Ending experimentation on chimpanzees is right choice

As a scientist who used primates as subjects in life-saving research for America’s military pilots and astronauts as well as the only member of Congress with a doctorate in human physiology, I can assure you that spending more taxpayer money on invasive research on chimpanzees is both scientifically and fiscally unnecessary. That is the reason I introduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (H.R. 1513/S. 810), which already has more than 175 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and Senate.

The biomedical research industry is utilizing more effective and less costly alternatives. Invasive research on chimpanzees is banned or strictly limited by the European Union and 11 other governments and permitted only in Gabon. Nonetheless, Congress must approve this legislation for our federal government to catch up with the world and provide Americans the benefits from ending invasive research on Great Apes.

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The United States spent $2.7 trillion on healthcare last year. But, instead of investing in modern research to help the millions of Americans ravaged by diseases such as hepatitis C, $22.5 million of taxpayer money was spent warehousing nearly 1,000 chimpanzees, 500 of them federally owned, in just a few labs. Taxpayers have an obligation to pay for lifetime care for these chimpanzees, whose life spans can exceed 60 years. Taxpayers could save $25 million each year if these chimpanzees were moved to sanctuaries.

Human-relevant technology alternatives to invasive research on whole animals are growing at a rapid pace. For instance, the Modular IMmune In vitro Construct (MIMIC) System uses human cells to replicate the human immune response for quick and accurate therapeutics and vaccine development. MIMIC can be used in every stage of drug and vaccine development and is both a more reliable and less expensive method than using chimpanzees.

Many chimps were bred in the hopes that they would help lead to vaccines against HIV/AIDS. After decades of experiments on chimpanzees, they failed to yield an HIV or hepatitis C vaccine. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved two hepatitis C therapies, the first in more than 10 years. Two other drugs have shown promise in clinical trials. All four of these drugs were developed and tested without using chimpanzees.

Just last December, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies released its findings from a congressionally-mandated review of the scientific merit of invasive research on chimpanzees. The IOM’s landmark report concluded that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” Specifically, chimpanzees are not needed to develop an HIV vaccine, hepatitis C antiviral drugs or vaccines or treatments for a wide range of other illnesses.

The chimpanzee is a notoriously slow model for drug and vaccine development. Representatives from both the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health testified to the IOM committee that chimpanzee experiments would be too slow and unreliable for urgent biodefense purposes. It is clear that we are extremely unlikely to need chimpanzees in future research.

The U.S. government already has proof that moving from chimpanzee experiments to existing human-based methods will better advance medical research. Alternative models are already improving the lives of people suffering from an array of diseases. Still, to allay the concerns some have over future diseases, I propose a contingency clause that could be added to this legislation that would allow for the use of chimpanzees — likely only a limited number — in invasive experiments, in the unlikely case of a scientifically proven need to use chimpanzees to develop treatments for life-threatening emerging diseases in humans.

In the meantime, sanctuaries provide these highly intelligent and social animals with a natural environment far superior for the study of their behavior than laboratories that induce stress, fear and other states that negatively affect research results. The federal government currently pays $66 per chimpanzee per day for the maintenance of the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico, for instance; a sanctuary with a similar or larger population size spends approximately $43 per chimpanzee per day.

It is time to pass this legislation that would save American taxpayers $250 million within 10 years. The House and Senate need to act and approve H.R. 1513/S. 810 to stop our federal bureaucracy from wasting money our government simply does not have. The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act is the right choice for taxpayers, the health of humankind and chimpanzees.

Bartlett is a member of the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on Research and Science Education.