Recommendations would restrict research but allow a 50-chimp colony for disease study.

All but 50 of the roughly 451 chimpanzees owned or supported by NIH and housed in research facilities nationwide should be retired and moved to the federal sanctuary system over the next three to five years, according to recommendations released yesterday by an agency working group.

The group also said NIH should retain in a single colony approximately 50 chimps for future potential research on “new, emerging, and reemerging diseases.” That research should be carried out “only under stringent conditions,” as called for in December 2011 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council of the National Academies.

“Planning should start immediately to expand current facilities to accommodate these chimpanzees,” the nine-member Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research stated in a report. “The size and placement of this colony should be reassessed on a frequent basis (approximately every five years) to ensure that such a colony is still actually needed and that the animals are not overused.”

NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., will make the final decision on approving the recommendations from the working group following a 60-day comment period.

The working group was formed by NIH’s Council of Councils to advise the agency on how to implement changes to policies allowing chimpanzees in biomedical research as recommended by IOM. An IOM 12-member ad hoc committee concluded that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary,” and predicted a future of “decreasing scientific need for chimpanzee studies due to the emergence of non-chimpanzee models and technologies.”

Of the working group’s 28 recommendations, 10 covered the physical and social environment of chimps, nine addressed the size and placement of chimp populations, and nine, the establishment of an independent oversight committee and review process to consider “whether the potential future use of chimpanzees in NIH-supported research is scientifically necessary and consistent with the IOM principles.”

The working group called for chimps to be housed in “multi-male, multi-female social groupings, ideally consisting of at least seven individuals” occupying at least 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) per chimp.

According to the group, chimp housing must provide year-round outdoor access, with enough room to climb at least 20 feet (6.1 meters) vertically, as well as foraging opportunities and diets that are varied, nutritious, and challenging to obtain and process. Resident chimps, according to the group, must be provided with materials to construct new nests daily, as well as an environmental enrichment program with opportunities for choice and self-determination.

Planning should begin now, the group continued, to ensure that “ethologically appropriate” physical and social housing options become available within three to five years: “Maintaining the chimpanzee colony at a single facility could be advantageous to minimize costs and maximize management flexibility.”

The working group urged NIH to target research funding for low-impact projects in nontraditional research settings maintaining “ethologically appropriate environments,” as well as for projects using materials collected during routine veterinary exams—but not keep chimps retained for disease studies in animal biosafety level 2 or greater biocontainment facilities.

“Investigators seeking NIH funding to conduct research using chimpanzees must explain in their application how their proposed research complies with the IOM principles and criteria,” and must justify their animal numbers and group sizes, the report continued.

NIH should embrace alternative research models such as genetically altered mice—and perhaps most importantly, should create an oversight committee independent of agency officials to review “all requests for grants, contracts, intramural projects, and third-party projects,” as well as advise the agency on future proposed use of chimpanzees in research.

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