Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chimps Are People Too

Advances in science can be a little like politics or sausage-making: Sometimes you don’t want to know the details of how the final product is produced. This is particularly true in medicine where progress has often been made by invasive tests on animals, not just lab rats but primates like ourselves. The federal government has just taken a step away from that decades-old paradigm and as with just about everything else in national debate—whatever the subject—the result of the policy change, whether it’s abortion or gun control, or now medical research, will be best highlighted in Texas.
Last week National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins announced that his agency is phasing out support of chimpanzee use in research. This was not a surprise. The government took steps two years ago that retired 310 chimps from the lab but left 50 in reserve for emergencies. The animals have been used in AIDS, ebola and other experimental disease treatments. (Chimpanzees are for example the only other species in addition to man that suffers from Hepatitis C.) Collins’ most recent edict sends those last monkeys to Chimp Haven, a government run rest home in Louisiana where they can live out their final days licking their wounds and eating bananas in peace. Pressure for this decision had been building recently with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granting research chimpanzees endangered species status, earlier this year, and requests to use chimps for any kind of scientific endeavor practically non-existent in recent months.
According to Nature, the big losers in this policy change will be a facility in Bastrop, a few miles outside Austin, owned by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center which houses 139 chimps owned by the federal government, and the private Southwest National Primate Research Center outside San Antonio which has 20 of the government’s animals. Next, the NIH must decide what to do with yet another 82 of the primates also at Southwest, whose room and board is paid for by Uncle Sam. Christian Abee, director of MD Anderson’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop told Nature that the NIH ruling will for all intents and purposes end research in Bastrop since all the animals used are owned by the feds. Collins went out of his way to praise the Bastrop center, which is said to do only behavioral and observational research. The approach in San Antonio apparently involves a more invasive touch.
The federal decision also casts an unaccustomed light on one of the most secretive non-governmental organizations in a state known for secretive non-governmental organizations: the Southwest Research Center aka the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research aka the Southwest National Primate Research Center, whose origins date back to 1941, founded by polymath Tom Slick, cattleman, oil wildcatter, explorer and presumed spy. Slick’s career is too varied to do justice to here but suffice it to say he was a successful energy entrepreneur who also dabbled in the occult. The center he founded has, however, done serious science, its methods being more the issue, particularly animal experimentation. The privately-owned San Antonio center does research for both the federal government and industry; it was once also said to have the only private Level 4 Biosafety Lab in the country. As regards its treatment of animals Southwest has been repeatedly dinged by the federal government for poor treatment of primates. PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) has previously placed former Southwest director Dr. John VandeBerg on its “Vivsector of the Month” list because of the treatment of chimps.
The federal decision sends the chimpanzees into retirement but does little to assuage the lot of baboons of which, once again, the center outside San Antonio is said to be the biggest player in terms of medical research: more than 1400 baboons were reported residing there in February of this year. According to provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, labs must report a census of lab animals to the Department of Agriculture each year. According to last year's figures almost 1800 non-human primates were being held but not experimented upon at Southwest's campuses, while almost 1300 were the subject of experiments. In fact Dr. VandeBerg has written a book about the subject of baboons in the lab. 
            “The baboon is a relative newcomer to the repertoire of nonhuman primates used in biomedical research,” he wrote in the appropriately-titled The Baboon in Biomedical Research. “However, in less than 50 years since its first use in the U. S., it has become one of the most popular laboratory primate species. It is larger than the other widely used monkey species, making it advantageous for many types of experiments and technological developments. It is extraordinarily hardy and highly fecund in captivity. It closely resembles humans in a variety of physiological and disease processes, such as cholesterol metabolism, early stages of atherosclerosis, and alcoholic liver disease. Its chromosomes closely resemble those of humans, and many genes of the two species lie in the same chromosomal order. Among all primates, baboons are the most widely used models for the genetics of susceptibility to complex diseases and they are the first nonhuman primate for which a framework genetic linkage map was established. In addition, the baboon genome is currently being sequenced, and as a result the utility of this species for biomedical research will be dramatically increased.” In response to the federal decision VandeBerg wrote in an email asking for comment: "I am no longer director of the SNPRC, although I can assure you that the cessation of research with chimpanzees does not mean the end of the primate center. The research done with chimpanzees was only a small fraction of the research conducted at the SNPRC." Contrary to what you may think the decision to give chimps a reprieve from the scalpel, needle and electrode had nothing to do with an outbreak of humanity at the scientific establishment in Washington. Instead, such research is just no longer deemed necessary. Hepatitis C for example now has a cure. The national Institute of Medicine reached the conclusion a couple of years ago that other means exist to get what scientists require, including computer modeling, mice, and studies involving human volunteers. One of the human modalities that was not mentioned but apparently also applies is increased use of human DNA for study.
              PETA maintains a kind of rogue’s gallery of worst labs in the country for animal research abuse and a usual suspect high in the rankings is the University of California San Francisco, an exclusively medicine-related research institution belonging to the state of California. UCSF has also been cited by the federal government for animal welfare abuse in its labs, the last time in 2010 resulting in severe fines for behavior like failing to give pain medication to animals that have undergone surgical procedures. UCSF scientists invented the Hepatitis B vaccine used worldwide, required of all healthcare workers in the U.S. and developed with animal studies. But just last year UCSF took a step in a different direction, taking over Oakland Children’s Hospital in San Francisco’s East Bay in order, the university said, to have more African-American kids for study, especially their DNA, due to wider variability in African ancestry individuals’ genetic makeup. The NIH decision may reflect a trend in which we as a society are moving back to humans as primary study subjects, with the only difference being less invasive procedures than what has been done to monkeys. What this all means for the Southwest center is unclear but that it may no longer be cutting edge is a genuine risk.
              In a letter to the New York Times two years ago, Dr. VandeBerg argued that chimpanzee science should be allowed to continue if only to contribute to medical discoveries to aide ape health in the wild, an argument that did not strike the federal regulators as particularly persuasive. Dr. VandeBerg was recently relegated to performing an experiment in which opossums had sun block applied and microwave radiation shined on their skin in order to see if the block really worked in preventing cancer. You’ll be happy to know it did. Overall, animal studies may be falling on hard times except in places like the military (again in San Antonio, at the base that includes Brooke Army Medical Center) where training often includes use of animals for practice in procedures and wound treatmentcausing the injury and then treating it, although the subjects are said not to be primates. However it's done it’s an ugly business that has, up until now, been deemed in humanity’s best interests. "The primate center directors as a group were not happy with the decision," Dr. Warner C. Greene, director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at UCSF who served on the original Institute of Medicine committee that decided to move away from chimps as research subjects, wrote in an email yesterday. "However it garnered wide support throughout the scientific and lay communities. Previously only two countries in the world had essentially no limitations on biomedical research with chimpanzees: Gabon and the United States."
             “We successfully trained 12 male marmosets [a South American monkey] for treadmill running,” according to a paper detailing another recent Southwest-related primate experiment. “The entire process – from training subjects to enter a clear plastic capture container to running at speeds of 1.2mph for 30min duration – was accomplished with daily sessions (including weekends) in 4 weeks. Furthermore, marmosets were able to maintain this rate of exercise for 3 days per week for 3 months. Our use of positive reinforcement techniques to train the marmosets to this procedure provided a safe environment for both marmoset and experimenter. Alternative procedures, such as putting a harness on the marmoset and tethering him to the treadmill for exercise, could potentially be unsafe particularly when putting the marmoset in a harness which increases handling time and increases biting risk.” This may be science, but it doesn’t seem far removed, for a wild animal, from torture.


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