Should Congress Ban Medical Research on Apes?

Afrika Force's flickr page/viaThis post was inspired by watching an in-flight showing of the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film depicts the power struggle between apes whose intelligence is boosted via human experimentation for medical research, and the humans who want to subdue them.

Despite the distraction of special effects and of James Franco, the movie did make me seriously ponder the ethical discussions around the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, a bill currently being debated in Congress.

Republican Representative Roscoe Bartlett sponsored the bill which would ban invasive research on all great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans). Bartlett says the bill would also save the government $30 million a year on chimps owned by the government, because it is expensive to maintain animals on which you are conducting studies. While many animal rights and wildlife conservation groups have rallied around the bill, medical researchers are wary about the negative impacts the bill could have on finding cures for diseases.

The U.S. is only one of only two countries still using chimpanzees in biomedical research (the other is Gabon, Africa). There are over 1000 chimpanzees in U.S. labs. The Humane Society, Jane Goodall Institute and other advocacy groups that support the bill argue that these primates, our close relatives, deserve our empathy and that the medical research equates to forced confinement and that the invasive procedures are equivalent to torture. The Act defines ‘invasive research' as "any research that may cause death, injury, pain, distress, fear, or trauma to a great ape.”

But some scientists argue that medical research on primates, because primates are so genetically similar to humans, is crucial to be able to develop vaccines for diseases like Hepatitis C, which infects 170 million people. Biomedical research on chimps helped produce the vaccine for Hepatatis B. Some medical researchers caution that stopping medical research on primates could halt the development of life-saving drugs for humans which would lead to people dying. They argue that if human lives can be saved, it would be unethical not to conduct the biomedical research on primates.

The National Institute of Health is putting together a report on the usefulness of chimps in research that is due this year. Hopefully the report will at least answer the question of whether the research is necessary. In the meantime, centers that take in primates that were retired for use in medical research are gearing up for a potential influx of retired chimps if the bill passes. If the bill passes, those 1000 chimps will need a new home.

Chimp Haven, one such potential retirement location in Louisiana, is a forested 200-acre complex that opened in 2005 and houses 132 chimps. Chimp Haven runs on funding from the National Institute of Health and from private citizens.

What is your take on biomedical research on apes? Necessary or unethical? I’d love your input.

Tags: Africa | Animals | United States