Chimpanzees and the Institute of Medicine


Of all the animals used in research, chimpanzees probably generate the most heated discussions. Many people alive today are familiar with Jane Goodall’s work and grew up watching Flo, Flint, David Greybeard, and Frodo. (I actually saw Frodo in 2005 when I visited Gombe.) Some scientists have argued that chimpanzees and human should be classified in the same genus (the classification above species) because we are so closely related. If experimentation on any nonhuman animal were going to yield results that could predict human response to drugs and disease, it would be chimps.

All this is again coming to the forefront.

Meredith Wadman wrote, in the article Members named to panel to evaluate US chimpanzee research for newsblog at May 06, 2011:

Should the United States remain the only country apart from Gabon to fund chimpanzee research? The membership of an Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee recently asked to pronounce on that question was made public yesterday, three weeks in advance of the group's inaugural meeting. The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research will spend the next eight months studying whether the US, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), should continue to fund the controversial research . . . The 15-member panel aims to issue a report by the end of December.

This sounds promising. But who is on the panel? The panel consists of people with historical or current, direct or indirect, vested interests in using chimpanzees in research. For example:

John Stobo . . . a medical doctor who is the senior vice president for health sciences and services for the University of California . . . Floyd Bloom, the former editor-in-chief of Science; Alan Leshner, who, as chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is currently the journal's publisher; Letti Medina, the associate director of animal welfare and compliance at Abbott Laboratories; and Margaret Landi, the vice president of global laboratory animal sciences and chief of animal welfare for GlaxoSmithKline, which in 2008 voluntarily stopped using chimpanzees in its research. The panel does not have representation from any animal welfare or rights group.

Maybe not so promising.

What exactly is the committee supposed to evaluate? According to the IOM’s website, the committee will:

Explore contemporary and anticipated biomedical research questions to determine if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries and to determine the safety and efficacy of new prevention or treatment strategies. If biomedical research questions are identified:

  • Describe the unique biological/immunological characteristics of the chimpanzee that make it the necessary animal model for use in the types of research. Provide recommendations for any new or revised scientific parameters to guide how and when to use these animals for research. Explore contemporary and anticipated behavioral research questions to determine if chimpanzees are necessary for progress in understanding social, neurological and behavioral factors that influence the development, prevention, or treatment of disease.

In addressing the task, the committee will explore contemporary and anticipated future alternatives to the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research that will be needed for the advancement of the public’s health. The committee will base its findings and recommendations on currently available protocols, published literature, and scientific evidence, as well as its expert judgment.

I have covered using animals, including chimps, in safety and efficacy research many times. As numerous studies and even more scientists involved in safety and efficacy research will tell you, animals, even chimpanzees, cannot predict human response vis-à-vis safety and efficacy. (See previous blogs and or Animal Models in Light of Evolutionfor more.) The fact that human medicine is now focusing on gene-based medicine also known as personalized medicine, because of intraspecies differences, should tell us something about trying to predict human response to drugs and disease from another species, even one as similar as the chimpanzee.

To use the immune system as an example of where chimps can be of potential value in research aimed to cure human disease is laughable. Scientists that routinely use animals in research admit that the immune system of the chimp is not similar enough to humans to model HIV infections, as I discussed in a recent blog.

The remainder of the committee’s function will be to essentially ask: “Where can chimps be successfully used research?” As I have stated many times, any animal can be used in basic research—research that does not claim to be searching for cures. But animals cannot be used in drug and disease research that makes claims of prediction because interspecies differences simply outweigh the similarities. This makes asking whether alternatives to chimpanzees are available rather moot. The question is not: “What else is available?” but rather: “Does our model accomplish the purpose we are using it for in the first place?” Whether society wants to allow the use of chimps in basic research has, in my opinion, been answered. (See Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? for more.) But some in the research community (mainly researchers that use chimps) disagree with me on this. Regardless, the real issues the committee seems to be addressing revolve around the prediction question and scientifically that question has been definitely answered both from theory and practice.

If I were a researcher hoping to use chimps, I could not have picked a better committee. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence from evolution, genetics, evo devo, personalized medicine, complexity theory and so on, I predict that the committee will ignore it all and conclude that chimps can predict human response to drugs and disease and hence their continued use is necessary. In the end, money and ego, not science, will win the day.

Science is under attack from complimentary and alternative medicine, anti-vaxers, creationists, New Age voodoo, post-modernism, and many more. Scientists constantly bemoan the fact that society in general is scientifically illiterate and prefers pseudoscience to science. However, one thing that I have found that society as a whole can do is spot inconsistency. When they see that scientists refuse to apply the standards of science consistently it demeans science as a whole and society trusts science less and relies on pseudoscience more—to the detriment of us all. When asking who is to blame for this state of affairs, the scientific community should first look inward. 


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