In early 2011, the National Institute of Health requested that the Institute of Medicine, the highest scientific body, examine the scientific value -- and the scientific value only -- of chimp research. But as reported by the Washington Post, after a public meeting last week the committee said ethical issues can not be put aside:
“We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue,” Frans de Waal told the IOM committee. The Emory University researcher, whose pioneering studies with captive chimpanzees have revealed their human-like empathy, continued, “We don’t have this kind of meeting about rats.”
Ajit Varki at the University of California, San Diego, who has extensively reviewed the biomedical differences between humans and chimpanzees, concludes that chimpanzees and humans handle diseases differently despite their nearly identical genes and proteins.
Nevertheless, Varki argues that this is actually a reason to continue ethically studying chimpanzees: if we can figure out why diseases manifest themselves differently in chimps and people despite such high genetic similarity, we can better understand how to treat those diseases.
Due to their genetic similarity -- the genetic code of humans and chimpanzees is 98 percent similar -- chimps have been used in pharmaceutical research. Consequently, chimpanzee medical research has resulted in vaccines for hepatitis A and B, as well as some insight into HIV.
However, the Washington Post reports that due to expense and better technology, chimpanzee research is becoming less popular:
From 2007 to 2010, the number of biomedical chimp studies conducted in the United States declined from 53 to 32, said Robert Purcell, a virus researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of [the National Institute of Health]. Just one of those studies involved HIV — which in the 1980s and 1990s was extensively studied in apes. None of the studies involved cancer.
[. . .]
One big reason for the drop: Drug companies are forgoing chimp studies. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would no longer use any apes. Biotech giant Genentech also ended the practice, said Theresa Reynolds, director of drug safety assessment at the company. “With advances in technology, chimps are no longer necessary” for developing high-tech drugs called monoclonal antibodies, she said. Before the Institute of Medicine meeting, Reynolds informally polled executives at “six or eight” other biotech firms; none use chimps.