5. Aug, 2019

Giving back to the chimps some of the good life

Chimpanzee research in the United States started in the famous Robert Yerkes primate colony in Orange Park Fla in the 1920s. Yerkes groundbreaking studies primarily concerned the behavior and cognitive abilities of chimpanzees.  But in the 1940s, research at Yerkes Primate Research Center changed from behavioral to biomedical studies. The chimps genetic similarity  to humans was  the reason why chimps were used for  testing  for the toxicity of medical and non-medical substances,   the  search for the polio vaccine, and medications for tuberculosis, cancer, and hepatitis.#  

In 1986, the  National Institutes of Health (NIH)  started the Chimpanzee Biomedical Research Programs to study HIV and AIDS.  Hundreds of these primates received HIV injections in order to analyze how the virus develops into AIDS. Around the year 2000, there were about1,600 chimps in the United States being used for biomedical testing.  Some were owned by NIH, whereas others belonged to universities, foundations, and companies. A couple of years later it became clear that chimps were not a good model for human medical research since they are immune for diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and the most common forms of malaria. Chimps also develop other forms of cancer than those affecting humans. They also do not develop Alzheimer disease, although their brain contains amyloid plaques like humans**.  The conclusion was that three decades of vaccine research using chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates has been startlingly unproductive. This eventually led the NIH to cease funding for HIV-AIDS research using chimpanzees.

 In 2000  the U.S. government effectively ended invasive work on chimpanzees and funding of this research and decided to retire chimps. Then in 2015— only 4 years ago today—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified all U.S. chimps as endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them.   Great Britain also quit granting licenses for the use of any of the four great apes as research test subjects. Other countries have since followed, including the Netherlands (2002), Sweden (2003), Austria (2006) and Japan (2006).  

In subsequent years the use of chimpanzees for medical research also raised increasing controversy because of their humanlike traits and genetic similarity. The more critical attitude was reinforced by publications by Jane Goodall on chimps in the African wilderness and Frans de Waal from the  Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. Their studies showed an astonishing similarity between the emotions and social behavior of chimps and those of humans.  These new insights convinced many people that chimp biomedical testing was ethically indefensible.

But what to do with the enormous number of retired chimps in the US, once used for medical research? NIH declared that all of its approximately 300 chimpanzees would be retired, though it gave no time frame. Experts assumed that the remaining 340 or so in private hands would follow suit.  A law passed in 2000 created a national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. The nonprofit sanctuary’s founders, who had worked with chimps in laboratories, felt that the highly intelligent animals—who, like humans, use tools, have some form of culture, and live in complex social groups—deserved to live out their lives in a setting designed wholly around their needs.

To date, still less than half (470) of the former 1000 lab chimps reside in sanctuaries,  Chimps Haven and Save the Chimp being the largest, while most of the other 577 chimps are still languishing in research facilities in suboptimal conditions (see *).  The happy and good news is that many middle-aged chimps -even after having spent many years in the confinement of research laboratories- when placed in sanctuaries have returned to their normal behavior and instincts, playing, grooming and even seeking ants in a termite hill***

#Other non-human primates frequently used in biomedical research all over the world are three species of macaques and various types of  Asian monkeys and baboons