A recent decision by the National Institutes of Health to retire all but 50 of its research chimpanzees could leave dozens of employees at a Bastrop research facility out of work.
The NIH decision means that all 166 chimpanzees at the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research — where the primates are mostly observed for behavioral research — will eventually be moved to a federal sanctuary. That could put about 50 employees at the center out of work, said Chris Abee, the Keeling research facility’s director.
The move would also end important research at the facility, operated by University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and at another facility in San Antonio, while disrupting the social lives of the chimpanzees, some of which have lived at the center for 30 years, Abee said.
“There’s something about to be lost, and we will be less for having lost it,” Abee said.
“This proposal will be a very stressful thing for them,” Abee said about the primates. He added that the researchers at the facility “have devoted their lives to these chimpanzees. They are the experts in the world for caring for them, and that expertise would ultimately be lost.”
But that likely won’t happen for some time — and it could take an act of Congress.
More than anything, the NIH decision, announced late last month, was a statement of intent.
“Americans have benefited greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a statement. “Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use.”
Chimpanzees are 98 percent genetically identical to humans, and that genetic bond — as well as the animals’ abilities to exhibit complex emotions and form social hierarchies — has had animal rights groups calling for years for a ban on research. The U.S. is believed to be one of the last countries that still uses the animals for research purposes.
Retiring the chimpanzees will take time. The Federal Sanctuary System, currently housing 150 of the primates, doesn’t have space for all of NIH’s chimpanzees, and expanding the sanctuary could cost millions — spending that would have to be approved by Congress.
“Congress is going to have to think very carefully about that,” Abee said. “Do they want to use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to create facilities, when they have perfectly good facilities where chimpanzees can retire and live out in their social groups?”
Abee said the Keeling center has set the bar for chimpanzee treatment. Researchers at the center pioneered techniques of getting the chimpanzees to voluntarily give blood and urine samples — usually by offering them grapes or apple slices to do so — and have trained primate caregivers from Europe, Africa, Asia and the rest of the United States to do the same, Abee said.
About 95 percent of the time, the chimpanzees at the Keeling center are used for observational research.
“We’re looking for insights into basic primate behavior and how the mind works, and making comparisons to humans to better understand the evolution of behavior,” Abee said.
The rest of the time, the chimpanzees are used for biomedical research aimed at developing treatments for human diseases like hepatitis C. That’s when the voluntary blood tests come in. The chimpanzees are generally used to test vaccines for the diseases, Abee said. And he argued that has proved to be important research.
“The chimpanzee is the only nonhuman in which we could test prophylactic vaccines,” he said. “The vaccines in the past we’ve tested were found not to work — that’s very important, too, because those vaccines didn’t go into people and not work in them.”
For now, the center will continue with NIH-approved research and wait.