-- Chimpanzees would be reclassified as endangered, making it harder to use them in medical research.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed extending tough new protections for chimpanzees in captivity, a shift that would place strict limits on primates' role as human surrogates in biomedical research.
In reclassifying chimps as endangered, the agency would put new requirements on the declining number of scientists who rely on chimpanzees to devise vaccines for infectious diseases, develop treatments for cancers and autoimmune diseases, and investigate ways to block dangerous pathogens that might jump from primates to humans.
Under the proposed rules, researchers must apply for a permit to perform invasive procedures on chimps, including taking blood samples.
The change also applies to chimps in captivity, including those kept as pets and in zoos and used in the movie industry. But Fish and Wildlife officials said the keepers of those animals were not likely to be greatly affected. The proposed classification under the Endangered Species Act is subject to a 60-day comment period and probably would not take effect for at least a year, officials said.
British anthropologist Jane Goodall, who has made a career of studying and protecting the animals, said the move would rectify a decision made in 1990, when the government made a distinction between endangered chimps in the wild and captive chimps. The latter were declared threatened, a lesser classification that facilitated their continued use in research, especially into HIV in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Medical experiments can take a toll on the animals. A 2001 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that 58% of chimps who had retired from biomedical research showed signs of depression and 44% had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Both conditions were virtually absent in wild chimpanzees. The study was led by researchers from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is opposed to animal research.
As the closest living relatives to humans with 98% of the same DNA, chimpanzees have played an indispensable role in biomedical and behavioral research. Scientists kept them in large colonies in Texas and New Mexico, where they are commonly housed in large corrals or cages, usually in groups. They are sometimes held separately for extended periods because they are in fragile health or to prevent the transmission of diseases, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine.
Scientists credit chimps with helping make important discoveries involving cancer, hepatitis, autoimmune diseases and other conditions. Although there are still a few areas of biomedical research for which chimps remain essential, experiments involving them have fallen out of favor as scientists switched to using mice, rats and other animals that have been genetically altered so that their immune systems mimic those of humans.
Primates have also been displaced by powerful computers and new lab techniques that allow researchers to gauge humans' response to tiny doses of biologic medicines. In 2011, there were 53 federally funded studies involving chimpanzees.
In January, a National Institutes of Health panel recommended that the government maintain a single colony of about 50 chimpanzees, all younger than 30 years old. The report noted that the colony should be maintained in "ethnologically appropriate physical and social environments" and made clear that it did not believe existing research facilities met such a standard.
Some scientists expressed concern that a change in chimp status would force researchers to contend with needless bureaucracy and have a chilling effect on future work.
The new strictures "will require a huge amount of new paperwork," said Ajit Varki, a UC San Diego professor of cellular and molecular medicine who has conducted genetic research on chimps. "If this gets unmanageable, people will just give up doing research."
The law's strict tenants prohibit even the harassment of an endangered animal. That means research facilities would have to apply for a "take permit" to continue their studies or to start new ones. Those permits will only be issued to institutions that have demonstrated "they are doing something that shows they are contributing to the conservation of chimps in wild," said Daniel M. Ashe, Fish and Wildlife Service director.
Roddy Gabel, who oversees international endangered species programs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency could require labs and other permit holders to offset their use of chimps by making financial donations supporting conservation of great apes in the wild or fund research about diseases afflicting the animals. Specifics of the system have yet to be defined, he said.
Such offsets are commonly used to mitigate the effects of humans on protected species. But that plan would face a strong challenge from the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded the 2010 petition to list chimps in captivity as endangered.
"We would oppose any payment in exchange for using an animal," said Kathleen Conlee, the organization's vice president for animal research issues.
The U.S. government owns or financially supports 167 chimps living at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas, and 115 at the Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. In addition, 169 reside at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in Alamogordo, N.M., at government expense but are no longer used for research.
An additional 219 former research chimps have been retired to two sanctuaries in Louisiana.
The use of primates for medical experiments is highly controversial. But, by all accounts, the practice is declining.
"The writing was on the wall," said Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University. "Anybody who really was interested in studying chimps has found another way to do it."
Gabel said federal officials will continue to meet with medical researchers, in part to gauge the feasibility of the new rules. "We don't want to all at once slam the door on what could be important contributions to human health," he said.
Because captive chimps have not been regulated by federal wildlife laws it is difficult to put an exact number on their total population in the United States. The group Lincoln Park Zoo ChimpCARE has documented 1,884 captive chimpanzees in the U.S., with 864 in labs and 209 in unaccredited facilities.