and an accessible pool of animals should be available for these situations.

This was also the conclusion of the prestigious Institute of Medicine, which in 2011 published a report on the use of chimpanzees in research.

"It is impossible to predict whether research on emerging or new diseases may necessitate chimpanzees in the future," the report said.

In its recent decision, the NIH said that as a precaution it would retain 50 chimpanzees.

Yet even those animals could be retired after five years when the NIH reviews its policy again.

By then, the tide may have turned even further in favour of phasing chimpanzees out of research.

Retirement options

Two weeks before the NIH announced its change of policy, the US fish and wildlife services said that all chimpanzees, even those in captivity, would be listed as endangered.

The move would require medical researchers to get a permit for all experiments involving the animals unless they were purely observational studies or could take place during a normal veterinary visit - further raising the barriers to using chimpanzees in laboratories.

Image caption The US has listed all chimpanzees, even those in captivity, as endangered

In the meanwhile, the NIH director has warned that it could take time before the chimpanzees are actually sent to a sanctuary.

It is still not clear where the animals would go, or how quickly they can be moved.

At Chimp Haven, the designated facility for retired government chimpanzees, it would dramatically increase the population to accept such a large number of chimpanzees at once.

The sanctuary is already home to 166 animals and is in the process of constructing new habitats for some apes that were on their way into retirement before the latest NIH decision.

"At the earliest, it would take between three and five years before Chimp Haven would be ready to take in more animals," said executive director Cathy Spraetz. "That's the most aggressive scenario."

Chimp Haven would have to build new habitats for the chimpanzees, and perhaps even acquire more land once it reaches its capacity of 450 animals.

But the most pressing issue, Ms Spraetz says, is funding.

In 2000, Congress passed the Chimp Act, which designated $30m for construction and care of retired research chimpanzees.

But more than a decade later, there is less than $1m left, says Ms Spraetz, and Congress has yet to renew or extend the funding, which pays for about 75% of the sanctuary's costs.

Until then, the chimpanzees will have to stay where they are. But the fight for compassionate science will continue.

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