Scientists in the United States have used chimpanzees in research for nearly a century. Chimps have helped man to conquer spaceflight, study disease immunity, and treat hepatitis B.
In December, though, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins announced the U.S. government wouldn't fund any new studies requiring research on chimps that involves such things as injections, biopsies, or infection with viruses, unless experiments conform to new guidelines. The guidelines allow federal scientists to use chimpanzees for human health research only when it would be unethical to use human subjects, and when no alternatives are available, such as mice or lab-grown cell cultures.
Collins' announcement reflected a dispute over chimp research that has grown louder in recent years. The Humane Society of the United States wants chimp experimentation outlawed and frequently points out the only other nation conducting such research is Gabon, in Central Africa. In 2009 the animal-rights group conducted an undercover investigation at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, a facility that receives around $1 million annually from the NIH to maintain about 120 federally owned chimps. The investigation uncovered some animal welfare violations and a breeding program that the Humane Society argues is illegal.
The new guidelines, drawn from a National Academies report, gained support from both sides of the chimp debate. The president of the Humane Society said the report's "overarching conclusion" was that chimpanzees are largely unneeded for today's research. (The report's authors disagreed about whether chimps were needed for hepatitis C vaccine research and admitted that future research needs might require chimps.)
On the other hand, the directors of two chimp research centers (including New Iberia) said they were pleased the report justified using chimps for medical research when absolutely necessary. "We go to enormous lengths to minimize pain and suffering," said the director of a University of Texas primate facility.
Treating animals with kindness is biblical, but the argument to exempt chimps from medical studies that could save human lives, simply because they are chimps, is evolutionary. Collins gave that viewpoint a federal fingerhold last month when he announced, "Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, providing ... the need for special consideration and respect." Animal-rights groups want a handhold: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will respond this year to their petition to treat captive chimps as an endangered species, which could effectively end the research.
The team working with NASA's Kepler spacecraft announced last month the discovery of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star nearly 1,000 light years away. It took some mathematical tricks by a computer to confirm the existence of the exoplanets, which are invisible to telescopes and rank as the smallest ever found. One Kepler astronomer called it "a watershed moment in human history." Why? Because the team is anticipating a small exoplanet will be found with a temperature capable of hosting life. The two new exoplanets are still a bit too warm-one reaches a toasty 1,400°F. No doubt Kepler will spy a match soon, but it will need more than computer math to detect life.