The Science And Ethics Of Research On Chimps

The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas is one of only a handful of sites around the world that conduct medical research on great apes. Scientists say their research is conducted humanely, but many animal rights groups say testing on chimps is unneeded and unethical.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

San Antonio is home to one of only a handful of sites around the world that conducts medical research on great apes, in this case, chimpanzees - our closest relatives - therefore, the animal of choice for study of treatments on diseases like hepatitis C.

Over the past few weeks, the U.S. Institute of Medicine initiated a new review to determine if we should continue or join Europe, Australia and New Zealand and Japan, all of which have banned testing on apes.

Scientists insist the research is conducted humanely and that it's the only way to develop potentially life-saving medical treatments. Many animal rights advocates argue that testing on chimps is unnecessary and unethical.

Texas Public Radio news director David Martin Davies covered this controversy here in San Antonio. We're guests in his studio today. Thanks very much for having us today.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES: Thanks for being here, Neal.

CONAN: And what are the scientists at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research here hoping to learn from chimp research?

DAVIES: They're looking to see - look for a cure or way to manage hepatitis C, which is a deadly condition. It's the largest source for things like liver cancer, need for liver transplants. It's - people -many people have it, don't even know they have it. It's a - millions of people could find themselves in need for a cure of hepatitis C. And the only way to, right now, that scientists are looking at using great apes, who they - they give them hepatitis C, but they don't get symptomatic. They don't get ill from hepatitis C, but they're able to use them to test the effectiveness of treatments.

CONAN: And is this - well, an animal rights advocate would say this is cruel inherently. Is the treatment, though, cruel?

DAVIES: Well, the way the - animal rights activists are saying that they're using invasive research on the apes. But that - and that sounds very, you know, terrible, like you're opening up the apes and looking at them. But actually, what they do is they're drawing blood, they're taking biopsies of the - of livers of the apes after they receive the treatment to see if they had any kind of liver damage.

The biopsies are done by insertion of a large needle into the side. The scientists say this is no more painful or uncomfortable to the apes than the apes when they play with each other and bite each other pretty, you know, if they roughhouse.

CONAN: Yes. But as you suggest, other people feel differently. We're talking about research on chimpanzees, biomedical research. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our guest again is David Davies, the news director here at Texas Public Radio. This issue's come up again recently here in San Antonio on the controversy over the idea to import chimps who had been in, I guess, what you might call semi-retirement, and put them back in the game.

DAVIES: Right. There's a New Mexico Air Force base where they had chimps that were being used for research for NASA. And they were going to they had been semi-retired, in a sense; they weren't going to be used for any more experiments. And they were going to move into San Antonio to the - at the Texas Biomedical Research Foundation and use them for -increase the colony that they have here for this testing.

CONAN: And again, the doctors say there is a necessity, but is there any proof that the experiments that they've conducted on these apes has provided with results?

DAVIES: Well, yeah. I mean, they have come up with medical breakthroughs, saying that they're making headway in finding ways to knock down hepatitis C and other medical conditions that impact people. There are a lot of safeguards in place to make sure that the apes are treated humanely. They don't - aren't allowed to use experiment on apes just willy-nilly, just on a whim. I mean, this is very expensive to maintain. A lot of oversight and procedures and policies are in place to make sure the apes are well cared for.

They - there are some activists who say, it doesn't matter, we -humanity does not have a right to use the apes for our experiments no matter what the outcome might be, even if it does come up with a cure or a way to improve the human condition.

CONAN: And you were right. I was wrong. It's called the - change of the name - the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. And now, the National Institutes of Health and the - they've gotten involved with this. This is a survey, really. This is not a new study, but this is an analysis of the results that have come up with and essentially a question: Is this necessary? And if it is necessary, how best to go about it?

DAVIES: Right. But they're looking at if it's beneficial, if they are getting actual results. Animal rights activists are saying that the apes are really not benefiting research and that we could achieve the same thing by using computer models now. The computers are so much more sophisticated.

And so they're going to the National Institutes of Health, which funds a lot of this research using taxpayer dollars. And that's why this is a -something that needs to be a national conversation about what's right and what's wrong on this and what are the ethics that are involved - are now looking at it and are conducting hearings and studies. And they're going to come up with a report on whether or not this type of - these experiments should continue. And - but there are animal rights activists who say they're critical of this procedure because they're saying ethics is not part of the equation. They're just looking at what the results are.

CONAN: And ethics being - they're not taking into account the argument that even if the results are positive, that does not justify experimenting on animals.

DAVIES: That's right. They're saying that under no circumstances, even if there are some benefits to people, you know, the person you got to bring into the conversation is if you are about to undergo an experimental treatment or if you have a condition, do you - you would want to know that everything is possibly been done on this drug before it reached a human person. The first person who takes that drug is going to be the experiment now instead of a chimpanzee.

CONAN: And there's also complaints that this committee has been stacked in favor of those who want to continue testing.

DAVIES: Yeah, but it depends on which side of the fence you're on. The people who are pro-testing are saying likewise is true as well.

CONAN: And how soon is this report expected to come out?

DAVIES: By the end of the year they expect something. There are some more hearings that will be held...

CONAN: Including some public hearings.

DAVIES: ...in Washington, D.C. There'll be one in August, a public hearing, and they expect to have a lot of heated testimony at that time.

CONAN: I wonder, is the biomedical research community here in San Antonio getting a little bit nervous about this?

DAVIES: The entire scientific community is nervous about this. They're concerned that they are losing a national debate about this topic, which is based mainly on emotional issues. And, yeah, Neal, of course, it's an emotional issue. No one wants to mistreat our great apes, our great cousins, but they realize that there is a need for this and it could benefit humanity.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: David Martin Davies, news director here at Texas Public Radio.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at cyber-warfare. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting to you today from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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