Friday, November 20, 2015

Giving Thanks to Chimps

Something special happened this week that, I feel, isn't getting the attention it deserves. With Thanksgiving (US) next week, I felt it was fitting to highlight this event, because to me, it is representative of who and what we forget to be thankful for on a regular basis.

In 2013, the NIH announced it would start to phase out all research and trials involving chimpanzees, sparing only 50 chimps for support of research with very specific needs involving chimps as a model system. As of this week, the NIH has announced that they will no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees. The NIH will no longer retain the 50 remaining chimpanzees, and they will be moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Photo from National Geographic/Getty Images
 Part of the reason this is happening is because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated chimpanzees, including those in captivity, as endangered species. The original placement of wild chimpanzees on the endangered species list occurred in 1990, after being on the "threatened" list since 1976. This is a tragic reason, but the response from the NIH is absolutely the right move. A small move, but a valuable one.

I bring this up, not only because it is a personal issue for me, but because we benefit from products and technologies that have been tested on chimpanzees and many other animal species often without thinking about it. Historically, chimpanzees have been used for a wide range of biomedical research subjects and topics, including psychological research, and an endless list of health and medicine-related topics. Private institutions in the US started using chimpanzees in laboratory research in the 1920s, while the NIH waited until 1960 to establish the first government-operated non-human primate research center. If you want to learn about the first 100 chimpanzees brought from Africa specifically for research purposes, I highly encourage you to visit the First 100 Chimps website, from Lori Gruen.

Photo from Corbis Bettmann and National Geographic
Long before their use in biomedical and psychological research, many species of non-human primates were a source of heavy fascination during the height of colonialism in Africa. The two most popular past times were trying to capture live orangutans in the wild, and capturing smaller primate species to keep as pets.

Photo from the Expanded Environment
One of the most well known research areas was the use of chimpanzees for HIV research, starting in the mid-1980s. Chimpanzees are the most genetically-related species to humans, but that doesn't necessarily make them good models for research. It took almost a decade for the NIH to realize that chimpanzees are poor models for HIV research, which ceased breeding programs for federally-owned chimpanzees in 1995. At this time, there was a surplus of chimpanzees in research-associated captivity as a result of the rapid increase in HIV research, and the assumption that chimpanzees were the best animal model. Thus, Chimp Haven was founded to support the retirement of chimpanzees from biomedical research facilities, the entertainment industry, and pet trade.

Speaking of HIV research, I just had the opportunity to see Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania speak about her non-invasive research that has answered many questions about the origin of HIV-1 and HIV-2. By using sequencing technologies to analyze fecal samples from wild primates in Africa (that her team literally collects from the ground in the jungle), she has been able to find the missing pieces of viral origin and evolution. You can find a summary of Dr. Hahn's work on her website (click her name above), or by reading this article from earlier this year.

In 2010, the NIH tried to transfer more than 200 government-owned chimpanzees to the National Primate Research Center in Texas for invasive research studies. Yes, 2010. This was more than a decade after many countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands, started to place strict bans on great ape research. Jane Goodall pressured the NIH to rethink their decision to make more chimpanzees available for invasive research, which lead to a year-long investigation into the necessity of  the use of chimpanzees for research purposes. In 2011, the NIH declared that chimpanzees are "largely unnecessary for biomedical research".

Photo from the Jane Goodall Institute
Yet, while legislation is in place to protect chimpanzees and other species from unnecessary use and cruel treatment during research, many private companies (note: not getting government funding) still have and maintain chimpanzee research facilities. Some companies in the US have already ceased using chimpanzees, or have declared that they will phase out their use of chimpanzees by 2020 (click for list of companies). If you'd like to follow the periodic retirement and movement of chimpanzees into sanctuary facilities, I encourage you to visit the Last 1000 website, also maintained by Lori Gruen.

Here's the important part from the NIH's statement from the director regarding the retirement of the last 50 chimps:

"These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH."

Don't be fooled. This ends the use of chimpanzees in government facilities and government-funded research, but the use of chimpanzees has not been banned in the US. Private companies can still use chimpanzees and other non-human primates, as long as they adhere to the strict "humane usage" guidelines. Here is a website that will give you more information about animal species currently used in laboratory research.

Photo from KPBS

Chimpanzee research originated before many of us were born, and other than the amazing Jane Goodall, there are not many champions bringing this issue to light. When I decided to pursue biological sciences -- specifically infectious disease research -- as a career, I decided I would never take a job that would require me to do anything with animals directly, and I didn't want to be involved with projects that relied on animal research. In the time that I've been working as a scientist, the number of technologies and discoveries that minimize the need for animal research has exploded. In my opinion, we are moving towards a time in science where animal models wont be necessary anymore. There are many people that don't agree. I encourage you to look at the available facts, and decide for yourself.

But before you do that, think about the animals, and specifically the chimpanzees, that have been involved in research. Think about the animals that have been breed specifically for research purposes. Think about the biomedical advances we've had thanks to animal models. If you are going to spend some time next week thinking about what you are thankful for, consider being thankful for chimpanzees, and for the sanctuaries that are dedicated to caring for them.

Has this made you wonder what brands you use that currently test on animals? Here's a good, comprehensive list.

For a good visual guide of the history of the use of chimpanzees for research, check out this site.