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The Beginning Of The End For U.S. Chimp Research

The NIH will keep 50 chimps in captivity for possible future research. However, these chimps will not be bred.

The National Institutes of Health took a major step Wednesday toward winding down experiments on chimpanzees in the United States.

The agency will retire 310 of its chimps, sending them to live out the rest of their days in sanctuaries like Louisiana's Chimp Haven. Fifty chimps will remain in captivity for future research, though such experiments will be increasingly rare.

"Chimpanzees are very special animals," NIH director Francis Collins told the press on Wednesday. "They are our closest relatives...We believe they deserve special consideration."

Biomedical groups have been calling for an end to chimp research for years.

A 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine found that most chimp research being done in the U.S. was not necessary. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also come out against using chimps for research, proposing to designate captive chimps as an endangered species.

Earlier this year, a group of independent advisers commissioned by the NIH told the agency to shut down many of its ongoing chimp studies. Wednesday's announcement showed the NIH is complying with most of the group's suggestions.

Using chimps in the laboratory has been one of the most contested issues in modern biomedical research. NASA used chimps in early stages of the space race. In the 1980s and '90s, researchers infected chimps with HIV, causing some to die from AIDS more than a decade after exposure to the virus.

Even non-invasive research can be problematic.

Studies have shown that chimps can exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, heightening ethical concerns about keeping these social creatures in captivity for any purpose. The NIH was roundly criticized in 2011 when it tried to pluck more than 200 chimps out of retirement for further research.

But amidst all the controversy, one local researcher argues that ending chimp research may actually harm chimp well-being. UC San Diego professor of medicine Ajit Varki has been a vocal proponent for continuing certain types of chimp research.

"A complete research ban could be damaging to chimps and to their preservation in the wild," Varki is quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

The "genetic research" I have done on chimps used blood samples taken from them during routine medical care and tissues from autopsies following deaths due to natural causes, methods that are ethically acceptable in humans. I am concerned that funding constraints will make it difficult to continue the noninvasive research that has been the least controversial and most beneficial to the species.

Varki was an early advocate for sequencing the chimp genome. Thanks to such genetic research, we now know that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genetic make-up.

Varki said he doesn't condone any research on chimps that would be ethically inappropriate to carry out on humans. But he believes in continuing chimp research in order to study the differences between human and chimp disease patterns — for instance, chimps don't get certain cancers we do, and they get a different form of heart disease.

Varki said he worries that chimp sanctuaries aren't equipped to carry out the kind of post-mortem research that could help us better understand chimp health. Anticipating the coming restrictions on chimp research, Varcki told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2011, "It's a lost opportunity to learn about them and us."

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