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NIH should retire most chimpanzees from medical research, panel says (+video)

Hundreds of chimpanzees at NIH facilities should no longer be used as test subjects, the panel said, but 50 should be kept as a contingency, adding that all the chimps should be housed more comfortably.

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A senior scientific advisory panel at the National Institutes of Health, in a step toward phasing out the use of chimpanzees in federally funded medical research, has found "no compelling evidence" to support keeping hundreds of chimpanzees at NIH facilities and recommends that all but about 50 chimps be retired.

This small group would remain available as a contingency should some unforeseen disease emerge for which chimps would be the best stand-ins for humans. But they, along with the retirees, would be housed in facilities designed to more adequately accommodate the full range of normal chimp physical and social activities – from climbing, foraging, and daily nest-building to hanging out in sizable groups on branches high off the ground, according to the panel.

The panel also recommends ending 16 of 30 research projects involving chimpanzees that the NIH currently is funding. The largest proportional hit falls on biomedical research, one of three categories of projects. Six out of nine current biomedical projects would end.

The ultimate driver behind the recommendations: concerns about the value and ethics of using chimpanzees, biologically the nearest relative to humans, for physically painful and intrusive infectious-disease research.

If the 28 recommendations are implemented, the effort would represent "an historic step forward" in moving chimps out of the lab and into sanctuaries, says Kathleen Conlee, vice-president for animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington.

Even foes of federal legislation to greatly restrict the use of chimps and other "great apes" in biomedical research see merit in the new recommendations.

As a stand-in for humans, "the chimpanzee has played a very important role in the evolution of biomedical research," notes Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington, which fought against the Great Apes Protection and Cost Reduction Act of 2011, which died in December with the end of the 113th Congress.


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