NIH to Retire Most Research Chimps

BY Jenny Marder  June 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT

Chimpanzees snack on fruit and vegetables at Louisiana’s Chimp Haven retirement facility. Image by Cameron Hickey.

In another move toward ending invasive research on our chimpanzee cousins, the National Institute of Health announced on Wednesday that it will “substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research and designate for retirement most of the chimpanzees it currently owns or supports.”

The decision was based on recommendations from an advisory group that examined all of the research projects that use chimps. The agency will keep, but not breed up to 50 chimpanzees in case there’s a need for them in future research.

From a statement by NIH-director Francis Collins:

“Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” said Dr. Collins. “Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reported on the subject in a piece that ran in May 2012. For the piece, we visited Chimp Haven, a 200-acre retirement oasis for many federally funded chimps and watched them frolic and play and fight among the sweetgum and elm forests. They are committed to developing space for more retired chimps there and expanding the facility to do so. We also visited the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, where they were doing active disease research on chimpanzees and other primates.

Miles O’Brien reported on the debate over chimpanzee research in 2012. Are there ever cases, he asked, in which the scientific value of research should offset the moral cost of working with chimps?

That institute also released a statement on Wednesday, saying that it was disappointed with the decision and calling 50 “an arbitrarily chosen number” not sufficient to maintain research for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, a virus that affects more than 150 million people.

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Rebecca Jacobson, Patti Parson, David Pelcyger and Justin Scuiletti contributed to this report.