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Friday, January 25, 2013

Yerkes awaits possible changes involving biomedical research on chimps

Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center says it's too early to tell if a proposal to phase out the use of chimpanzees for biomedical research will affect the facility.

The National Institutes of Health Council of Councils Working Group this week released a report that said that most federally funded research programs involving chimpanzees should be phased out and eventually eliminated. In addition, most chimps will be sent to a special "sanctuary." This recommendation follows an Institute of Medicine review from 2011 that said "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary."

Yerkes, which operates labs at Emory and in Lawrenceville, is one of the few facilities left in the country that still conducts invasive experiments on chimps. In some cases, tests involve injections and exposure to disease.

The center has received more than $4 million in federal grants since 2011 for various biomedical and behavioral studies.

"We are reviewing all the recommendations from the working group and are in contact with the NIH and other research centers that have chimpanzees," Lisa Newbern, the research facility's spokeswoman, told CL in an e-mail. "We will continue to provide the best care we can for our chimpanzees while we await a decision from NIH."

Animal rights activists have protested the research facility over the years because of a number of violations, some of which resulted in fines for mistreatment of animals.

Besides suggesting that federal funding for the research be cut, the NIH recommends that a small group of about 50 chimps be kept for continued research.

The remaining chimps must be maintained under strict guidelines. Among those: the chimps must live together in groups of at least seven;, inhabit a large living space of 1,000 square feet per chimp, and be provided room to climb and year-round outdoor access.

Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research of the Humane Society of the United States, told the New York Times this week that there's "not a single laboratory in the United States" that meets the NIH recommendations for the remaining chimps.

More than 300 other NIH-owned chimps are destined for "Chimp Haven," a sanctuary for retired federal research chimps located in Louisiana.

PETA celebrated the move, calling it a "big first step."

"At last, our federal government understands: a chimpanzee should no more live in a laboratory than a human should live in a phone booth," PETA said in a statement following the NIH's announcement.

Justin Goodman, director of the animal rights group's laboratory investigation department, says that all chimps would "ideally" be retired. However, he thinks that behavioral research could still be done in a sanctuary setting.

"No one is asking for a complete ban," Goodman says. "We will continue to push to end all invasive experiments done on chimps, but this is a great first step."

Dr. Frans de Waal, director for Yerkes' Living Links Center, where researchers conduct behavioral studies with chimps, is a proponent for ending the invasive research on the animals.

"I think we should keep doing non-invasive studies on chimpanzees, such as behavioral studies or comparative genomics, maybe non-invasive neuroscience," he said in an interview last year with the Public Library of Science.

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