IOM Committee on Chimpanzee Research

May 31, 2011

The Nature News Blog has a bit on the recent meeting of the Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The NIH commissioned the Institute of Medicine to:

Explore contemporary and anticipated biomedical research questions to determine if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries and to determine the safety and efficacy of new prevention or treatment strategies. If biomedical research questions are identified:

Describe the unique biological/immunological characteristics of the chimpanzee that make it the necessary animal model for use in the types of research.
Provide recommendations for any new or revised scientific parameters to guide how and when to use these animals for research.

Explore contemporary and anticipated behavioral research questions to determine if chimpanzees are necessary for progress in understanding social, neurological and behavioral factors that influence the development, prevention, or treatment of disease.

I was struck by a comment reported by the Nature News blog from a participant who objected to the scope of the study.

Committee member Jeffrey Kahn, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, asked Rockey why the committee’s statement of task did not touch on the ethics and morality of chimpanzee research, but only on the whether the science warrants continued research.
On the heels of a closed committee session yesterday morning, “Many of us have questions about the scope of the task,” Kahn said. “It talks mostly about necessity of chimp research….it doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness of using chimps in research.”

Is this not obvious? Is not determining the value of research using a given species of animal a necessary prior determination? It certainly is in the viewpoint of scientists. Those of us who use animals in our research believe, for very good reasons, that the use of these animals is not just for entertainment’s sake or to keep ourselves employed spinning meaningless wheels. We go to repeated lengths in formal documentation, as it happens, to supply the justification based on a meaningful outcome. And not just for our general line of work but rather for the specific studies we plan to conduct.
It is part and parcel of much of our professional work that there is a reason we do the studies we do.
If there were no value to be obtained* then there would be no point in having the discussion of ethics or morality. Because the research would obviously be unjustified.
I pointed out in a prior post that those who oppose the use of animals in research like to pretend that the full distribution of opinions is on the table. It is not. (Sidebar: See that right hand edge of the distribution? That’s how most people feel about, say, stepping on a cockroach on their kitchen floor or swatting a mosquito that is buzzing around them…hey, it hasn’t bitten you yet, right? Think there isn’t anyone who thinks of mice and rats the same way?)

BellCurve-AnimalUseAttitudesSm.png
Is the use of animals in research justified?

Although we can never be absolute, believe you me that the viewpoint that we humans can use animals for whatever, whenever in whatever manner we like with no concern for their welfare, distress, pain or suffering is not present in the working lives of animal research scientists. I don’t know a single scientist who believes this or acts in any way as if they believe this. More importantly, the regulating structures (all of them) which govern the use of animals in scientific research do not act on this belief. The formal enterprise of research science acts as if there needs to be a purpose.
Because, note well, if there is not a purpose then we (meaning individual scientists and the regulating structures) believe that animals should not be used.
And you know what? Supposedly the less frothy version of the Animal Rights advocate believes the exact same thing. How do we know? Because they are always on about how X, Y or Z use of animals in research has no value– whether it is because they don’t understand that science is not an exact straight line between experiment and therapy or believe in fantasies about “computer models” or because they inhumanely downplay the currently unmet health concerns of other folks. The bottom line, however, is that they reference the value of the research as well.
So why start muddying the waters with complaints about a mission which focuses on this value of outcome and insist that we need to load up the discussion with “ethics” and “morals” from the start?’
Are they stipulating the point? Are they agreeing in advance that they do understand there is value in chimpanzee research right off the bat?
Because if they think there is no value, they should just concentrate on demonstrating that. It is a much, much shorter route to their apparent goal than is dragging up a murkier discussion of ethics.
Conversely if they think that there is indeed value in chimpanzee research then is it not more profitable to stay away from falsifiable arguments that they don’t even believe themselves? Wouldn’t it be better to start from the agreed-upon facts? One of the surest ways to lose an argument is to base it on a readily falsifiable assertion. If they argue there is no value to be had from chimpanzee research, then a single demonstration of value falsifies their position. And they start from a hole.
Far better to admit that there is value and then go on to argue why that value is not worth it.
__
*This is not to say that every study that uses animals is necessarily valuable in the way that the original justification proposes**. This is science after all and the outcome is unknown…and if it were not then the justification would be much weaker, yes?
**Nor to say that everyone agrees on the value of a given study.

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24 Responses to “IOM Committee on Chimpanzee Research”

  1. Greg Laden Says:

    Nixon had a similar theory.

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  2. Greg Laden Says:

    By the way, I’d wager that the number of people in the US who are on the right side of the vertical line in your graph is much larger than indicated by that graph. It might be a majority of individuals.
    Of course, the use of chimpanzees in research should be allowed, but only in the same way and to the same degree as humans, using a proxy to stand in for them in the decision making process. And that opinion is coming from a guy who has eaten his share of monkeys.

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  3. Dario Ringach Says:

    “Is this not obvious? Is not determining the value of research using a given species of animal a necessary prior determination?”
    Necessary but not sufficient… unless you are a pure utilitarian. If you are an animal rights person, however, you may feel (like Greg above) that it should be allowed only to the same degree that you may allow it in orphaned, cognitively incapacitated humans.
    I sincerely wish at some point NIH would take the lead and hold a public discussion on the ethics of animal research in general. I don’t think this chimp committee is the place to do so. But it is important for scientists to communicate why we feel strongly the research is not only scientifically valid but morally permissible.

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  4. Greg Laden Says:

    …feel (like Greg above) that it should be allowed only to the same degree that you may allow it in orphaned, cognitively incapacitated humans. …
    Way to totally misunderstand and misrepresent what I said!
    (Oh, and I’m not an “animal rights person” … I’m a scientist and I’ve worked quite a bit with animals).
    Humans are used in scientific research all the time. There are far more humans in research projects than there are chimps, or even great apes in general. I think almost none of them are “orphaned, cognitively incapacitated humans”, though I’m sure that was more common in the past. (A lot of them are undergrads, but that’s not exactly the same.)

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  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    Necessary but not sufficient…
    And I do hope it is clear that this is exactly the point I was making. It is a necessary starting point that there be some sort of value. No, this doesn’t mean that it is sufficient justification, just that I can’t imagine much in the way of a sufficient justification that doesn’t include this part.
    Way to totally misunderstand and misrepresent what I said!
    Greg, the fact that your first comment was an unadorned Godwin perhaps sets a certain tone as to your position, whether that is an accurate impression or not…

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  6. Greg Laden Says:

    I’m pretty sure you don’t know what a Godwin is. Which can only mean that Adolf Hitler is in this blog somewhere.

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  7. Dario Ringach Says:

    @Greg,
    Perhaps I misunderstood, but your position, as stated, is very close to that of many animal rights philosophers would argue. Namely that –
    “the use of chimpanzees in research should be allowed, but only in the same way and to the same degree as humans, using a proxy to stand in for them in the decision making process.”
    So why just chimps and not other species? What makes them so different?
    Yes, humans participate in research but typically give their informed consent (or a guardian does it for them if they are minors).

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  8. Greg Laden Says:

    Dario, I’ve discussed my position on this at length elsewhere. See: http://tinyurl.com/4yb452j

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  9. Dario Ringach Says:

    I see. We partly agree…
    However, I believe it is obvious that humans can enter into a social agreement upon which rights can be based that other species cannot. It is not arbitrary that humans, and humans alone, have developed such a set of societal rules.
    Of course, this does not mean we can treat animals in any way we want. Animals are sentient, living beings that deserve our moral consideration.
    But the only meaningful question before us is how we should treat them (and not if they have rights — they don’t.)

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  10. I read that dude’s complaint as asserting that a threshold inquiry should be made as to whether there could exist any possible value of research that would justify experimenting on chimpanzees. Because if the answer is no, then there is obviously no point in assessing the value of any particular line of research to be performed on chmpanzees.
    (Of course, such a threshold inquiry would be 100% morally and pragmatically incoherent, but if you ignore that, then what he is asserting is not prima facie illogical.)

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  11. Dario Ringach Says:

    The dude’s complaint is simple – “Why not discuss the ethics as well?” It is a reasonable complaint, and one that I think NIH and the scientific community has to tackle not just for chimp research but for all animal research. The sooner the better.

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  12. Greg Laden Says:

    “However, I believe it is obvious that humans can enter into a social agreement upon which rights can be based that other species cannot. It is not arbitrary that humans, and humans alone, have developed such a set of societal rules.”
    Absolutely true. If my personal preference was met, that problem would simply have to be addressed, one way or another.
    I happen to draw the line where I draw it for more or less arbitrary reasons as I describe in those posts, but the lay of the landscape on which I draw the line is not at all arbitrary (It’s phylogenetic). Putting great apes on one side of that line is, for me, much easier than it might otherwise be because they are very nearly extinct and the rate of loss in the wild is not diminishing at all in recent times. That may or may not relate directly to their use in lab research (it does not directly at the moment), but I’m not a big believe in the theory that everything gets better over time and old problems can’t return. Especially in the parts of Africa where chimps and gorillas currently live. (The same probably applies to Borneo and Indonesia but I never lived or worked there so I can’t speak from personal experience or from a research perspective.) A couple of decades back the vast majority of chimps used in research were wild caught. Almost all gorillas ever used in research were wild caught. (They are probably not being used at all these days.) Almost all “protected” wild chimp populations are currently under threat despite those protections. The majority of wild chimps live where there is no actual protection at all. One of the most important wild populations in West Africa disappeared over the last few decades (there may be a few left) in large part because of poaching. There is no way that an expanding research program using chimps in labs won’t be a strong potentially negative threat on their conservation status. The status quo is probably low enough level that it does not matter, but given the way things work I think the pressure should be to reduce and dismantle virtually all great ape use in lab research, to the extent possible, and there should be a category of subject that simply includes all great apes, in which we include humans.
    Great apes are a special case no matter how you slice it.
    Perhaps we mostly agree, but this: “So why just chimps and not other species? What makes them so different?” if not bait (and its fine if it is bait) is a strong clue that you’ve not thought about the issue at all. Which I doubt. Of course, we’re talking about it now, aren’t we!

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  13. Dario Ringach Says:

    “Putting great apes on one side of that line is, for me, much easier than it might otherwise be because they are very nearly extinct and the rate of loss in the wild is not diminishing at all in recent times.”
    However, most philosophers will argue that the “species” is not the basic object of moral concern; it is the individual sentient being.
    One may argue that a “species” deserves moral consideration but only indirectly, depending on the effect it may have on individual beings or the environment. If animals have rights, then it would be impossible for humans to intervene and control animal populations. We would need to let species go extinct.
    This realization created a tension between animal rights and environmental ethics that has never been fully resolved. See Sagoff’s “Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Bad Marriage, Quick Divorce” (available online).
    I think that most philosophers will tell you that you are in shaky ground if you want to argue we have a moral obligation to a “species” or the “environment”.
    Fortunately that’s not my position — I am all for saving the chimps. I do not think chimps (or other animals) have rights, but we certainly have obligations to them. But we should not confuse rights with obligations.
    As for biomedical research, I think it makes sense to discuss and stipulate clear ethical criteria as to what types of experiments we, as a society, deem permissible various species given their various cognitive abilities. I feel we need NIH to tackle such issues. These are dynamic boundaries that we should probably revise as we learn more about animal cognition. Of course, this exercise if futile if you are dealing with individuals and/or organizations that oppose animal research based on the notion of animal rights.

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  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    I read that dude’s complaint as asserting that a threshold inquiry should be made as to whether there could exist any possible value of research that would justify experimenting on chimpanzees.
    Very good point CPP. Perhaps that was his agenda. But I think this one is also easily addressed and not in his favor. With monkey research we eradicated polio, near enough. Suppose a similarly effective vaccine (or therapeutic cure of some nature) were found for HIV/AIDS using chimpanzee. Would most people find it okay to have used, say, a dozen chimpanzees for that end result? If all it took was experimentally infecting them with a pathogen from which they do not develop disease (say, for arguments’ sake) and then obtaining a blood sample every 6 mo?
    Now, perhaps some people’s answer is “still not acceptable” but we’re down to a really extreme fringe on that (and I’m not counting those that are anti-gay and think HIV is God’s just punishment or whatever). The greater population of those opposed to animal research would argue that my scenario is not realistic….aaaaand we’re right back to discussing the potential value of the research, are we not?

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  15. Greg Laden Says:

    However, most philosophers will argue that the “species” is not the basic object of moral concern; it is the individual sentient being.
    They would be arguing themselves into irrelevance. First, I never mentioned sentient beings. Second, we’re talking about species and how to adapt rules at the species level.
    If animals have rights, then it would be impossible for humans to intervene and control animal populations. We would need to let species go extinct.
    Also irrelevant, mostly. We were talking about laboratory research on animals.
    I think that most philosophers will tell you that you are in shaky ground if you want to argue we have a moral obligation to a “species” or the “environment”.
    What is a moral argument, what is the moral argument, who is making a moral argument?
    I am all for saving the chimps. I do not think chimps (or other animals) have rights, but we certainly have obligations to them.
    Personally, I think obligations would speak to rights, so they have them, but I’m also bored by pedantic arguments.
    I think you are fond of the post hoc argument. You should be a linguist.

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  16. becca Says:

    I think I see exactly where Kahn is coming from.
    It seems to me like the committee is asking questions like “Is this study with chimps more valuable then these 3 studies with rodents?” (i.e. doing a cost-benefit analysis based on science, assuming funding is a constant, keeping in mind that nonhuman primate studies are expensive).
    It might be awfully hard to go into that discussion (depending on who else is on the committee) with the position “If we can do it in rodents, we should, even if we might not learn quite as much, just because primates are more important than rodents”- that presupposes a *moral cost*, which appears to be off the table as a consideration for the committee.
    Truthfully, I can’t see how you can usefully discuss animal research as a scientific question without simultaneously addressing the ethical questions, anymore than vice versa.

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  17. harlequinclrty Says:

    I know I’m going to get pinged for an appeal to authority here, but I just have to ask about this:

    …if not bait (and its fine if it is bait) is a strong clue that you’ve not thought about the issue at all. Which I doubt.

    Greg, do you not know who Dario is? Because if not, it is painfully clear you do not keep up with animal research vs animal rights news at all.

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  18. Dario Ringach Says:

    Greg,
    I am sorry, but this discussion is indeed about ethics. An ethical discussion is what this committee member is demanding from IoM.
    “What is a moral argument, what is the moral argument, who is making a moral argument?”
    Obviously you are not making a moral argument. That is exactly my point.
    So what type of argument are you putting forward making for saving the chimps as a species and them out of the reach of biomedical research? A pragmatic one? What?!
    “Personally, I think obligations would speak to rights”
    No, obligations and rights are not the same thing. Rights entail obligations but the reverse is not true. For example, if I promise my students that I will grade their exams by Friday, then I have an obligation to them. But my students do not have a “right” to have their exams graded by Friday. At the risk of sounding pedantic (again), I’d recommend you read the book by Regan and Cohen on the topic of animal right where they cover this topic in detail.
    “I think you are fond of the post hoc argument. You should be a linguist.”
    I prefer to remain a neuroscientist. Thank you.

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  19. I come from a farming family, where animals are reared for meat (and profit) and also worked for a time for the veterinary division of a pharmaceutical company. For this reason I am well aware of the arguments for the use of animals in research – where this is done under proper controls, and normally approve such work.
    However I am worried about the use of primates for a particular reason. While it is hard to imagine a chimpanzee’s or gorilla’s emotional state I have experience of the impact of inhumanly caging another primate. My own daughter, Lucy, had a severe mental breakdown in 1984 and shortly after being discharged from hospital she started to becave in a manic manner and was arrested. The “wonderful” British National Health Service refused to readmit her and as a result she spent many months in a bare cell in effective solitary confinement, before the courts were able to send her to hospital. Not only was she destroyed by being caged, but the very act of watching her mentally disintegrate in the cell effectively destroyed the family – indirectly leading me to take early retirement, abandoning the CODIL project, and also leading to the death of her sister Belinda.
    Of course the conditions in which laboratory apes are raised are far better than the conditions applied to seriously mentally ill prisoners, and if born and raised in captivity the apes will not be aware of what they are missing. The current controls on the use of primates are probably adequate – but I would strongly prefer that the apes are treated as our cousins, who can experience similar emotions, and are not subjected to actions which we would consider cruel if they were human.

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  20. Isabel Says:

    “The current controls on the use of primates are probably adequate – but I would strongly prefer that the apes are treated as our cousins, who can experience similar emotions, and are not subjected to actions which we would consider cruel if they were human.”
    It’s horrible. And I’m sure the conditions are not great.
    Our closest cousins, and all four sub-species endangered. I may be fringe, but I hardly agree that anything goes if it has any potential to one day help human beings.
    Why can’t we protect our closest relatives from extinction?
    How much value to the science of human health will be lost when that happens? A lot more than the loss to science that is being discussed here.

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  21. Gerry L Says:

    Anyone here, no matter where you come down on this issue: Here is a book you should read. (Should I make this a challenge?) The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll.
    Or at least read a review of the book: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2011_06_017752.php

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  22. Isabel Says:

    Wow, that sounds like an amazing book, thanks for the link. I saw something on PBS about that place. It was sad, a new arrival was having a hard time with the concept of freedom, but eventually grew confident enough to explore. Thrilling, yet heartbreaking.
    This is incredible!! from the review liked to above:
    But by Westoll’s design, the 13 chimpanzees overshadow everyone else in the book. We meet Rachel, who carries everywhere with her two stuffed miniature gorillas for comfort, but who succumbs to such overwhelming anxiety that she attacks her own limbs. We meet Tom, fresh from 15 years at LEMSIP and 16 more at the Alamagordo Primate Facility in New Mexico. Westoll sums up Tom’s life before he met Gloria:
    For more than thirty years, he was repeatedly infected with increasingly virulent strains of HIV, went through numerous hepatitis-B studies, and survived at least sixty-three liver, bone marrow, and lymph-node biopsies. Tom has gone through more surgeries than anyone else at Fauna — by Gloria’s estimate, he was knocked unconscious at least 369 times, but this number is based on incomplete medical records and is certainly an underestimate.
    It was Tom who arrested me the most. He’d arrived at the sanctuary with a foot injury sustained in a fight with another male. Given oral antibiotics, Tom developed diarrhea. So Grow and her team asked Tom to comply in his own care. The first step was to put his foot in a bowl of water. Westoll recounts Grow’s memory: “It sounds crazy to say it now. And we were completely shocked when Tom just did it, no questions asked.” And he pushed his foot through to caretakers, too, so they could pat it dry and apply antibiotic cream.
    Soon, Tom indicated he wanted to continue the care all on his own. And so, in Grow’s words: “We made him a tray with everything he’d need — paper towels, tissues, the spatula, the ointment in a Dixie cup.” Tom treated himself capably. Later, the chimpanzee Regis sustained a bad bite wound. At first, Grow treated him, but when Regis’s strength returned, that option was no longer safe. She then left for Tom all the medical materials on a trolley; Tom cleaned and treated Regis’s wound for a week.
    Does Tom’s nursing behavior seem incredible? Here’s where Goodall’s, Boesch’s, and de Waal’s research comes in. Decades of research in the wild and captivity shows that chimpanzees are remarkably resourceful and intuitive problem-solvers, just as Tom was in this instance.

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  23. John Says:

    This column is confusing and contains a bit of doubletalk.
    The author suggests that we should begin by assuming that animal research has value. But (apparently recognizing that this cannot be a global assumption or determination) he then concedes that “This is not to say that every study that uses animals is necessarily valuable.” In that caveat lies the whole point, namely, the determination of *what* research is valuable, necessary and non-duplicative. It is the job of every IACUC in this nation to determine if research is justified. That is the rationale for the 3 Rs and for the alternatives search.
    Secondly, his point that the full spectrum of opinion has been truncated is important (right-censored in his graph). Those unconcerned about animals in research almost certainly use animals for other purposes, like for food, and they almost certainly use drugs that were developed from animal research. So regardless of their silence, they are implicitly involved in this discussion. It would be interesting and worthwhile to know what they think & feel.
    Finally, I see nothing wrong and everything right with Jeffrey Kahn’s question about the narrow scope of the Committee’s charge. It is the job of every IACUC in the nation to consider the ethics of animal welfare balanced against the quality of and need for the research, for every proposed animal study protocol that comes under review. How could anyone reasonably expect less of the IOM Committee? To have artificially truncated their purview is short-sighted, if not irresponsible.

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  24. alex fairchild Says:

    If we don’t inject a human with the IQ of a chimp with an HIV strain without their consent, then we should not do it to chimpanzees. Whatever logic got you to the first, should get you to the second.
    Me, I’m for the death penalty, for example. I think it’s a swell idea. And I would probably support biomedical research on death row inmates with no possibility of parole, if I had to vote on it. But that is currently not allowed – for ultimately arbitrary reasons. It seems clear to me those very same arbitrary reasons should apply to Pan, they are kin that have the same sentient capacity as some members of Homo. Really, the only ‘magical’ difference between them and us is we can’t ever breed successfully. But if that’s your line – then you should have no problem with injecting sterile folk with the IQ of a chimp full of retroviruses.

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