WASHINGTON - The leading U.S. medical research agency said Thursday it would move to phase out most government-funded experiments using chimpanzees after an independent panel of experts urged strict limits on use of the primates.
The head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said he agreed with the findings of the non-governmental Institute of Medicine and would move quickly to implement the changes it advised.
While stopping short of an outright ban, the IOM called for research on the great apes to continue only if there is no other model available, the research could not be performed ethically on humans, and it would hinder progress against life-threatening conditions if halted.
Chimps may still be necessary in the development of vaccines against hepatitis C, for short-term continued study of monoclonal antibody research against bacteria and viruses, for comparative genome studies and behavioral research, the IOM said.
The IOM is a respected group of medical experts that advises decision-makers and the public on matters of health and policy.
"The committee concludes that while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary," said the IOM in its report.
When chimpanzees are used, the studies should "provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition," the report said.
In addition, all experiments must be performed "in a manner that minimizes pain and distress, and is minimally invasive."
In response, Collins said he would move as quickly as possible to implement its recommendations but declined to say how long a formal review might take.
"Ongoing research involving NIH-owned chimpanzees will be reviewed on a project-by-project basis by the NIH working group to assess whether those projects meet the IOM principles and criteria," Collins said.
"Projects that are found not to meet those will be phased out, but in a fashion that preserves the value of research already conducted," he said.
"Effectively immediately, NIH will not issue any new awards for research involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are in place."
As of May, there were 937 chimpanzees available for research in the United States. The U.S. government supports 436 of them, and the rest are owned and used for research by private industry.
Despite a swell of controversy in recent years, the United States has continued to allow medical studies on chimps ranging from HIV/AIDS vaccines, hepatitis C, malaria, respiratory viruses, brain and behavior.
However, these studies are quite rare, making up just 53 of the 94,000 active projects sponsored by the NIH in 2011, or 0.056 percent of all federally funded US research.
Animal rights groups say the United States spends $30 million dollars a year on chimp research and care, which could be directed to better alternatives, especially given the intelligence of chimps and their endangered status in the wild.
"There are so many reasons why we have ethical concerns," Humane Society spokeswoman Kathleen Conlee told AFP, applauding the NIH move but urging federal protective legislation and a phase-out of all chimp research over three years.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also welcomed the IOM report and said "a blanket denunciation of all experiments on chimpanzees should be the next step."
An NIH proposal to reintroduce 200 retired chimpanzees into research colonies last year caused mounting public outcry and led to the review of chimp research by the IOM.
U.S. research on chimps is mainly conducted at four facilities: the Southwest National Primate Research Center, the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University.
The IOM noted that the NIH called for a moratorium on breeding chimps for research back in 1995, and as a result the U.S. federally funded research population will "largely cease to exist" by 2037.
European Union facilities have not conducted any research on chimps since 1999, and a formal ban on using great apes in research -- including chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans -- was issued last year.
Image: Aaron Logan / via Flickr