Captive chimpanzees Amber and Alyce at LEMSIP; Photo: © Nancy Megna
The number of chimpanzees currently available for research and the number of federally funded protocols involving them are lower than they were 10 years ago.
Although encouraging, the decreasing numbers do not tell the whole story. In recent years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—which provides funding for chimpanzee research—has promoted the increased use of a single chimpanzee for multiple experiments. This policy gives special reason for concern.
Today, chimpanzees are used primarily for infectious disease research. The following provides an overview of their current use in publicly funded biomedical research.
Chimpanzees available for biomedical research are maintained in large numbers at a few centralized facilities. Presently, over half of the estimated 1,000 chimpanzees are housed at two facilities (approximately 325 at New Iberia Research Center and 216 at Alamogordo Primate Facility).
The NIH’s solution to the high cost of chimpanzee housing and care is to promote centralization and multiple uses of individuals. According to its 1997 report, Chimpanzees in Research: Strategies for Their Ethical Care, Management, and Use: “Such large figures [referring to the costs of maintaining chimpanzees for research] argue for careful population management and multiple use whenever possible.”
Individual chimpanzees are used repeatedly by various federal and private laboratories to obtain blood, serum, tissue, and other biological specimens, or in multiple protocols. Since captive chimpanzees can live more than 50 years, this policy could mean decades of multiple experiments, knockdowns, and other procedures. Centralization and “recycling” chimpanzees into multiple research protocols adds to the suffering of these highly sensitive and cognizant individuals.
To learn more attempts to decrease housing and maintenance costs and increase cost-benefit through repeated use of single chimpanzees, see Repeated Use.
Hepatitis research is currently the largest area of chimpanzee use in the U.S. It continues even in the face of valid arguments challenging its scientific worth. In 2006, almost $11 million was spent on infectious disease research involving chimpanzees and over $7 million of that went to hepatitis C research.
Chimpanzees are currently still being used for hepatitis C (HCV) research. However, the course of HCV disease in the chimpanzee differs significantly from its course in humans. These differences, like the disparities seen in other viral infections, is part of the explanation of why using chimpanzees to develop a hepatitis C vaccine for humans is problematic. (For other areas of research limitations and failures from chimpanzee use, see The Case to End Chimpanzee Research.)
Once infected, chimpanzees are typically forced to live in isolation in sterile bio-containment where they are subjected to frequent blood draws and other invasive procedures. Painful liver punch and wedge biopsies are a common and frequent procedure. Although chimpanzees are typically anesthetized for these procedures, anesthesia, appropriate analgesic relief and recovery from the anesthetic as well as the procedure are difficult.
Since the late 1980s, the U.S. government has used hundreds of chimpanzees for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) research. This research is considered largely a failure having resulted in little or no new or applicable information about the disease, its treatment, or cure. In fact, the invalidity of HIV research involving chimpanzees was recently illustrated in “An Assessment of the Role of Chimpanzees in AIDS Vaccine Research,” a published paper by geneticist and Project R&R Science Director Dr. Jarrod Bailey.
In spite of untold attempts to infect chimpanzees with HIV in every conceivable way, only one chimpanzee—Jerom—has ever become ill with an AIDS-like syndrome and died. Despite this, a relatively small amount of HIV research on chimpanzees continues (some $2 million in federal dollars in 2004, in sharp contrast to other areas of research including stem cell in which several billion in federal dollars are allocated). In 1998, AIDS-related studies involving chimpanzees included almost 30 studies per year and that number fell to just four in 2005—a nearly 87% decrease.
Hundreds of chimpanzees were purposely bred in the 1980s for HIV research. They account for the majority of the so-called “surplus” chimpanzees in labs today—many of whom have been languishing for decades warehoused in case of “future need.” Some have remained for years in sterile biocontainment facilities.
Chimpanzees can be infected with many of the same viruses that afflict humans. Which does not however, prove they are a good or even productive model for that particular disease. In fact, time and again, they have failed as a model to replicate human disease and therefore led to limited, erroneous or even dangerous conclusions when applied to humans. Even so, more than one-third of the $29 million dollars spent on chimpanzee research in 2006 went to infectious disease research, which includes hepatitis and HIV studies.
In most cases infected chimpanzees do not become ill as humans do. The course of disease is radically different. Essentially, they are typically being used only as a medium in which to grow viruses and antigens—essentially as living test tubes. Today there are growing numbers of alternatives to this use available and being further researched.
The differences that prevent them from becoming ill have bearing on why their use in such research is questionable. Despite the genetic similarities between chimpanzees and humans, intricate and complex physiological differences exist at the cellular level. For such reasons, their use to study human infectious disease is highly problematic.
Besides infectious disease research, primate researchers and the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), the division of NIH that manages chimpanzee use, consider neuroscience and cognition studies to be other important areas for the use of chimpanzees in research. One past study, for example, attempted to “infect” baby chimpanzees by injecting their brains with brain tissue and spinal fluid from humans suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). To date, the research has not contributed to our understanding of MS in any significant way.
Breeding and maintenance
According to Project R&R’s investigation, 30-50 percent of the total annual cost of federally funded chimpanzee research is for their maintenance. Besides grants given specifically for chimpanzee housing and maintenance, additional costs are often buried in other grants, and when tallied, comprise a significant amount of total funding.
As previously mentioned under “HIV,” hundreds of chimpanzees were bred in the 1980s for HIV research. When this research was deemed largely unsuccessful, the government found itself with a “surplus” of chimpanzee research subjects who were costly to maintain. In 1997, the NIH declared a breeding moratorium on all NCRR owned or supported chimpanzees; this moratorium became permanent in 2007 when federal funding for breeding ended.
For more information, see Federally Funded Breeding.
The difficulty in obtaining information
Project R&R is devoted to investigating and uncovering the ways in which chimpanzees are presently used in experiments. Only through this information will the American public understand how both chimpanzees and tax dollars are being used and wasted since neither use is to our benefit.
Unfortunately, though, information on animals in biomedical research is not readily available to the public and must be gleaned from various sources. (See Uncovering the Truth) The information provided here was obtained primarily from published papers in scientific journals and abstracts of federal grants through the Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects (CRISP) database. As of 2010, CRISP has been replaced by the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORT). Little information is available on experiments that are funded by private companies.
If you have information that adds to, supports, or conflicts with any provided on this site, we welcome your feedback.