NIH Retires Last 50 Chimps From All Biomedical Research

The National Institutes of Health is retiring its last remaining 50 chimps that are part of the agency's biomedical research program. Herwig Prammer/Reuters

Updated | Some of the most significant medical advances in the past 50 years have occurred as a result of research involving nonhuman primates. Chimpanzees, in particular, have played a role in medical research critical to public health. Our closest human relatives have helped in efforts to identify the cause of HIV/AIDS and to develop treatments. They have also been critical in research on hepatitis B.

But in June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated chimpanzees as endangered—even those held in captivity—which prompted the National Institutes of Health to announce on Wednesday that it will retire the last 50 chimps that are part of the agency's biomedical research program. The animals will be relocated to Chimp Haven, where they will live out their remaining days roaming, climbing, socializing and eating a healthful diet, says Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH began cutting back on using chimps for experiments in June 2013 at the recommendation of the Council of Councils, an advisory group comprised of leadership from NIH centers and institutes. Since then, any researcher who wished to use the animals was required to submit a proposal to show that the work would not be possible without the chimps.

Collins says that in the past few years not a single proposal has been submitted by a researcher that justifies the use of the animals. "This is the result of five years of careful analysis of whether or not we need chimps for research, and the answer is no," he says. "They are our closest relative—they deserve special consideration."

With advances in technology, the research that used to be done on chimps can now be successfully carried out with human cells—without harming any living creature. The NIH has also been working on a number of projects that will change how biomedical research is carried out, such as organs-on-chips—flexible polymer chips, lined with human cells, that can simulate different organ systems and be used for drug testing.

Collins says the decision to phase out chimpanzees doesn't have anything to do with NIH funding, since the agency will still use a great deal of resources to support the cost of care once the animals are retired.

The news has spurred animal rights activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to move forward with additional campaigns that seek to end the use of other primates in scientific experiments. "We'll be pushing NIH to send these chimpanzees to sanctuary as soon as possible and to extend greater protections for the other 100,000 monkeys and other primates imprisoned in laboratories," says Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations at PETA.

PETA has rallied for several years to end the use of baby rhesus monkeys in research on maternal attachment, mental health and epigenetics. Last month, PETA staged demonstrations at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., while Collins delivered a keynote address at the American Academy of Pediatrics's annual conference.

But Collins says the decision to phase out chimpanzees won't extend to the use of other nonhuman primates.

Earlier this week, Science magazine reported that PETA sent letters to Collins's neighbors, urging them to approach him about the "senseless and cruel psychological experiments" occurring on the NIH campus. PETA launched its campaign in September 2014 after releasing photos, videos and extensive reports on the federally funded baby rhesus monkey research that first began in 2007, conducted primarily at a lab run by Stephen J. Suomi at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Council of Councils as an initiative of the Council of Foreign Relations that connects foreign policy institutes from around the world to discuss key governance issues. The Council of Councils is part of the NIH, a group of members selected from NIH centers and institutes that advises the NIH director.