Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

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A young chimpanzee at a laboratory in Sterling Forest, New York.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Fewer Chimpanzees Will Be Used in U.S. Research

Government cites ethics, new technologies as reasons for shift.

The number of chimpanzees in U.S. government-funded research will be substantially reduced under a new set of principles and criteria, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today.

Francis Collins, director of the NIH, cited new scientific methods and technologies that can replace chimpanzee subjects in biomedical experiments as one reason for the shift. Ethical considerations are another.

Chimpanzees' "likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use," Collins said in a statement. (Watch video: "Chimps Outscore Humans.")

"After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do."

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), there are approximately 850 chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories. About 350 of those animals are owned or supported by the NIH.

The new guidelines will mean that about 300 research chimpanzees will be retired in the coming years, to possibly join more than 150 other chimps already housed in the Federal Sanctuary System.

The NIH will retain but not breed up to 50 chimpanzees for future biomedical research. Efforts will also be made to house research chimpanzees in facilities that mimic their natural environments.

There are some obstacles that prevent the new guidelines from taking effect immediately. For example, the NIH says it is working with Congress to remedy a provision that currently limits the amount of money the agency can spend on retiring chimps and caring for them. (See more chimp pictures.)

Chimpanzee Ruling Years in the Making

The NIH made the announcement on Wednesday following a two-year review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) about the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded research. An advisory council was then established to make recommendations on how to implement the IOM's recommendations and to seek out opinions from independent chimpanzee experts, researchers, bioethicists, and the public.

Not all of the council's recommendations were implemented. For instance, the NIH declined a recommendation that the primary living space of research chimpanzees be at least 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) due to a lack of scientific consensus.

The agency said it will engage chimpanzee experts to determine the appropriate minimum space requirements for research chimpanzees.

This week's announcement follows closely upon a recently proposed rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that would upgrade the status of captive chimpanzees from "threatened" to "endangered."

If the FWS proposal is accepted, scientists would be issued permits for the use of research chimpanzees only if their work aimed to "enhance the propagation or survival" of the species.

"Step in the Right Direction"

In a blog post, HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle praised the NIH's decision as one that will "bring about positive and sweeping changes for government-owned chimpanzees in laboratories."

Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at North Carolina's Duke University, also called the move "a step in the right direction."

"Hopefully in the future, the NIH will be spending less money on this aging infrastructure and resources that they didn't need and more money in areas where we can do cutting-edge research," Hare added.

For example, Hare said, the NIH has not historically funded work that aims to eliminate the illegal trade of meat from great apes, including chimpanzees.

Hare argued that such work would be well within the scope of the NIH's mission because the bush meat trade is not only a conservation problem, but also a potential human health threat. (Related blog post: "Bush Meat: Every Man's Protein Until the Forest Is Empty.")

"Things like HIV, Ebola, and Marburg virus originated from great apes, and there are lots of other potential diseases that could lead to human pandemics that could be communicated by the bush meat trade," Hare said.

"There is tremendous need for research on how to slow down and stop the bush meat trade and better understanding of what diseases we might be threatened by if great apes continue to be killed. This is directly in line with the NIH's purview of what they are supposed to be doing."