On a recent flight I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the umpteenth installment in the poorly aging Planet of the Apes series about a chimpanzee genetically enhanced during an Alzheimer's drug experiment. I suspect that if Charlton Heston were alive today he'd be furious at Hollywood for ruining one of his signature films. I can see him now, dropping to his knees in disgust at the end of the film and yelling at the screen: "You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
The film's not-so-delicately delivered message (spoiler alert!)—the chimp-involved drug experiment leads to the demise of human civilization and the rise of the apes—reflects real concerns that have emerged over the past several decades about the use of chimpanzees in research. Chimps have a long and somewhat sordid history in biomedical and behavioral research dating back to the 1920s. Our great ape cousins were used in experiments that led to space flight, in HIV and hepatitis research, and in behavioral research seeking to better understand human and chimpanzee cognition. The European Union banned research on all great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans—in 2010.
Why have activists and scientists alike singled out chimpanzees for special protections in research? Well, on the one hand, their close genetic relatedness to humans has made chimps an important subject in biomedical and behavioral research. On the other hand, their status as our closest evolutionary cousins demands a higher ethical standard than with other animals, especially when justifying potentially dangerous and deadly research, and especially because of their high cognitive and emotional intelligence.
And so last week the Institute of Medicine (IOM), at the request of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued a report establishing "a set of uniform criteria for determining when, if ever, current and future research use of chimpanzees is necessary to treat, prevent or control public health challenges." While the report acknowledged the important role that chimpanzee research has played in the development of drugs and treatments for serious human disease and the advancement of scientific knowledge more generally, it also acknowledges that "recent advances in alternate research tools, including cell-based technologies and other animal models, have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects."
"Most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary," the report concludes. It does note several important exceptions: hepatitis C vaccine research (the committee was divided on whether "chimpanzees are necessary to the development of a preventive HCV vaccine"), short-term monoclonal antibody research (being phased out), comparative genomics research (using minimally invasive techniques that minimize pain and distress), and behavioral research.
The IOM report proposed three justificatory principles for chimpanzee research:
- That the knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public's health;
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
- The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments (i.e., as would occur in their natural environment) or in natural habitats.
Within 24 hours of the report's release, NIH Director Francis Collins accepted the IOM committee recommendations and issued an immediate temporary moratorium on "any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place." The significance of this move should not be underestimated. Whether you are a card-carrying member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or a hepatitis C vaccine researcher, this is a step in the right direction. Once these proposed changes are institutionalized through the NIH and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), the standards for chimp research will change.
One serious shortcoming of the proposal is that it covers only federally funded research. So private companies, including pharmaceutical and biotech companies, which are, in fact, moving away from using chimps and other great apes, are not legally obligated to follow the new rules. That is why animal rights advocates are pushing for stricter legislation: the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (with bipartisan support) would prohibit "conducting invasive research on great apes" and "possessing, maintaining, or housing a great ape for the purpose of conducting invasive research." The Act would also stop ape breeding for research purposes. The Human Society of the United States has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "to upgrade all chimpanzee populations as endangered—an outcome that would also end the use of chimps in invasive experiments." Finally, the Great Ape Project, founded in 1994, seeks to "guarantee the basic rights to life, freedom and non-torture of the non-human great apes."
Another potential shortcoming of the IOM report may be how its recommendations are put into effect. The standard currently proposed—that "knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public's health"—is certainly amenable to interpretation and it remains to be seen how the National Institutes of Health will establish a policy that truly limits chimp research.
On the same flight that I struggled through Rise of the Planet of the Apes (in keeping with my "Great Ape Film Series"), I also watched the documentary Project Nim. That film tells the story of Nim, a chimpanzee taken from its mother just days after its birth and raised with a human in order to see if it could learn to communicate with language. The film is a devastating indictment of the project as it follows Nim from his brief life as a research subject to the dangerous and degrading facilities where he would live out his post-Project days. By the end of the film, tears streaking down my face, I couldn't help but feel that not only had Nim been horribly wronged—stolen from his mother at birth and torn from his human companions over and over again—but that all great apes in similar situations have been unduly harmed. By robbing them of their birthright, we've degraded our own humanity.
As a cancer survivor who is alive today largely because of research done on primates (the lymphoma drug rituxan was developed using cynomolgus monkeys), I am a supporter of animal research under strict ethical supervision. Would I feel the same if chimpanzees or other great apes had been used to develop rituxan? Yes, hesitantly, I would. But I also think that with that answer comes an ethical responsibility to make great ape research both obsolete and illegal.