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Chimpanzees are humans' closest living relative. They're so similar to people that some activists say it's unethical to subject them to invasive medical research. Congress is considering legislation that would ban chimp experiments. Today, a closely-watched panel of independent experts announced their assessment of the need for chimp research. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's already had an impact.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The National Institutes of Health is a major funder of research that uses chimpanzees. Last year, an NIH plan to take nearly 200 chimps out of unofficial retirement and send them to a research facility sparked public outcry. So the NIH asked the Institute of Medicine to assess the state of the science.
DR. JEFFREY KAHN: No one said I'm totally against any chimpanzee restriction, or I'm totally for it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jeffrey Kahn is a bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He chaired the committee that issued the new report.
KAHN: We were all people of open mind and very good will and worked very well together to look at the information.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: About 1,000 chimpanzees live in research colonies in the United States. Some scientists say they're needed for life saving medical research, but animal welfare activists say that modern technology provides alternative ways to study disease.
The committee spent months studying the issue and came to this conclusion: Most of the biomedical research currently being done on chimpanzees is unnecessary. Kahn says the need for chimps will soon decline even further.
KAHN: There is a fairly rapid trajectory towards a decreasing necessity in the use of chimpanzees and we can see, in a relatively near term, where we might not need them at all.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says one major disease still studied in chimps is hepatitis. The hepatitis C virus only infects chimps and humans. The committee found it would be possible for anti-viral drugs against hepatitis C to be developed and tested in people without the need for chimps.
But committee members were evenly split on whether the animals were needed for tests of potential hepatitis C vaccines. Kahn says they did agree that, in the future, there may be new needs for chimp research.
KAHN: We don't have a crystal ball, so we don't know what may come in the future in terms of an emerging new infection or a reemerging infection.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report recommends that the NIH only allow biomedical research on chimps if it meets a strict set of three criteria: There is no other animal or research model that can be used other than chimps; there's no way to ethically do the research on people; and not using chimps would mean significantly slowing or preventing advances to treat or prevent life threatening or debilitating conditions.
KAHN: Now, that's a very, very high bar, and in fact, a much higher bar than is currently in place for the use of chimpanzees.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kahn says the report recommends setting up a new advisory committee that includes members of the public to make sure all research meets those standards.
The director of the National Institutes of Health is Francis Collins. He immediately accepted the report's recommendations.
FRANCIS COLLINS: We intend to absolutely follow these next steps with the greatest intention towards openness and integrity and recognition of the special nature of chimpanzees.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Collins is assembling a working group to advise the NIH on what to do with all the chimps it owns or supports. While that review goes forward, the chimps housed in New Mexico will remain in place and will not be used for experiments. Any new grants for chimp research will have to wait and the working group will review about 37 projects that the NIH is supporting now.
COLLINS: We can't tell how many of those would now fall into areas that would not be supported by the current recommendations, but we'd guess about half of those would need to be phased out.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One head of a major primate research lab said he was pleased that this new working group would help in his lab's ongoing efforts to ensure that research conducted with chimps is both necessary and appropriate.
The Humane Society of the United States has been pushing for a ban on chimp research. Kathleen Conlee works for the society. She welcomed the new report, but doesn't think all changes should be left up to the NIH.
KATHLEEN CONLEE: We need Congress to step in and make sure that this really does happen and that chimpanzee experimentation ends and that we get chimpanzees retired to sanctuary.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She expects that the committee's findings will help them get more support for that effort. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.