Should Labs Treat Chimps More Like Humans?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 6, 2005

The announcement last week that scientists have pieced together the genome sequence of the chimpanzee—and found that humans and chimps are 96 percent similar—has reignited a debate over the ethics of biological research using chimpanzees.

Up to 3,000 great apes (mostly West African chimpanzees) live in captivity in the United States. Some are housed in zoos and sanctuaries. But many were bred for medical research. Two federally funded research institutions use chimps for biomedical experiments.

Chimp research proponents point out that important medical advances, such as the development of a hepatitis B vaccine, have been achieved through research with chimpanzees.

Predicting that chimps will play an even greater role in future biomedical advances, scientists warn of a decline in the population of captive chimps available for research. The researchers argue that a federal moratorium on the breeding of chimps in laboratories should be lifted.

Other researchers, however, say that they have an ethical responsibility to treat chimps differently than other research animals. Critics point to the animals' genetic similarity to humans, their ability to use tools, and their sense of "self."

"Chimps are not lab rats or mice, they're unique animals," said Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist and primate expert at the University of California, San Diego.

In an article in the science journal Nature, Gagneux and colleagues went so far as to recommend that studies using chimpanzees should follow ethical principles generally similar to those currently used in studies on human subjects who are unable to give informed consent.

HIV Research

Great ape numbers in the wild have fallen to tens of thousands, and the chimpanzee is considered an endangered animal. A recent United Nations report asserted that every one of the great ape species is at high risk of extinction, either in the immediate future or, in best-case scenarios, within 50 years.

Because of their biological similarities to humans, chimps have long been used in laboratory research in place of human subjects to test, among other things, new drugs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S government supported the breeding of chimpanzees to be used for HIV research. But scientists found that the immune system of chimps does not succumb to the HIV virus. The use of chimps in HIV studies was eventually replaced by work with monkeys.

But the breeding program contributed to overproduction of research chimps. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) subsequently introduced a five-year moratorium on breeding chimps for laboratory research in 1996.

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