A Response to the IOM Report on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research
December 15 marked a very important time in the history of the use of chimpanzees involved in biomedical and behavioral research in the United States. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee which was assigned the task of assessing the necessity of current and future chimpanzee research in the U.S.released its highly anticipated report. While the Committee did not recommend a complete ban on chimpanzee testing, it established a framework of strict criteria that would need to be met for chimpanzee research to be allowed. Using these criteria, the Committee indicated that the chimpanzee model was unnecessary for biomedical progress in many instances.
The Committee’s decision regarding the use of chimpanzees in hepatitis C virus (HCV) research was of particular interest, as chimpanzees have been used extensively in HCV research because they are thought to be the only non-human species that can become persistently infected with HCV (although it should be noted that they respond very differently to HCV than humans and show a different course of disease progression). Interestingly, the Committee deemed chimpanzees unnecessary for the development of hepatitis C antiviral therapies and therapeutic hepatitis C vaccines, and reached a split decision on the necessity of chimpanzees for the development of a preventive HCV vaccine. Although the committee reached this split decision, they were in agreement that it is ethical for such preventive vaccines to be tested in humans with or without chimpanzee data on the issue, suggesting that that chimpanzee model may not be necessary for these studies according to the new criteria. The Committee also concluded that limited chimpanzee research be conducted on therapeutic monoclonal antibodies that are already in the works, estimating that the studies would wind down in a year or two at most, and indicated that chimpanzee research may be necessary for new, emerging, or remerging diseases that we cannot predict at the moment.
Because the report from the IOM committee was just a recommendation to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), perhaps the most important outcome from the events of last week was that the Director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, immediately accepted the report, indicating that it was “compelling and scientifically rigorous” and that he personally agreed with the outcome. Collins indicated that a working group with broad representation, including some NIH employees as well as outside experts, would be established to advise how the Committee’s recommendations will be implemented. Once those principles are in place, additional time will be needed to carefully study the issues at hand and draw conclusions regarding chimpanzee studies. Importantly, Collins noted that no new grants would be issued for projects involving chimpanzee research until the working group decided on how the recommendations would be implemented, and said that current projects involving chimpanzees would be reevaluated using the criteria set forth by the Committee to determine if chimpanzees are truly necessary for that work. He said that current projects using chimpanzees would be reassessed on a project-by-project basis and estimated that 50% of current projects would not meet these new criteria and would be phased out over time, to maintain the integrity of the project and the data already collected.
Although many questions remain, including how long it will take for these changes to be implemented and how many chimpanzees will be affected as a result, this is certainly a step in the right direction. In order for additional changes to be made, the Committee commented that the NIH should continue to support the development of non-chimpanzee models and technologies, as it is because of these models that the scientific need for chimpanzees has decreased over time. New alternatives may eventually eliminate the need for the chimpanzee model altogether.