NIH will retire from research over the next several years all but 50 of the roughly 360 chimpanzees it owns or supports for agency-funded research, a new policy director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., trumpeted as “a milestone at the dawn of a new era, a compassionate era, in medical research.”

The remaining 50 chimps will not be bred, but be retained for possible future research—at least until NIH revisits the policy in five years, Dr. Collins said.

“Chimps are special animals. They are our closest relatives,” he added. “As such, we believe they deserve special consideration.”

NIH’s policy directive follows Dr. Collins agreeing to implement 27 of 28 recommendations issued in January by the Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research—a nine-member group created by NIH’s Council of Councils, an independent advisory panel. The working group agreed with the thrust of a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council of the National Academies, which suggested allowing chimpanzees in biomedical research “only under stringent conditions.”

However, Dr. Collins balked at the working group’s recommendation that all chimps be housed in at least 1,000 square feet of space. He cited the absence of scientific consensus on the amount of living space the animals require—though he added NIH will study the issue further and consult with experts.

Dr. Collins also cited the potentially high cost of meeting the standard by expanding chimps’ living quarters. While some lab animals have as little as the 25-square-foot minimum called for by the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, many live in quarters close to the 1,000-square-foot standard, said James Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives.

Asked by GEN what that cost was, Dr. Collins said NIH had no estimate, but concluded it would be high enough for the agency to more than exceed a $30 million spending cap for chimp sanctuaries set by the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, enacted in 2000.

CHIMP Act created the federal sanctuary system that now houses some 150 chimps at Chimp Haven (Keithville, LA), with NIH required to provide oversight. Chimp Haven is nearly full, though the sanctuary is trying to raise $5 million toward an expansion that would allow it to accommodate 113 chimps set to be retired and moved there from the New Iberia Research Center (Lafayette, LA).

As of Wednesday, NIH had spent $29.2 million, and the agency expects it will need $3 million in new funds for the 2014 federal fiscal year that begins October 1, Kathy Hudson, Ph.D., NIH Deputy Director of Science, Outreach, and Policy said. Dr. Collins denied NIH’s concern on spending reflected ongoing across-the-board federal spending cuts or “sequestration.”

Drs. Collins, Hudson, and Anderson discussed NIH’s new chimpanzee policy Wednesday during a telephone conference with reporters.

The new policy comes as an even steeper hurdle looms to continued use of chimps in research. On June 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule listing all chimps as “endangered”—expanding the definition beyond wild chimps, to captive ones now labeled “threatened.”

A key advocacy group for ending the use of chimps in research hailed the new NIH policy. “This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories—some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.

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