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Matthew Kinsella

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Given that chimpanzees are endangered, is it ethical to use them in biomedical research?

Chimpanzees are distributed throughout Equatorial Africa, occurring from southern Senegal across the forested belt north of the Congo River to western Uganda and western Tanzania. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, current estimates for the wild population range from 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. The largest populations of chimpanzees occur in central Africa, mainly Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon. Sadly the populations that once habituated Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, or Togo are no longer found.

One of the greatest threats to the long-term survival of chimpanzees and other great apes is habitat loss. Between 2000 and 2010 Africa lost over 3 million hectares of its forests. Much of this loss occurred within the chimpanzee range, including the equatorial forest belt. In 2007, the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s classification of chimpanzees satisfied the criteria for ranking as Endangered based on a projected future rate of decline of 50% in three generations (from 1970-2030).

On top of facing habitat loss by logging operations, illegal hunting, and disease, chimpanzees have to worry about being captured for use in biomedical research. Luckily the demand for chimpanzees has been diminishing because many scientists agree that they are no longer necessary for understanding most diseases today. Either they simply don’t prove useful or better alternatives exist. However one exception remains, Hepatitis C (spread by blood-to-blood contact). Today, an estimated 4 million people are infected by Hepatitis C in the United States, and at least 130 million worldwide. Around 350,000 people around the world die from Hepatitis C-induced liver failure each year. There is still no vaccine, and chimpanzees are the only known non-human animals capable of being infected by the virus. No other animal models exist.

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    May 13 2012: I think there are a lot of factors that are decreasing chimpanzee populations, and a lot of problems that the species faces, but I don't think that in terms of population loss, biomedical research is a main contributing factor. Wild populations are very different than captive populations used for research. When you think about the Zebra fish facility on our campus, and how much is put into making sure that the animals are healthy and have no genetic abnormalities it becomes apparent that you can't just take any organism and use it for testing. So the populations they use are better regulated than wild populations. Even if it comes to if chimpanzees should be used in biomedical research, I think the answer is probably yes. Our genomes are so similar so they are ideal candidates when it comes to testing medicines for humans. There are strong scientific reasons to use chimpanzees in research and in the category of reasons not to are perhaps ethics, but not a question of biodiversity within the species.
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      May 13 2012: I was thinking about the Zebrafish facility as well trying to answer this question. I also think biomedical research has a very minimal effect on the entire endangered population of chimps as wild populations have very little similarities to captive populations. And for something that is so detrimental to the human population, it seems logical for them to continue research on chimps as they are the only model organism for this viral infection. However, this doesn't mean decreasing chimp populations are not a problem. I think a few ways to where we could save their populations is to enforce hunting laws, reintroduction projects, etc.
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        May 14 2012: Perhaps biomedical research even limits the threat of chimp extinction. I agree with everyone who says that most reputable labs breed their own populations. While these populations are far from wild, it seems like if anything like total chimp extinction were to happen in nature captive population could begin being breed for reestablishment. This would raise further questions about captive population health and genetic diversity, but it seems like there are enough captive chimps to re-populate if needed. Overall, I have to agree with Tina's point that biomedical research has very little effect on wild/endangered populations.
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      May 14 2012: Although the Zebrafish facility works hard to maintain the integrity of the fish populations they have, I have to question whether these standards can be applied to every research lab that uses zebrafish. It was mentioned that some research labs will integrate pet store zebrafish into their populations, whose origins are questionable and therefore have a tendency to contaminate and kill the populations of the labs.

      The same thing could apply to research on chimpanzees, even more so since chimps are very large mammals and would be difficult (but not impossible) to maintain a captive population of, especially when considering the length of time required for a youth to reach sexual maturity and how many offspring each chimp can provide. This could lead to the use of wild chimps in biomedical research, despite the inherent risk of disease propagation as introduced by the wild chimps.

      If the demand for chimps in biomedical research is significant enough to contribute to extinction of the wild population I would hope that either a new organism could be found to research on, or steps made to lessen the impact of the biomedical research.

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