NIH stops chimp breeding

Scientists debate whether the decision, which makes a 12-year-old moratorium permanent, will affect biomedical research

Jun 5, 2007
Kirsten Weir
The National Institutes of Health has announced it will permanently stop breeding government-owned research chimpanzees, citing the cost of caring for chimps over their lifetime. Animal rights activists praised the decision, but some scientists warned there may be a significant -- and negative -- effect on biomedical research.According to a statement from the NIH's National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), the agency "acknowledges the continuing importance of chimpanzees to biomedical research," but can no longer justify the expense of caring for the animals.Of the approximately 1,000 research chimps in the United States, roughly half are owned or supported by NCRR. The agency has not supported the breeding of those chimps since a temporary moratorium was established in 1995. The new decision makes the breeding moratorium permanent. However, the NCRR will continue to support the existing chimps in its care. Those animals are housed at four facilities: Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta; the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio; the New Iberia Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana; and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas. In 2000, Congress passed the Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act, requiring research chimpanzees be retired to a sanctuary, rather than euthanized, once they can no longer participate in studies. And a lifetime of care is expensive -- captive chimpanzees can live to age 50 and cost up to $500,000 over their lifetime, the NIH reports.The NIH decision was hailed by animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and Project R&R, an organization whose mission is to end chimpanzee research. Project R&R director Theodora Capaldo said she believes information provided by her organization helped contribute to the verdict. "There is great value in chimp research," Barbara Knowles, a staff scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a member of the NCRR's Chimpanzee Management Plan Working Group, told The Scientist. Given the high cost of their care, however, "the way they're supported has to be reconsidered."Some scientists were optimistic that the NIH's decision will have little impact on biomedicine. Thomas J. Rowell, director of the New Iberia Research Center, expects pharmaceutical and biotech companies will step up to help breed and support the next generation of research chimps. "NCRR hasn't provided support for breeding chimps for over 12 years," he said. "I don't see how this [decision] is going to affect science in the long run." Other scientists disagree. "In the long haul, it surely will be a problem," Robert H. Purcell, co-chief of the laboratory of infectious diseases at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Scientist. "You can't have a small research population. You have to have enough genetic diversity to breed them." Sufficient diversity for breeding is still available, Purcell said, but without an NIH-supported breeding program, "it won't be for long."John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, estimated that 59 chimps must be born annually to sustain the U.S. research population, but currently only 10 to 15 research chimps are born in the country each year, he said. "I don't believe it's likely that any organization will step in. Pharmaceutical companies aren't willing to invest [in chimps] long-term," he said. "It's going to be debilitating for certain kinds of biomedical research." Currently, VandeBerg said, the most important role for chimps is in developing a vaccine and treatments for hepatitis C. "The chimp is the only animal that can be infected with the hepatitis C virus," for which no vaccine yet exists.According to VandeBerg, chimpanzees were also instrumental in developing monoclonal antibodies to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. "These monoclonal antibodies are going to be critical medicines of the future, and it's going to be very difficult to do adequate testing of them [without chimps]." Knowles, however, said that research won't suffer as long as breeders can develop new business plans for raising the expensive research animals. "The charge to the people who breed primates," she said, "is to come to a conclusion about what constitutes a suitable endowment for a chimp."Kirsten Weir mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article: National Center for Research Resources: Chimpanzee Management Program: National Primate Research Center National Primate Research Center Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Cohen, "Constructing chimp haven," The Scientist, May 5, 2003. R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories Elmowalid et. al., "Immunization with hepatitis C virus-like particles results in control of hepatitis C virus infection in chimpanzees," Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2007 May 15;104(20):8427-32. Secko, "Culturing hepatitis C," The Scientist, October 1, 2006. Gawrylewski, "Antibodies go recombinant," The Scientist, May 1, 2007. Pincock, "The trials of keeping track," Autoimmunity - Diseases, Mechanisms, Therapies; Supplement to The Scientist, May 2007. Vierboom, et. al., "Preclinical models of arthritic disease in non-humqaan