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Evolving research practices for our closest relative

Biomedical scientists use animals to discover fundamental biological mechanisms as well as to identify new avenues for treating illness and improving human health. As our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, chimpanzee’s genetic proximity and consequent biological and behavioral characteristics make them a uniquely valuable species for certain types of research, including neuroscience and immunology. However, this very sameness to ourselves makes ethical issues surrounding their use in invasive research even more apparent than with more distantly-related species.

As of 2013, the US was the only major country to fund invasive research on chimps, with use occurring very selectively and in limited numbers. Following a watershed report by the Institute of Medicine which found that most chimp research could be replaced by other animal models or in vitro studies, the NIH deemed that greatly reducing the number of animals available for invasive research was scientifically sound.[1] With this decision, 310 chimps were retired to live in sanctuaries while a colony of 50 chimps remained available for research if ethical requirements were met. Use of chimps in biomedical research has since dropped drastically.

The summer of 2015 has seen this progression to its end. In June, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that all captive chimps, including those used for invasive biomedical research, are now categorized as an endangered species, the same status wild chimps have held since 1990.[2] Under the new legal protections, invasive research may only be conducted to benefit chimps in the wild and to aid in the survival of the species. As reported in Science last week, no research labs in the US have applied for a permit to conduct such research.[3] With the September 14th deadline to stop ongoing projects looming large, the lack of permit applications indicates that invasive chimp research in the US has run its course.  Chimps are still available for non-invasive behavioral research, although the NIH is not currently funding any such studies. 


[1] http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/06/nih-retires-most-research-chimpanzees.html

[2] http://www.nature.com/news/us-government-gives-research-chimps-endangered-species-protection-1.17755

[3] https://www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6250/777.summary

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Reader Comments (3)

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April 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGoku

Under the new genuine certifications, meddling investigation may simply be directed to point of interest chimps in the wild and to help in the survival of the species. As reported in Science a week prior.

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