A bill proposed to protect laboratory apes and lower costs faces mixed support in the scientific community, even as major research organizations have deemed chimpanzee research largely unnecessary.

The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act proposes ending laboratory research on chimpanzees. Under the bill, federally-owned chimps will retire to sanctuaries after current research grants have phased out. Non-invasive research in sanctuaries, zoos and other free-ranging facilities will still be permitted.

“The researchers using chimpanzees [in labs] are not producing useful, interesting information to the medical community and it’s costing literally tens of millions of dollars to produce mediocre science,” said Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and director of the Hominoid Psychology Research Group. “The bill will end that and then that money can be used for other researchers who are actually doing great jobs.”

In 2011, the Institutes of Medicine released a report that concluded that chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research. This report fueled arguments supporting the bill.

The Act passed the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July and is in a review process in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Since 2012 is the second year of a two-year Congress, however, the process of passing the bill will have to restart in January if it has not passed by then.

A clause was added to the bill in committee stating that chimps can be reintroduced into research if there is an unexpected human health threat that requires chimpanzee research. This addition is intended to address fears that the Act will take the option for lab research off of the table entirely, Conlee said.

Disputed utility

The Association of American Universities, which is comprised of 61 universities, including Duke, released a statement officially opposing the Act. The organization noted that chimpanzees are a critical for biomedical research on hepatitis C and other infectious diseases.

One case that relied on lab chimpanzees was the development of a hepatitis C vaccine. Hepatitis C, which can lead to liver disease and cancer, affects only chimpanzees and humans, making no other animal models valid.

“The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 would ban all life-saving research involving chimpanzees… for which no other animal model exists and could harm research that directly benefits chimpanzees and other great apes,” the release said.

Paul Vick, associate vice president for government relations for the Duke University Health System, noted that although Duke is a member of the AAU, the University’s opinions are not necessarily reflected by the organization. He added that the AAU does not poll the individual institutions for their stance on an issue, but rather takes the general community opinion.

“Because we don’t do that kind of research there may be people with some generic concerns but it’s just not an institutional issue,” Vick said. “It doesn’t affect Duke.”

The National Institutes of Health, however, have already halted new funding for chimpanzee research shortly after the IOM released their report, Conlee said.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep this huge infrastructure that’s extremely expensive when we can take that money and invest in alternatives that have wider uses,” Conlee said. “Put those resources into human based alternatives that will give us better results.”

Conlee said that the government would still save money over time, taking construction of new sanctuary space into account. Labs currently receive an average of $60 a day to maintain chimpanzees in “deficient” environments, which compares to the $41 a day that sanctuaries need to provide “better care,” she said.

Last of the lab chimps

The United States, Hare noted, is currently the only country that maintains a laboratory chimpanzee population.

Since 1990, chimps in the wild are considered endangered whereas captive chimpanzees have been listed as threatened. This means that captive chimpanzees can be used in research that would otherwise be illegal according to the Endangered Species Act. They are currently the only species with this type of listing, Conlee said.

“[The distinction between captive and wild chimpanzees] was put into place largely in response to the biomedical community saying, ‘we need to continue to use chimpanzees,’” Conlee said. “An endangered status wouldn’t have allowed that.”

Laboratory chimpanzees lead drastically different lifestyles than their counterparts in the wild. The U.S. Department of Agriculture permits chimpanzees to live in cages that are the size of a small elevator for the duration of the research.

Anne Pusey, chair and James B. Duke Professor of evolutionary anthropology, added that the social interactions of captive chimpanzees are far different from the rich social lives they lead in the wild. This difference can be seen in captive chimps’ behavior around humans, such as throwing feces and screaming.

“The minimum requirement for cages for chimpanzees is absolutely appalling—it’s an absolute embarrassment to our country,” Hare said. “That is just 100 percent wrong—it’s not good for science and it’s certainly not good for the chimpanzees.”

Making ‘science better’

Although opponents of the bill argue that removing chimpanzees from laboratories will hurt science, many researchers believe it will help their science move forward, Hare said.

“People who are against this bill are trying to argue that this is non-scientists trying to stop science. That is not what this bill will do—it will make science better,” Hare said. “The only people who [argue this] either don’t work with chimpanzees or are the handful of people who are about to retire and are desperate because they know they’ve been doing mediocre science.”

Matthew Bailey, vice president of the National Academy for Biomedical Research—an organization that does not support the passage of the bill—could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Although the bill will not affect Duke’s current research, Hare noted that the University is well situated to take advantage of increased funding for non-laboratory chimpanzee research.