Thursday, August 11, 2011

Day one at the federal committee meeting on using chimpanzees in research

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? Hey, at least they are in the same universe. At today’s meeting of the federal committee that is examining America’s policy on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, I felt like the biomedical research industry and the opponents to invasive chimp research live in different galaxies. With a gigantic black hole dividing them.
When most people look at this picture, they think it is a chimpanzee. His name is Tom. On the other hand, I learned today that if you do biomedical research you don’t see a chimpanzee named Tom. You see an “animal system,” a “case,” an “animal model.” Or, the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center explained, the animal is what one of her colleagues called “a lovely term: a living medical library.” It (not he) has a name. It is something along the lines of “4x0139.”
Jane Goodall, who spoke by videoconference to the meeting today, crystallized the difference between these opposite sides of the galaxy. When you look at a chimpanzee as an individual, she pointed out, you must consider ethics to inform your considerations. Unfortunately, I learned today, the industry doesn’t look at chimpanzees as individuals. And besides, the committee has been directed by the National Institutes of Health to base recommendations on protocols, published literature, scientific evidence, and its judgment. Ethics are not mentioned.
Identification of the chimpanzee isn’t the only difference between the two sides. They each approach the whole question of modern research differently. “The past is prologue,” said one research industry speaker. “I don’t know how we do this without the animal model,” said another. “Can’t be done,” another agreed. (Note: Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline have stopped using chimpanzees and are now setting a powerful example for their reticent colleagues in the industry.)
Goodall, on the other hand, was inspirational and positive. She spoke softly, but forcefully. “We are at a crossroads for chimpanzees,” she told the group. “Because of the explosion of technology over the past ten years, we now have an opportunity to find a new way forward.”
Several presenters took up Goodall’s challenge. Brian Hare, an assistant professor with the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, gave a riveting presentation on finding that new way forward. He presented intriguing potentials for alternative research sites. Instead of studying chimpanzees in a stressful lab environment, why not try to work respectfully with zoos and sanctuaries, especially sanctuaries in Africa?
A series of three-minute presentations from the public followed Hare’s presentation, and most of them offered intriguing differences from the almost unanimous monotone chorus of the biomedical research industry.
Lincoln Park Zoo’s Steve Ross suggested that using chimpanzees in zoos offers compelling alternatives. Sue Leary, president of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, pointed out that the industry assumed that using alternatives would mean a loss, when the opposite is true and that innovative researchers need to think differently.
Beth Cataldo, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Cetacean Society USA, caught the audience's attention when she compared the industry’s traditional fixation on chimpanzee research to the innovative approaches of the next generation of whale and dolphin researchers.
Raija Bettauer, a retired researcher, told the committee that any program that used chimpanzees must demonstrate relevancy, while now much is just implied. Pamela Osenkowski, with the National Anti-Vivisection Society, charged that there are significant flaws with the “chimp model.”
Several of the public speakers challenged the committee. Laura Bonar, of Animal Protection of New Mexico, forcefully argued that the committee cannot separate ethics from their considerations without violating the public trust. Eric Kleiman, the research director at In Defense of Animals, gave a particularly forceful statement on the lack of transparency at the research centers. He boldly told the committee that they cannot render judgment on the efficacy and safety of research without the ability to examine the records.
Other persuasive statements were offered by representatives of the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and PETA.
Theodora Capaldo, speaking for Project Release & Restitution, tried to help committee members visualize the too real consequences of research when she described the heartbreaking results of the autopsy of Tom (see picture above), a research chimpanzee who finally found sanctuary at Fauna Foundation.
Despite the same old, same old thinking of research industry representatives, I actually left today’s meeting more hopeful than when I entered. Perusing the backgrounds of the Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, it appears that most members would support the continued use of chimpanzees in research. I was impressed, though, with the question and answer sessions. Several of the committee members asked probing questions, challenged researchers' assumptions, and seemed open to new thinking. I am cautiously hopeful that they are taking Jane Goodall’s challenge to heart. Perhaps, maybe, possibly, they will look at chimpanzees as more than “living medical libraries.” Maybe they will see Tom.

Update: My feelings about day two, here.

If you'd like to send comments to the committee, go here.

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